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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 13575

Ms LEY (Farrer) (22:42): I am pleased to speak tonight on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. This bill is separate from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which of course is not a piece of legislation before this House but a disallowable instrument. But this bill is intricately connected with the plan and, in talking about this bill, I will of course pick up some remarks about the plan itself. It has been a process that has been exhaustive for everyone in the basin. I want to talk about the lived experience of my constituents in the electorate of Farrer, which represents most of the Murray River in New South Wales and most of the Darling River in New South Wales.

I want to start by saying that on the weekend, as I sometimes do, I flew my small plane—licensed and dangerous—out west from Albury airport. I used to be an aerial mustering pilot, so I do not fly very high off the ground. I looked out and saw the magnificent patchwork of farmland, irrigated agriculture, rice paddocks, cereal and horticulture lining the Murray River on my left as I travelled further west. On the right, towards Hay and the Murrumbidgee and further towards the western division of New South Wales, which is also in my electorate, I saw country which can only be described as 12- to 13-inch rainfall scrub country. If it were not for irrigation, all of western New South Wales would look like that; it would not support the towns and the communities that it does and it would not have the vibrancy and the life-giving experiences that we participate in each and every day as members of that community.

I came to this place 10 years ago very much arguing for the rights of the irrigator farmers in my electorate. I came to understand that it was about much more than agriculture, important though the contribution of that is to the nation's economy; it was about the communities and about life on our greatest river system. It was, we believed—and, some days, I still believe—a life very much threatened by what is in front of us with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

It has been a process which has exhausted and drained so many people that I represent—the irrigation corporations, the representatives from community groups, the people who try to help young people into jobs when jobs are scarce and the people who survived almost 10 years of drought, and what an awful experience that was. That has nothing to do with anything other than Australia's climate, but it highlights what life deals up for us in the bush and rural Australia. Here we are almost at the end of the line.

There are difficult decisions to make when you belong to a party that represents all of Australia. I am a very proud member of the Liberal Party, and I know that, as Liberals, we represent very diverse constituencies and a lot of different points of view. That is one of the strengths that we as a party have and it is one of the things that has always attracted me to the party. The challenge in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan process is to bring these different interests together. Sometimes I vigorously disagree with my colleagues. Sometimes they drive me crazy. When the subject is water and the colleagues are in South Australia they often drive me crazy—and I am sure I do them as well, because each of us comes to this place with the interests of our constituents at heart.

For us to walk away at the last hurdle, at the eleventh hour, I do not believe is an option. Today I spoke to many of the people who have been on this journey with me. I asked them, 'Would you like to see the plan chucked out or would you like to see it passed with minimum damage? What types of changes might we make on your behalf'—I was pretty sure I knew how they felt, but I wanted to ask them firsthand—' that could make this process easier for you?' I did not speak to everybody, but some in the Murray Group of Concerned Communities. I spoke to RAMROC, which is a group of mayors and councillors in rural New South Wales. I spoke to SunRice, representing rice growers in western New South Wales. I spoke to many other individuals whose opinions I respect, ranging from the catchment management authorities to individuals. Nobody said to me that they wanted us to walk away from this at the last hurdle. The response was that that would be almost too much to bear. I understand that. That is why I am still here and still fighting for the things that I believe we can achieve within this process with a government that I think in many respects has failed the constituents that I represent.

We will never accept this plan's poor science and its poor modelling. We will continue to fight for the priority to be about people and infrastructure, and not the buyback of water. But this piece of legislation, which is a crazy—if I may say so—bolted-on addition to what had been quite an exhaustive Basin Plan process, makes no sense to the people of the New South Wales Murray and Darling. I want to highlight some of the reasons why.

It makes no sense because it talks about relaxing constraints as if constraints can be just waved away. It allocates $200 million to remove constraints. It describes the flows in the Murray and Darling river system that would result if we removed constraints. If I could pick on the Darling, it talks about flows of 14,000 to 18,000 megs a day in the Lower Darling. To achieve those flows you would actually have to channelise the Darling. You could not have it looking like the river it is now. Maybe we could have—ridiculous though it sounds—concrete structures out there to build channels.

Many years ago we did a project on the Great Darling Anabranch which piped the Anabranch to the Darling and restored, I think, about 47 gigalitres to the environment and cost about $57 million. That project has been waved away in this process because the Anabranch can just be cut off and the water can continue down the Darling. That makes no sense to me and it certainly does not to the people who live there. The minister has talked about constraints, meaning perhaps lifting bridges. Sounds easy! I think, in the Wakool Shire in my electorate—and the minister has visited the Wakool Shire; I give him credit for the visits he has made to my electorate—there are about 43 bridges. Many of them were re-done; they were old timber bridges. Under the previous government, we allocated an awful lot of money to repairing those bridges so they were safe for cars and trucks. In terms of relaxing constraints, what this would actually mean is that every single one of those 40-odd bridges would be raised to cope with a higher flow. Can anyone in this parliament imagine how—in a fiscally constrained environment post the next election, no matter who is in government—we might refuse cancer drugs, hospital treatment, education, benefits to people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but have infrastructure activity that was to raise 40 perfectly good bridges in order to increase the flow underneath them? It is patently crazy. There is no sense at all in talking about something that cannot possibly be achieved.

I want to place on record now some remarks from southern Riverina irrigators in my electorate, and they would like me to say this. The government is acquiring water for the environment without ever having done an analysis on how proposed volumes could be safely delivered. The Basin Plan is based on a model that assumes man-made, or even natural, system constraints can be removed or overcome without any real understanding of what these constraints actually are. For example, the relationship of the Cadell Tilt Barmah choke on the Murray River flows in summer and during winter flow events—to work out a constraints management strategy over a future 12-month period after decisions are made on the Basin Plan is unacceptable. There are significant data gaps in social and economic studies that have accompanied development of the Basin Plan. In short, the full cost of the Basin Plan far exceeds the $10 billion to $12 billion that has so far been identified. There has been no evaluation of costs associated with reduced productivity in Australia's food bowl, nor with delivery of environmental flows. I just want to bring that sense of the craziness of relaxing constraints and allocating $200 million to do that.

In the area between Lake Hume and Yarrawonga, efforts were made to negate the third-party impacts and increase the flow some years ago to 25,000 megalitres a day. Under this proposal, in this legislation, that flow would increase to 40,000 megalitres a day. That would flood homes. It would flood properties. It would change the character of the people who use the river for amenity—for camping, fishing, holidays. It would simply turn it into a fast-flowing channel.

If the minister is serious about this then he should direct his department to do some serious analysis on this and bring some confidence to our communities. That is why we have moved amendments to this bill that will reflect our grave concerns about there being no socioeconomic evaluation of what it means to relax constraints. We will move amendments that will legislate the commitments that have already been made by the government, because the minister has said many times that he does not intend to resort to a market buyback. If he considers our amendments, he should accept them, because they would actually legislate what he has pretty well stated.

We will also move an amendment that says that expenditure on farm infrastructure works cannot be used for buybacks, and the total amount of buybacks will be capped at 1,500 gigalitres. That means that the gap that exists between the water that is being bought back now and 2,100 gigalitres, which is a baseline figure that people will, reluctantly, as a second-best solution, accept, is all that can be bought in a market buyback. We will cap the total amount of buybacks at 1,500 gigalitres and we will require that actions to remove constraints and those needed to achieve this potential 450 gigalitres recovered under this account must satisfy an improved or a neutral socioeconomic test—in other words, no socioeconomic disadvantage.

Those are sensible amendments. So we really are putting it to this government and this minister to consider them. If the statements that he made at the Press Club in good faith to the constituents that I represent about their futures mean anything, then he will agree to our amendments. We accept that this plan is a flawed process. There will be more that I can say about the plan, perhaps, in a future debate. This is not the plan that the coalition would have ever brought to this parliament. There are enormous challenges, including the environmental watering plan, what happens in the relationship between the states and the federal government, where the fixed charges for water end up, who pays, what the cost will be, what the regulation impact statement will be and how to formalise the savings. There is a plethora of work that has simply not been done.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has not filled any of us with confidence. We have been let down by the authority time and time again. It has never had a focus that has meant anything to farmers or agriculture. It has never done any socioeconomic studies, although it has ticked the various boxes to say that it has. It has failed the basic test of inspiring confidence in the communities that it has worked with, because it has not actually worked with the communities at all.

This legislation is bad. Our amendments need to stand to neutralise it—to make it bearable. I will hold this government to account for the things they do in relation to Basin Plan processes in my electorate for the foreseeable future. This is not something that is easy for any of us on this side of the House. These are difficult decisions but I do accept that to go back and start again is simply untenable. But I will be here at the table.

The member for New England is not here but visited large parts of my electorate—as did I and other members of this place—during an inquiry which actually made recommendations that were agreed to by all sides of the House. But the government has ignored many of those recommendations. I would like to hear the member for New England vote in favour of our amendments, because the member for New England understands this stuff very well, and people trusted him when he travelled through my area. They are very much looking to him now to make some statements about this legislation and this Basin Plan process that restores their faith in this parliament.