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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 13571

Mr BRIGGS (Mayo) (22:27): I rise tonight to welcome the government moving on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 and on this reform, unlike my good friend and colleague the member for Maranoa. This is an issue which has plagued our country since Federation. This is one of the last acts in a too-long debate to fix a mistake of the Federation. This issue should never have been left to the state governments to handle because this is an issue that will always divide the states, but particularly it will always divide water catchment areas. We have just heard another member talk with passion and belief about his water catchment areas and the people in them he represents. We have heard representatives from other water catchment areas this evening representing irrigation districts. We will hear more, I am sure, during this debate.

But I remind those in the House that this plan, when it eventually passes the parliament in the coming days, will undoubtedly have an effect on different economies throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. I also remind the House, the member for Maranoa and others who have spoken that some of those irrigation districts did not get a choice. That is often forgotten. There seems to be some unique distinction between the irrigation districts that get a choice about how they adjust structurally to a change in the economy and those where it is forced upon them, where all of a sudden the water has just dried up. The fact is that the history of this debate is long because it is splintered. The reason that we have differences of views on this side of the House, particularly, is that we have representatives from throughout the basin, which those on the other side do not have, and the communities will never, ever come to an agreement on this issue. It does not matter whether you are a South Australian, a Victorian, a New South Welshman or a Queenslander; what really matters is if you are from one irrigation district or another. I grew up in Mildura, which is in Victoria, in the Sunraysia irrigation district. I can tell you, Madam Speaker, that those in Mildura when I was growing up used to look down the river at people in the electorate of Indi and say: 'Those people misuse water. Those people are inefficient users of water.' They would also say that people in the electorate of Farrer misused water. Equally, people in my electorate, at the end of the system, on the Lower Lakes, point all the way up the system and say, 'They all misuse water.'

The member for Wentworth, who was the water minister when this process began—nearly six years ago, on Australia Day 2007—under Prime Minister John Howard, often said that, no matter where you were in the basin, you would hear the words: 'Those people upstream misuse water,' and, 'Be darned with the people downstream.' When you are on the Lower Lakes in South Australia, there are not too many people downstream to not worry about. There are plenty of people upstream you can blame, and they often are blamed—very often unfairly. But, at the end of the day, this is a responsibility that should be with a federal independent authority. That was the policy that was announced in January 2007.

I am not surprised that the member for Maranoa says that he has had contact from constituents today who have said that they do not agree with this plan. I am not surprised by that at all. I am sure the member for Riverina had those contacts right up to the moment he spoke, and I respect that. But you will never get agreement. What the people in my electorate think is a good plan will not be thought of as a good plan in the electorates of Maranoa, Indi or Riverina. The reason this issue is 120 years old is that we cannot come to an agreement. We have to hand this to a group of people who look at the best available science. And again I disagree with the member for Maranoa: there is lots of science available. It might be disagreed with by different people—different stakeholders and different irrigation districts—but there is plenty of science available.

This plan is a negotiated settlement, undoubtedly. I have got some time for the minister and the effort that he has put in, and particularly for the chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I acknowledge the contribution of someone from the other side of politics. When he was appointed, I was suspicious about that appointment, I must say, but nonetheless I think he has done a terrific job in engaging with those communities that will be affected. But the idea that any minister—whether it be the member for Wentworth when he first started this plan, or the current minister, or any minister since Federation—could somehow bring these disparate interests together and get complete agreement is really dancing in fairyland. It really is. Inevitably, we need a system of management which is outside this place, which is outside the state governments, particularly, and which is outside the irrigation districts—because ultimately we will never get agreement.

Now, Madam Deputy Speaker—I mean Madam Speaker—

The SPEAKER: Please don't worry. Just give your speech. I'm not fussed. Don't lose the flow of your thought. It's not worth it!

Mr BRIGGS: The minister in question time today raised a point which I could not agree with more, and that was when he pointed out the utter, complete and disgraceful hypocrisy of the Australian Greens. If nothing else proves that that group of people are in it for nothing other than to be a protest party, then this bill and this plan prove it. The disgraceful behaviour of the Australian Greens, particularly when representing South Australia, is something that they should have on their tombstone as a political organisation. The senator from South Australia who is the water spokesperson for the Australian Greens cannot see that, after 120 years and after nearly six years of this debate in this parliament, this is the opportunity for South Australia to adopt a plan and for this parliament to adopt a plan for the first time since Federation to correct the mistake of Federation. That they would rather play cheap, partisan politics to try and differentiate themselves in South Australia from the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia is shameful. It is a disgrace. It will stay on their tombstone as a political party forever, in my view. And I will make sure that my electorate knows very well that the only people in this parliament, the only self-interested organisation in this parliament, not representing their own electorates with the passions of their own irrigation districts on their side, who tried to stop this from becoming law, were the Australian Greens and, shamefully, a senator from South Australia.

It is a disgrace that they have taken the position that they have taken, purely for politics, purely to try and differentiate themselves so that next year the very slim hope that that senator has of holding onto her position in the Senate will somehow be enhanced by this position that she has taken and her party has taken today. I say to this House: it will diminish the Australian Greens in South Australia. It will diminish them greatly, because any right-minded South Australian will know that the campaign that the Premier of South Australia has played over the last 12 months has been about politics. This bill is in part about politics, undoubtedly. I say that, but this bill really is about aims in five or six years time, and this is not really the big debate. The big debate is to ensure that we get, for the first time since Federation, an independent national authority to lay out a plan for the management of the basin.

I believe in the reform of the Murray-Darling Basin. I always have. I grew up in the Murray-Darling Basin. My parents still live in Mildura, in the middle of the Murray-Darling Basin. I represent people along the Lower Lakes who have been affected in the most devastating way. Down on the Lower Lakes, they have been used—and I am sure the minister will acknowledge this—over many years as political props in this debate. There are people like Henry Jones, who I have the utmost respect for, who has fought for this since 1983, when he stood at the Lower Lakes as they silted up for the first time. Mind you, Madam Speaker, the water allocations increased exponentially after that drought, when we did not realise that there might have been a problem and the system was telling us that there might have been a problem. Henry Jones has fought every day of his life since that time. He is a fisherman on the Lower Lakes. He did not want to spend his life fighting for this, but he has. He should be and he will be acknowledged, I am sure. There are people like Kym McHugh, the Mayor of Alexandrina Council, the council whose district is along Lower Lakes, who saw the devastation of his community during 2006, 2007 and 2008, when you could walk out most of the way through the Lower Lakes.

Droughts will happen, and they will come again. But the issue with the last drought—and this cannot be denied—was that the system went into the drought stressed. It went into the drought with a lack of water in it to cope with what in the end was a more significant event than anyone predicted. I believe that these reforms and the reforms that were started in 2001 by the Howard government, working with the states to put water back into the system to address the overallocation crisis, will ensure that, the next time a significant drying event occurs, the system is able to manage in a much better way than it did last time.

Ultimately, we are making a judgement here on which environmental assets we decide can survive, because we want to continue to produce the food and fibre from the basin. Of course we do. My producers in my area want to continue to produce. They want access to water. They do not want those five years where they could not get a drop of water, where that structural change that the member for Maranoa was talking about just before, which has been debated in his area now, was forced upon them, where they woke up one morning and they had to drag the pumps out that extra 10 metres to the further part of the Lower Lakes to desperately try and get their legal water entitlement, which we have heard so much about from so many other members. No-one asked them if that was okay. But somehow, as irrigators, they do not seem to be as important to some people in this debate as others. Of course, that highlights why we need this reform, why I support this reform in the strongest possible terms. I started my first speech in this place on this reform.

I am sick of the politics of this debate. I am sick of having to speak on this issue every couple of months. I look forward to the moment when we get through a year without having to talk about the Murray-Darling Basin, when we can address the issues and ensure that the food producers, who are so important to our country and to our future, who stand at the doorway of such great opportunities, are able to get on with certainty, knowing what their water entitlements will be into the future. That is why the urgency of this is important. That is why this parliament should deal with this bill. That is why the parliament should endorse in the strongest possible terms this plan, because it was a process which was started in January 2007; it is a process which has taken far too long to implement. But it is here, it is before us and it is time for us to act. It is time for us to deliver this plan. We will play the politics as we may, as members on the other side have done tonight and as some on our side have done, no doubt. In the end, for the good of the system, to ensure the sustainability of our food-producing areas not just today but tomorrow, I say to this parliament: once and for all, let's get on with this reform to the Murray-Darling Basin.

This is undoubtedly a difficult issue. It is very hard for many people in this place. But that just sums up why, in the end, we need this reform. We need it desperately. We need it to pass the parliament tonight so that we can get on with ensuring the certainty that is required by irrigation districts throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, ensuring the sustainability of the basin into the future. That is why I thoroughly endorse the plan before the parliament. I argue to the House that this bill should be passed. Even though it is not the most important piece of legislation relating to the basin, I would still say that this bill should pass as proposed and in conjunction with the plan that should be endorsed before we leave this place this week.