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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 13581


Mr TRUSS (Wide BayLeader of The Nationals) (23:12): The Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 establishes a special account to acquire additional environmental water for the Murray-Darling system, up to 450 gigalitres. There has been no science to support this extra 450 gigalitres. There does not seem to be any basic plan that has led to this figure having been chosen. It is simply, as everyone acknowledges, to appease the South Australian Labor government. But what people need to acknowledge and remember in South Australia is that this bill will also hurt the farmers of South Australia. They will also pay something of the price that will be inflicted upon the rural sector as a result of this legislation.

Labor's Murray-Darling plan has been welcomed by no-one but the minister and his own colleagues. The minister with his smiling face boasting about his great achievement, typical of Labor's overblown rhetoric, has not impressed too many people. His friends the Greens, with whom Labor are in a coalition government, are seeking to disallow the plan. The hardcore environmentalists, of course, do not want any human to live on the water of the basin, so they will never be satisfied. The states are opposed to it for different reasons. Irrigators, who have already given 3,000 to 4,000 gigalitres up for environmental flows over the years—much of it without any compensation—are unhappy. The communities are opposed. I attended some of the angry rallies that occurred during earlier iterations of this plan, and watched those reports being burnt. Those communities, whilst their anger has been a little more muted this time, are simply exhausted and are not really up to having more rallies. But they are still concerned about the impact of proposed water buybacks on the future economic viability of their communities. Already these communities have paid a high price. The whole basin has paid a price. There is shattered confidence, lost productivity and degraded towns. The result of all of this uncertainty, the result of Labor's continual whittling away of the water resources available to the communities, is a significant economic effect.

The government's commitment to recover this water in ways that do not weaken social and economic outcomes in the Murray-Darling is wishy-washy at best. The opposition is therefore proposing constructive amendments to clarify and bolster this commitment into something that the 2.1 million Australians who call the basin home can have some faith in. Despite the assurances by the government that there is nothing in this bill that requires the government to recover water with any deference to social or economic considerations at all, this government have form. They claim that there will be no regional impact on communities, but they have taken the lazy way of delivering water for the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin in the past, resorting always to buybacks. The potential to use engineering solutions is acknowledged, but very little has actually been done—they have taken the lazy way. There is a genuine concern in the community, because of the weakness of this legislation, that the government intend to take the lazy way yet again—simply resorting to buybacks. It is a great concern of basin communities. Earlier versions of the draft Basin Plan have tried to sell them up the river, and they can be forgiven for having a disturbing sense of deja vu.

Once, previously, the minister told the parliament that there would be no more buybacks, but there was an advertisement in the newspaper two days later. The government gave lip service to the notion that water would only be recovered in an economically neutral way, via on-farm infrastructure projects. But those promises have been worthless in the past. And this legislation must not allow, by incompetence or malicious design, any wriggle room. If the government is fair dinkum about providing this extra 450 gigalitres without hurting communities, then let's make sure this bill makes that commitment crystal clear. No-one trusts the basin authority to manage the water wisely or sympathetically. The minister was once the agriculture minister, but many farmers and others feel that, since he has become the environment minister, he has forgotten his former constituency. The fishermen feel that they have been sold out. The foresters have been sold out. And now farmers and irrigators are concerned that, once again, they will be the losers as a result of this plan. In question time he boasts about the plan, and he boasts about water for the environment, but there has been nothing said about sympathy for the farmers who will have to pay this cost.

So it is important that the legislation is clear. The government have said that they do not propose to resort to buybacks, but they are not prepared to have that put in the legislation. Is it any wonder, therefore, that people are concerned? The coalition's amendment requiring that water only be recovered in a way that does not cause economic or social detriment is a fair and reasonable change that can give river communities the confidence they desperately need that they will not be railroaded down the track. Our measured amendment to this bill suggests that any reduction in the long-term average sustainable diversion limit for the water resources of a particular water resource plan area may only be achieved through the purchase of water access rights if the purchase of these rights will not cause apparent social or economic detriment to the district in the Murray-Darling Basin from which the water is retrieved. So we are not talking about a total ban; we just want to be sure that there will not be economic detriment to communities as a result of these purchases.

This bill allows for the funds in the special account to be used to purchase water access rights. The fact that the government is not willing to accept our amendments demonstrates that they do intend to achieve the water they want in the traditional Labor lazy way—just through buybacks. More water buybacks are the last thing that irrigators in communities of the Murray-Darling Basin need. They have already poured significant waters into the river system over the years, much without compensation. Buybacks have left infrastructure stranded, they have increased distribution costs and they have seriously damaged many irrigation communities. Any further water savings must come from engineering and infrastructure works to deliver water to the river that does not come at the expense of farmers and their communities and that does not create social or economic detriment.

Engineering and management solutions are able to deliver the water required for the environment. I was chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council when the Living Murray Initiative was developed. That was a 500-gigalitre initiative to provide water for key environmental science. There were no buybacks for the Living Murray Initiative. The living Murray initiative proved that it was possible to make engineering savings that could deliver water for the environment. But in particular it also established that it was possible to manage relatively limited amounts of water to achieve substantial environmental benefits. You can manage environmental water, just as you can manage water for use in industry and in irrigation.

That, in my view, was the greatest achievement of the Living Murray Initiative. Yes, it was an extraordinary effort to get the states to agree with the Commonwealth to undertake a measure of that nature. I acknowledged at the time the cooperation I received from ministers of the opposite political persuasion to make that happen. But the real breakthrough was that there was an acceptance that we would manage the environmental water and that, indeed, it could be used to water more than one wetland in the same year. It could ensure that a breeding cycle of birds could be completed before the area dried up. If, in fact, it was completed, then you could move the water to water some red gums or whatever might be further downstream. You only really had to go back and do that same wetting of an area every five years or so to maintain and, indeed, increase the bird stocks. So it is possible to do this sort of thing. We can put in lined channels, pipelines and low-volume irrigators. There are all sorts of innovative projects that are being proposed. We simply have to get on with it and do it. Sadly, the disappointment of recent times has been that that has not happened.

When the Prime Minister made her promise in Adelaide on 26 October 2012 which led to this bill, she said that the government would recover an additional 450 gigalitres of water for the environment. The government gave a commitment that water would only be recovered in an economically neutral way via on-farm infrastructure projects. But, unfortunately, this bill walks away from that commitment. It does not entrench that principle in the legislation. Unfortunately the Prime Minister has broken promises in the past and, when the promise is not included in the legislation, suspicions are naturally raised.

The Greens have a proposal for an amendment that would change the bill from recovering up to 450 gigalitres to requiring 450 gigalitres to be recovered. This is typical of the Greens strategy of closing down whole industries by stealth. They are never satisfied. Once they have one piece, they want a bit more and then they keep on going. If you do not agree with me, ask me to repeat the story of the regional forest plans and the marine parks. Certainly the Murray-Darling water plan is not likely to be any different.

The National Farmers' Federation and the New South Wales Irrigators' Council support amendments to this bill. They want to restrict the use of funds to water efficiency projects to require that the 2,750 gigalitres must be acquired before any new money is spent from this account. The future coalition government is determined to deliver genuine security to Murray-Darling Basin communities. The coalition, in government, will amend the water recovery strategy to cap buybacks at 1,500 gigalitres. Around 1,250 gigalitres has already been purchased, already way above what was originally proposed for buybacks. Our commitment in no way undermines our support for the requirement for the plan to deliver an additional 2,750 gigalitres of environmental flows. It is a guarantee that the coalition will work with the states to deliver on the infrastructure. Environmental works and measures targets have been set by the existing water recovery strategy to deliver the required water above 1,500 gigalitres.

Let us be clear: if our amendments moved today are unsuccessful, we commit to making them law as a priority should we win the next election. Our amendments deliver the government's stated intent for this legislation but without a new round of pain, hardship, tears and despair. These commitments include actions to remove constraints and those needed to achieve up to 450 gigalitres recovered under the special account to satisfy a neutral-or-better socioeconomic test. The bill seeks to put aside money to pay for additional water and works to allow the 2,750 gigalitres to increase to 3,200 gigalitres.

Delivering more than 2,750 gigalitres of water back to the environment requires removing substantial physical constraints in the system and some of these constraints are natural—narrow channels et cetera. Nature cannot take the volume of water under this plan that is supposed to be pushed down the river, so it will be necessary to spend a lot of money. For example, flows between the Hume Dam and the Yarrawonga Weir are limited to a maximum of 25,000 megalitres a day. Lifting the water recovery target to 3,200 gigalitres would require flows of 40,000 megalitres per day in this area, and doing so would require the government to purchase easements over 10,000 hectares of land to be flooded.

This bill appropriates $1.77 billion until 2024 towards the special account, yet only $55 million of this amount is included in the forward estimates. The coalition is trying to play a constructive role in getting the best possible plan for the basin communities. Our commitment to cap the buyback at 1,500 gigalitres will provide confidence for those who depend on the system and on its water resources. We will improve the Basin Plan. We support the basin communities. We support the basin's economy and we are determined to also protect the basin's environment.

Debate adjourned.