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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13670


Mr WINDSOR (New England) (10:54): On behalf of the Standing Committee on Regional Australia, I present the committee's advisory report, incorporating a dissenting report, on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012, together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee.

In accordance with standing order 39(f) the report was made a parliamentary paper.

Mr WINDSOR: by leave—I thank the House. The Standing Committee on Regional Australia has undertaken three previous inquiries into matters relating to the health and productivity of the Murray-Darling Basin. I present this fourth report, supported by the committee, with the exception of Mr McCormack, the member for Riverina, and Dr Sharman Stone, who have dissented from the report. I think it should be noted that the shadow minister, the member for Flinders, and the member for Wannon, both members of the coalition, have supported the substance of the report. As part of its previous inquiries, the committee has recommended that the government conduct infrastructure works to increase water efficiency within the basin. This bill fulfils that recommendation.

The current bill identifies the Water for the Environment Special Account. The bill provides an incremental funding stream of $1.77 billion over 10 years starting from 2014-15. The special account will fund projects and programs that improve on-farm and off-farm infrastructure and remove constraints as identified by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Negative social and economic impacts to basin communities resulting from these funded projects will also be offset by the special account. It is anticipated that these projects will inject a further 450 gigalitres of environmental water into the basin over the next 10 years.

Controversially, the special account will also finance the purchase of water access rights. It is implied, though not clear in the bill itself, that these purchases will come from efficiencies gained through improved infrastructure. This was of concern to many stakeholders who made submissions to the inquiry. The bill's interpretive documents imply that the Commonwealth will be limited to purchasing the efficiencies gained from improvements in infrastructure. However, the bill is ambiguously worded and is not clear on this point. As currently drafted, the clause lacks clarity—and I am hopeful that the minister will address those issues within the hour. The ambiguity has caused significant concern within the basin communities and the committee is therefore recommending that this clause be amended to more appropriately convey its intent.

During the committee's inquiry, the Senate Environment and Communications Committee also reviewed the bill's provisions, recommending that the bill be amended to require 450 gigalitres of environmental water be recovered throughout the lifetime of the special account. The committee does not agree with that recommendation. The program and projects funded by the special account are voluntary. Requiring 450 gigalitres of water recovery could amount to a quasi-compulsory acquisition system, something which is prohibited under the Water Act. The committee strongly believes that the government should continue to work with irrigators to achieve environmental outcomes for a healthy basin, and supports the bill's objective of acquiring 'up to' 450 gigalitres of environmental water as currently drafted. Despite the committee's recommendations for the bill to be amended, I commend the government for its responsiveness to the committee's findings in relation to Murray-Darling Basin arrangements.

As I said, the committee has conducted a number of inquiries and I congratulate committee members who have participated in the various inquiries, as well as the secretariat, on their very hard work. This has been a difficult issue for many people. I will be speaking to the specifics of the bill within the next hour or so and I will reserve some of my comments until then.

As I have commented recently, this is the first time the parliament has had a committee that is specifically charged with matters concerning regional Australia—and I am pleased to see the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government in the House at the moment. This bill is again proof of the effectiveness and critical importance of this committee's existence. I commend the report to the House.