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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13794


Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth) (19:33): These are historic times. The reaching of agreement on the basin plan is the completion of a process which began on 25 January 2007, when John Howard, in the midst of the worst drought in Australia's history, announced his National Plan for Water Security. I was a minister in his government and was indeed at the time responsible for water resources, among other things. The big idea in the National Plan for Water Security was that we should rectify a mistake which had been made in the 1890s, when the founding fathers—regrettably, Madam Speaker, in those less enlightened times, they were all fathers—of our Constitution failed to place jurisdiction over interstate waters with the federal government. The South Australian delegation, needless to say—plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose—argued for it to be under federal jurisdiction. The New South Wales and Victorian delegates scorned and scoffed at that. Parochialism won the day.

The consequence was that, for the subsequent century and longer, water planning was a state responsibility and each state government regarded the passage of any drop of water across the border as a failure in planning policy. The objective was to maximise the use of water resources, with no regard for anyone downstream. This is no more than human nature. As Mark Twain famously said, 'Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.'

I recall, many years ago, visiting Bourke in the midst of a drought. There was very little water in the river—a barely discernible trickle at the bottom of this huge ditch. I remember standing on a wharf with some irrigators and they said: 'Look at all that water. And we are not allowed to take any more out of the river. Look, it is just heading downstream, all wasted.' They had been berating me for the previous hour about the greed and avarice of all the people upstream—the diversions they had been taking. I said, 'What do you mean when you say it is all being wasted going downstream?' They said: 'It is being wasted. Where is it going? It is going to Woop Woop.' I said: 'Woop Woop? You are talking about Adelaide.' They said, 'Adelaide or Woop Woop—it is all the same.'

This is the bottom line and this is the melancholy duty of any water minister—and I note the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, is sitting opposite me here. The melancholy duty is that you have to grapple with one of the most basic human emotions, one of the most basic human instincts—to control access to water, which is, after all, the source of all life. It is an impossible business.

That is why there had been no proper water reform. That is why they could not get their act together in the 1890s. Then there was this colossal drought in 2007, when we were seriously looking at cities and towns in the Murray-Darling Basin running out of water—and not just provincial towns. I know in Bourke they think Adelaide is Woop Woop, but Adelaide itself could have run out of water. Adelaide has a tiny catchment of its own. Its own catchment, even if it is full, can only carry a year's worth of water. It depends on the River Murray. The River Murray could quite easily have run dry at that time. The only reason the River Murray has not run dry in the last few generations is the dams. Dams are no more than artificial glaciers—they do exactly what glaciers do in colder climates: they store the water up in the winter and release it in the summer. If those dams empty, you are essentially back to the preregulated environment. The River Murray has run dry, as any visitor to the Riverland knows. You see plenty of pictures in the pubs of people picnicking on the dry riverbed.

Some of our big cities and towns, including the capital city of Adelaide, faced an existential crisis. That galvanised action. John Howard, to his great credit, then took such action—encouraged by a few of us, myself included, and Senator Bill Heffernan was a very keen on this as well. John had the vision and the leadership to recognise that you should not allow a crisis to go to waste, so he took advantage of the opportunity and we seized the nettle and said we were going to take federal control of the Murray-Darling Basin. I recall saying to the Prime Minister, 'We do not need the states to agree with this; we can do it under the powers vested in the Commonwealth, in this case the external affairs power flowing from various environmental treaties.' I remember the Prime Minister saying to me at the time, 'I believe I can get the states to refer powers.' I said to John Howard he could not be serious, that that was not going to happen, but he reckoned he could make it happen.

We got three of the four Labor states—Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales—to agree to refer powers but Premier Bracks, and this was a great lost opportunity, refused to do so and so we ended up legislating relying solely on federal powers. I recall Terry Moran, who was then the head of the Victorian premier's department, saying to me in Victoria after a rather fruitless meeting with the Premier and himself, 'John Howard does not have the guts to legislate using the federal government's own jurisdiction.' I thought, 'Well, you are not a very good reader of character, Mr Moran.' That is exactly what John Howard did. We had a workable scheme, but I have to say it was not elegant, and getting the agreement of the states, which was achieved after the Labor government came in in 2007, certainly made the scheme more elegant—but I think that Mr Rudd made concessions to the states that gave them more say in the process than was part of our original scheme for a national plan.

We sold this proposal to the irrigation communities very much on the basis that, yes, there had been excessive extraction of water from the system, and yes this massive natural floodplain has a great effect on the whole system. Remember, we are the flattest continent on earth. Our rivers are all very slow, lazy, winding rivers. The drop in elevation over the 2,500 kilometres of river length from the Albury dam down to the river mouth at the Lower Lakes is 175 metres, as I recall. It is flatter than the table in front of me. That means it is a natural floodplain system, and the vast majority of water will never go out to sea. The more that mankind extracts for his own use, for irrigation, the more that is lost to the environment. Too much had been extracted. There had been a tragic failure to understand the interconnection between groundwater and surface water, and it is staggering that that went misunderstood for so long. There was enormous overextraction in some areas. The Victorians did a better job of managing the water than New South Wales did, and the Queenslanders came into the game late in the day. If they had started a few decades earlier they might have been able to extract even more water.

The Basin was a mess and clearly water had to be reacquired. The economic rationalists in the Treasury would say that the cheapest way to do that was just to buy it back, but they failed to understand both the hydrology and the politics of the Basin and both of those things dictated that the recovery of water had to be coupled with an investment in irrigation infrastructure that enabled us to look farmers in the eye and say to them honestly, 'We will provide for you the resources that will enable you to grow as much if not more food and fibre with less water than you have done before'—and we would use the same intelligence and the same engineering to ensure that when we watered the natural floodplains, as opposed to the irrigated farming floodplains, we would use that water more efficiently too. In other words, we would make every drop count.

This was where, sadly, there was a mistake. After the government changed, we left the vision and we left the legislative tools there but the government failed to recognise the importance of investing in infrastructure. Until the current minister became the minister there was a failure to understand the nature of the bargain with the irrigation communities. I recognise that Senator Wong was totally preoccupied with the carbon-pricing issue, and I make no criticism of her. I just observe that that vision was lost and, as a consequence, a plan that in 2007 had had near universal support from the irrigation communities in the basin became so toxic that the guide to the Basin Plan was being burnt at public meetings through the basin.

There was a change of minister. Minister Burke became the minister, and he recognised, to his credit, the wisdom of the original John Howard plan. Now the wheel has come full circle. There is now a commitment to ensure that, as far as possible, water is recovered through investments in infrastructure and, where there are buybacks, they are strategic buybacks rather than just being from here, there and everywhere else. Because the original plan for buybacks that I negotiated with the irrigation cooperatives was: 'We will spend millions of dollars on upgrading the infrastructure in your irrigation district, but there's this area over here, for example, to the north-west, where the soil is not that good and it is a long, long way away. So we'll make three-quarters of your area much more productive using less water, and we'll buy out that corner over there and properly compensate the landowners, and you'll end up with a smaller district that is much more manageable, much more productive, and you'll be able to produce more food and fibre with less water.' That was the big idea. It was lost for some years, and now the government seems to have recovered it. I think that is a great credit to the minister and to the shadow minister, my very good friend the member for Flinders, for the work that he has done with Senator Joyce from Queensland.

While there is never going to be complete agreement on this, we are as close to the original approach that we had on 25 January 2007 as we have been in the intervening nearly six years. So it is good that we have come back to that, and that is why I have been very pleased to speak briefly about this—and I hope to have the opportunity to speak about it at greater length on another occasion. But I think it is important to recognise the history of this project and its national importance and, in that respect, the vindication of the original vision that John Howard, in that terrible drought, was able to bring in in an act of real leadership, taking an opportunity out of what was a shocking crisis.