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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 13559


Dr STONE (Murray) (21:36): The Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 is another ill-conceived, poorly drafted, slapdash piece of legislation rushed into the House. If this was simply some administrative measure for some obscure practice it would not matter so much. But this is about the Murray-Darling Basin. It is going to be a critical part of a plan that has been now lodged as law in this House but is subject to disallowance.

This particular piece of legislation is critical to the future of the more than two million people who raise families, grow food and fibre, play, recreate, and wish to have generation after generation working hard there for Australia. The business of this bill underpins the economy of the basin communities and it is about the environment. The explanatory memorandum for this bill does not faithfully echo or mirror the contents. In his second reading speech the minister tried to outline the contents of the bill but what he said was quite different, when you compare it with the bill.

I am a supplementary member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia when it deals with Murray-Darling Basin issues, and in reviewing the bill last week and this week we had to ask the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities to interpret key parts of the bill for us so we knew exactly what it was driving at—the matters were so obscure and so badly drafted.

So what is this bill all about? What is it attempting to do? Why is it with us? Why has it been rushed into the House? Why did it suddenly appear after the announcement by the Prime Minister at Goolwa in South Australia just a couple of weeks ago? On 29 June 2012, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council commissioned the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to respond to the calls by the South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill to:

complete a ‘relaxed-constraints’ model scenario with a Basin-wide reduction in diversions of 3200 GL/y. The purpose of this scenario is to explore the flow regime changes and potential environmental benefits that would result if some major existing river operating constraints in the southern connected system were relaxed.

That quote was from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority hydrological modelling paper of October 2012. This bill is a consequence of that modelling undertaken at the request of the South Australian Premier. In fact, this bill provides the funding for the acquisition of the additional 450 gigalitres of water the Premier asked for. It is meant to achieve certain outcomes by the removal of the natural constraints that exist in the river.

What are these constraints? They include things like the naturally narrow parts of the river, low bridges, levies, dams and storages of fixed volumes. There are roads, railway lines, towns and private farmland. There are all sorts of constraints, and this bill is all about how they can be removed in order to get that extra water pushed down the river to supposedly help with the environmental condition of some environmental assets which are listed amongst examples in the bill itself. That is quite an unusual situation.

I am not surprised at all that the previous speaker on this bill—the member for Makin; a South Australian member—was so excited about this bill, because it is all about South Australia. I love South Australia. I am sure everyone in Australia appreciates some of the good things that happen there, but the fact is that the basin includes Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT. There are ecosystem assets, Ramsar listed sites and other wetlands throughout that basin. This is about more than keeping the mouth of the Murray open nine years out of 10. This has to be about more than increasing the depth of water at the mouth of the River Murray. It has to be about more than increasing the depth of water in the Lower Lakes. But we are told that these are the reasons why the extra 450 gigalitres of water has to be pushed down the rivers—the Murray in particular and the other major tributaries that are interconnected in the southern part of the basin.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority was nervous about this, and they make it clear in their paper on the hydrological modelling of the relaxation of operational constraints. They say:

The removal of some of these constraints may lead to increased flow peaks further downstream, which may create nuisance flooding on privately held land. If this were to be pursued in reality (rather than in modelled scenarios), it is likely that governments would approach this by negotiation of easements. Assessing the downstream implications of managing higher flow rates from a flooding perspective will require detailed hydrodynamic modelling of the river system, and was not within the scope of this work.

So I am afraid we do not have detailed hydrological modelling of what this massive increase in the volume of water would do to the communities and ecosystems that would be flooded deliberately and in a calculated way. So despite that statement—that pleading statement—from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, here we are with this bill being debated tonight. We are to add another 450 gigalitres on top of the 2,750 remaining gigalitres to be found for the environment, according to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

What are we going to do about this? It is incredible that despite the absence of detailed hydrological modelling we are supposed to simply suck it up. It is quite unrealistic to expect that the $1.7 billion—the additional money—which is to be appropriated, will cover the costs of the range of projects including acquisition of flood easements, provision of access works—for example, raising bridges and culverts—changing watering regimes and increased outlet capacity on major dams and storages. That is what that money is supposed to do. It is also supposed to compensate all of those who will find themselves in the pathway of these man-made and additional floods.

We had a hearing on Friday on the impacts of this bill and there were pleadings from those in the southern part of the basin in particular who will be flooded as a consequence of these extra gigalitres. Mrs Jan Beer, who lives around Seymour on the upper Goulburn said, under the sworn conditions of a parliamentary hearing:

I am very concerned that federal politicians are about to vote on a bill allowing increased environmental flows, with no constraints, down the Goulburn River system, when absolutely no studies or investigations of any consequence have taken place to know whether this is even possible without flooding freehold landowners and businesses on a very regular basis.

That flooding would occur every 2½ years or every four years out of 10. This would create far-reaching implications such as changing the natural flooding region of the Goulburn tributaries. I believe that Prime Minister Gillard and Minister Burke are dreaming. They are in fantasy land. The proposal to send increased environmental flows down the Goulburn River under the relaxed constraints policy—to deliver 40,000 megalitres a day at McCoys bridge for an average duration of four days every 2½ years—and not exceed minor flood level, simply cannot be done. I repeat: it cannot be done without creating floods well in excess of minor flood levels.

She went on to explain further the horrific consequences for those in the Goulburn valley. Flooding is not just a problem of loss of livestock, loss of livelihood, loss of housing and loss of infrastructure. In our very flat part of the world, particularly in my electorate of Murray, flooding lies on and in the landscape for months if not years. The floods that occurred naturally some two years ago are still seen in our landscape in the form of low-lying areas under inundation. That causes salinity problems, it causes significant issues with blue-green algae and, ultimately, it is a problem for weeds and a problem for loss of biodiversity. Red gums in particular and box trees do not like their feet wet for long periods of time. So this is also an environmental hazard. It would be a serious problem for us if this bill were in fact carried through as it proposes.

The practical implication of constraints removal are real and come with various costs. They are demonstrated, for example, at McCoy Bridge. This was evidence given by the Victorian Farmers Federation at another Senate inquiry just very recently. They say:

… it is nonsense to say that you can push 40,000 mega litres a day passed McCoy Bridge—

that is one of the outcomes we are told to expect—

without causing serious flooding of not only public property but also private property.

Senator Bridget McKenzie, a senator for Victoria, quoted the Victorian Minister for Water, Minister Walsh, when she said:

If you look at the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority's environmental flow hydraulic study, it says that if you had that much water at McCoy Bridge—

as this bill proposes—

you would flood 100 buildings, you would flood 250 kilometres of road, you would flood 8,000 hectares of dry land agriculture and you would flood 1,000 hectares of irrigated agriculture.

This is a serious business. What democratically elected government of a developed country would deliberately set about flooding farmland, infrastructure and towns, causing environmental damage, for an outcome that they refer to in the act as greater depth of the channel of the flow of the water out to sea at the end of the Murray and for deeper water in some of those lakes?

We all know about the myths and legends to do with not touching any of the engineered barrages and other infrastructure that currently does not allow the estuarine conditions to influence the mouth of the Murray in South Australia. We know that this is a sacred cow. We are not supposed to talk about it out loud. The realities are if you actually apply engineering common sense to support the Lower Lakes and let the natural Murray River flood flows into them then you will achieve better outcomes without having to flood the upper reaches or the middle reaches of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The coalition amendments, which our shadow minister pre-empted at the beginning of this debate, stressed that the bill also fails to make it absolutely clear that any water found would not simply come from non-strategic general water buyback. We know from Minister Burke's remarks that he now understands the damage done, first by Minister Penny Wong and then from his own time as minister, with non-strategic water buybacks. We now have stranded assets and we have higher costs for irrigators tipping some of them out of the business. This bill, we are told, is not meant to take more water for this environmental flow out of irrigators' pockets, but it is not clear in the bill at all. The amendments of the coalition would try to make that clear.

Let me make something else absolutely clear. As far as the people of northern Victoria are concerned, the source of the 450 extra gigalitres is a problem, but it is the impacts of the deliberate, calculated, man-made flooding that will wipe out their futures. That extra water will also not add to the environmental amenity or the sustainability of the Murray River, the Goulburn River, the Murrumbidgee River and the other tributaries that are to be given much greater flows in order to push that extra water down the river. I could quote many more local people, like Mr Ian Lobban, who also gave evidence last Friday to a Senate committee. He said:

We have employed a certified practising valuer to look at the impact that this will have on properties. The figures to hand so far have indicated quite clearly that properties are already devalued by one-third, and that is a considerable loss of asset value. In a lot of cases it is people's superannuation. In our vicinity of the river we estimate that the compensation would be in the vicinity of $53 million.

He is talking about the compensation if those man-made floods were made to occur at the timing that the bill implies. This is a serious problem for our Murray-Darling Basin. It is bad enough that we have the Murray-Darling Basin Plan now as law if we cannot in fact have it disallowed. That bill is deeply flawed. It is a bill that does not rest on decent modelling. It does not rest on good science. It is not a bill that has a triple bottom line principle attached to it. It does not deliver environmental, social, community or economic outcomes in equal measure. The plan is deeply flawed.

As most people know in this place, I intend to try to disallow the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I also object to this bill. This bill is a nonsense. It is an absurdity. It destroys the environment at the same time as it absolutely destroys the futures of people who have to anticipate a man-made flood pushed down the river every couple of years, with their bridges raised so the water can get under them. What is the point of raising the bridges if the land all around is inundated, with dams and storages apparently made bigger so that more water can be captured and pushed down the streams so that the mouth of the Murray is deeper? It is a nonsense. This bill is another example of a government that is incompetent or simply does not care.