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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 13578

Mrs MIRABELLA (Indi) (22:57): We do live in interesting times! I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 because, in all likelihood, it will be the last opportunity for me to speak on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in this parliament. I would like to begin by commending my neighbour the member for Farrer, who has been engaged and exercised about this issue for as long as I have known her as a member in this House. She has, like so many others, been put in a position to make a very difficult decision. She has had to balance up both sides of the debate and the options available.

On this side of the House, we have had an in-depth analysis and discussion because we have members of parliament who have gained the trust of people in basin electorates. We represent basin electorates. It is an area of policy that is fraught with difficulty, as was related by previous speakers, particularly the member for Mayo, because we seek to find agreement between four states. Each of these states has competing interests and each is seeking the best possible outcome, naturally, for its own jurisdiction. On top of that, this issue requires us to find an appropriate balance between the impact on regional communities and the impact on the environment. Under those circumstances, it is no wonder that the debate has been raging for such a long time and that it is not an easy debate. This is not the end of the debate. This is a important part in the process, but there are many unanswered questions. It is often much harder to implement a policy successfully than to pass a bill in this place.

By definition, it was always going to be a more difficult debate for this side of the House, the coalition. That is because we represent Australians across a diversity of electorates, whether they be in irrigation districts, including in the basin, or in inner city areas, particularly in Adelaide. We actually represent and care about those very diverse constituencies. While most of those on the other side have sat back and been, frankly, quite bored by the discussion on this very important issue, have shown little interest and have, at times, been quite silent, coalition members and senators, particularly from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, have engaged, many of us for a long time, in painstaking discussions and negotiations to reach the point that we find ourselves at today.

I know and appreciate that some members in this place, colleagues of mine, have been looking deep within themselves as they have considered their positions on the final plan. I know that it is not an easy decision that many of them have taken. I respect their decisions as private members. At the same time, I would also like them and others to consider the alternative. There is a political reality here. There is the reality that people want some progress. It is true that they do not have faith that this government can deliver the practical outcomes that are intended in the legislation. It is true that they have no faith that this government will find the money to be able to deliver what this legislation is intended to. But they do want to see some progress.

There is another problem. It is obvious that the Labor Party will pass this plan one way or another. Their intentions are quite clear. If they do not pass it with the support of the coalition, they will take what has been the usual course in this highly dysfunctional and irregular parliament and pass it with the support of those fringe-dwellers of the Australian political landscape, the Greens. Invariably that will mean bowing to their demands.

I am not suggesting that this plan is perfect by any means. There are still many questions that are unanswered. But what I can say is that the plan that Minister Burke tabled on Monday is vastly better than the draft plan that was released in October 2010. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate every single community, those thousands of people across the basin, that stood up and had their voices heard and that were not going to accept an appalling draft that was deficient in its analysis and that took a broad-brush approach. It was an absolute disaster. But for those communities standing up and scaring the bejesus out of this government we would not have had many of the changes along the way.

I want to make this point very clear to my constituents in north-east Victoria, because there have been significant concessions made in my electorate in the north-east of Victoria of Indi. I want to take a few moments to outline some of these concessions. There are three main river systems in my electorate that are subject to the outcomes of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan: the Ovens River, which stretches from Mount Hotham to Bundalong through some of the richest agricultural land in the country; the Kiewa River, which runs from Mount Bogong in the high country through Dederang and Tangambalanga until it reaches the Murray just east of Albury; and the Broken River, which runs from Mansfield through Benalla and joins the Murray at Shepparton. These river systems support a significant agricultural industry in my electorate and are obviously vital for the ongoing viability of the many small rural communities that are scattered throughout the north-east. The original guide to the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was released in October 2010, proposed extraordinarily savage cuts to irrigation entitlements in each of these three river systems. All three rivers were targeted at the extreme upper range of SDL reductions. Forty-five per cent cuts were proposed in the Ovens River, the Kiewa River and the Broken River but the practical implication for irrigation was much worse than that. The government's first draft was incredibly sloppy in many respects, but in this case they had actually applied the reduction targets to the overall interceptions in each river system. Town water supply takes up a significant proportion of the overall diversions in the Ovens and Kiewa. So when you actually apply a reduction target to the overall diversions you have to either limit town supply or make a dramatic raid on irrigation entitlements. So the Ovens and Kiewa both faced cuts to irrigation entitlements in excess of 70 per cent.

I put questions to the MDBA following the release of the first guide and even they admitted that the proposals would result in 'perverse outcomes' and even flagged the possibility of limiting town water supply. It was another mess. In those first six months following the release of the guide, I worked very hard in my endeavours to right these perverse outcomes and to get the government to listen to the case of north-east Victoria. I attended public consultation meetings that were chaired by the MDBA and I invited the chair of the authority at the time, Mike Taylor—a very good man, I might add—to meet with farmers and business people in my electorate office. I took a delegation of farmers and local government representations to meet with Minister Burke.

I made submissions to both parliamentary inquiries and to the MDBA, and I gave evidence at a public hearing of one of those inquiries. I am pleased to say that those efforts were not wasted; they were not in vain. To the basin authority's credit, they listened to the case that we put and they made appropriate changes to the following draft. All subsequent plans have proposed zero cuts to watercourse diversions in each of the three river systems. Furthermore, no cuts have been flagged for a major underground water recess in the Wangaratta and alpine regions. This is important because, as I made clear in my submissions to those inquiries, the strength of the north-east is that water is used closest to its source. It is its point of differentiation with many other districts in the basin. We do have the distinction, I suppose, and the honour of providing about 40 per cent of the water that feeds into the system. As a consequence, farms in Indi are some of the most efficient users of water in the nation because they use water closest to the source. The usual loss of water in transportation is not the case in Indi but that relative efficient use of water is a debate for another day, which I am sure will be another long debate.

Again, I am not suggesting by any means that this is a perfect plan. I mentioned before that I still have questions that have not been answered. I am particularly concerned about the potential ramifications of the recently announced relaxed constraints, which brings me to the core of the bill currently before the House. Where is the economic modelling to show the true cost of the impact of these relaxed constraints? It is not there. That is why I do not believe this government can actually deliver. This bill is intended to recover an additional 450 gigalitres through further investments in farm infrastructure and efficiency programs. But delivering this additional water would require the government to relax constraints. What this essentially means is that the water authority will be given the authority to manipulate major flood events along key sections of the Murray-Darling Basin instead of the minor flood events that it would previously have had the authority to give to do. To give you an example of this, the current maximum flow between the Hume Weir and the Yarrawonga Weir—water that passes right through my electorate—is 25,000 megalitres per day. Under the relaxed constraints scenario, this would increase to 40,000 megalitres. Similarly, the maximum flow down the Goulburn River in the southern part of my electorate would increase from 12,000 megalitres to 15,000 megalitres.

There are obvious concerns about this. The government has commissioned modelling on the environmental benefits of removing these constraints, but at no point has it examined the true cost of removing these constraints. I am talking about not just the financial cost but also the social implications. These increased flows could potentially flood private, freehold and agricultural land. Land along the Yea River downstream of Lake Eildon and the Goulburn River flats and the southern parts of my electorate would be at risk. Land between the Hume Weir and Yarrawonga Weir would face a similar threat. In the absence of proper modelling that considers the social and economic consequences of these relaxed constraints, it is very difficult to determine exactly what impact these changes would have on parts of my electorate and on other key parts of the basin. So it is absolutely essential that this modelling is done before these so-called restraints are relaxed.

The coalition amendment will require that water only be recovered in a way that does not cause economic or social detriment. It does this in three ways. It inserts objectives of the bill that neutral or beneficial socioeconomic outcomes must be achieved. It limits the amount of water that can be bought back to 15,000 gigalitres, consistent with the government's announced water recovery strategy. It requires the secretary of the department to report on how any water recovered achieves a neutral or beneficial socioeconomic outcome in the annual report required under this bill. This is a very important amendment. It also ensures that the additional 450 gigalitres cannot be sought through any buyback mechanism.

The minister himself recently said, 'Now the extra 450 gigalitres is acquired through the sorts of on-farm infrastructure projects that we have run to date.' This amendment, in effect, gives weight to his words. So if the minister is fair dinkum he should not have any problem in supporting this particular amendment. It was the Howard government that started this plan, and it will only be an Abbott government that can manage the budget to fully implement this plan by 2019. (Time expired)