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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13796

Mr WINDSOR (New England) (19:47): I was interested to hear the member for Wentworth's speech, although I do not think he mentioned the bill once! He did make an attempt to recreate history to some degree in terms of this debate. One of the things I remember, because I was in the parliament at that time, is that I was the only one, out of all the parliamentarians, who voted against the Water Act that this whole process has been based on. The history, as I recall it, of the $10 billion cigarette-paper plan, as it was called at the time because it was put together in such a rush, was not so much about the Murray-Darling; it was about the environmental vote. I can recall that Kevin Rudd was making a lot of ground politically in terms of climate change, and the coalition were scratching around, looking at how they could get Kevin Rudd off the front page of the paper with an environmental plan. After a couple of meetings came this plan, which became known as the $10 billion cigarette-paper plan, which then morphed into the Water Act.

In this debate about the Murray-Darling, there has been a lot of talk about the triple bottom line. I know the member for Wentworth mentioned the bottom line, but there has been a lot of debate about the triple bottom line. The problem with the original bill—and the member for Wentworth had carriage of it—was that it was not about the triple bottom line. Although there is talk now that it was about a contract with people in the basin, it was actually to come to grips with the environmental vote that Kevin Rudd was gaining ground with on the climate change issue. I think everyone has their own version of history.

I congratulate the member for Wentworth on his role in it, even though I did not vote for the bill. I did not vote for it because I thought it was put together for the wrong reasons. And I do congratulate the current minister—I agree with you on this, Malcolm—on picking up on the notion that people in the basin should have some say about what happens in their locality.

The bill before us today is about 450 gigalitres of additional water that may be returned from on-farm works and measures, and some constraint removal, to the environment. I chaired the committee that looked at this bill, and there were a couple of dissenting reports. To his credit, the shadow minister was not one of those dissenters and the member for Wannon was not either, and I thank them for their support in relation to that. The 450 gigalitres is an amount of water above the baseline of 2,750 gigalitres proposed in the Basin Plan that will be endorsed—although there is a disallowance motion coming up on that, probably tomorrow; but I am told that, apart from a couple of people in this place and the Greens in both places, the 2,750-gigalitre plan will essentially be accepted. That will be an amazing breakthrough for everybody, whether it be John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Burke, the Prime Minister or anybody else along the system, because that will be a piece of history in itself. For 100 years there has been this debate as to how you actually look after a system and share that system, not only between the states but with the various competing forces and the environment. I think this plan goes very close to doing that.

Everybody will find an area where it is not totally satisfactory. I congratulate the minister. There has been a lot of fear created in a lot of communities and in a lot of people's minds about this. I remember when this started and people were burning books at Griffith, and Senator Joyce and others were out there promoting this fear that the government was going to come along and take their water. And no-one in the opposition circles corrected that. That was the way to create the fear. Now those very people are going to vote for the plan. They may have some amendments in relation to this 450 gigs, but they will vote for that plan after creating all of those fears within those communities. I think they owe those communities an apology for the way in which genuine people on the river system have been frightened into believing that someone was going to come along and take their water.

The Regional Australia Committee, which I chair, conducted an exhaustive inquiry, and I thank the committee. We spent about half of January—I think it was last year, but it might have been the year before!—going up and down the Murray-Darling, talking to people in those various communities. I think many of the recommendations in that report were picked up by the community. The minister, again to his credit, and the government have picked up on many of those recommendations, whether they be about environmental works and measures, on-farm works and measures, investment in infrastructure, the constraints issue, the various rules issues in running the river or the monitoring of the river system, and even some of the issues around the environmental water holder. A lot of those issues have been addressed in the final plan. I thought Craig Knowles was a brilliant choice for this. I know we got off to a very rocky start, and there were some political people out there who wanted to make it as rocky as possible. But the politics was in the fear rather than being about doing something about certainty. I congratulate Craig Knowles for the work he has done.

There is a big challenge out there to actually make the words—the interpretations—work in terms of the long-term plan. The one thing our committee kept running into, irrespective of whether we were in the north of the system or the south of the system, was the fact that people were sick of uncertainty; they were being fed a diet of uncertainty. I think there is a real warning there politically. Now that a plan is being bedded down—and I will get to some of the numbers in a minute—I think we have to maintain that contract with those people, to use the words of the member for Wentworth. If we breach that contract, or if the basin states breach that contract, that will be a great failure of the political process.

The 450 gigalitres of water that this piece of legislation addresses is essentially an amount of water that could be obtained above the baseline figure of 2,750 gigalitres. Those who are trying to create the fear say that means 3,200 gigalitres of water returning to the environment if, in fact, that 450 gigalitres was obtained. It does not mean that at all. A recommendation of the committee, from our second inquiry, was that an adjustment process be put in place, with a five per cent up-or-down variation on the 10,000 gigalitres—and that was passed by the parliament. Within the context of that, two things have happened. Bear in mind that the 2,750 gigalitres is the baseline. The basin states have a valuable role to play in this, and they all agree to it. I congratulate the Victorian minister, Peter Walsh. I have met Peter Walsh only twice, but I think he deserves some congratulations for his leadership and his knowledge on this particular issue. He may well have some concerns out there.

Returning to the 2,750-gigalitre baseline figure, the basin states have said to the minister—and the minister has accepted this, and it was part of the recommendations of the inquiry—that, rather than ask the farmers to do all the lifting, perhaps there are areas where the environment can bear that share. Are there areas, through environmental works and measures or on-farm works and measures, where you can more efficiently, with less water, achieve an outcome? The basin states have said in their proposals, which will be funded in the arrangements, that they believe they can obtain efficiencies within some of the environmental icon sites of about 650 gigalitres of water—the same outcome, environmentally, for less water. I know my Greens colleague behind me may have some issues there with overbank flows et cetera. But I think he would know that the Murray River—and here I again agree with the member for Wentworth; I have to stop doing this!—is now virtually nothing more than a managed drain, given all the constraints that have been placed on it. But it is also a beautiful place to go.

If you deduct the 650 gigalitres through environmental works and measures from the 2,750—the baseline figure—the real number becomes 2,100 gigalitres of real water being returned to the system. If you deduct the amount of water that has been obtained already while this process has been going on over the last couple of years, it is something like 1,300 to 1,500 gigalitres of water that has been obtained through strategic buyback, some works and measures et cetera, particularly on-farm. That reduces the real number down to 600 to 800 gigalitres to obtain.

Some people out there are still running around saying that on the passage of this bill another 3,200 gigalitres will be taken out of the system. That is not true. You have to find 600 to 800 gigalitres of water. The 450 gigalitres we are talking about today are in the five per cent variation on the 10,000 gigalitres which is the totality of the system—what is called the upwater. Some people have suggested—and I think the shadow minister may have something to say on this—that the legislation allows for the upwater to be purchased. It does not, and I would suggest that people look at the Hansard particularly for what David Parker had to say on that process.

The bill does not allow the Commonwealth to use buyback within the 450 gigalitres—in fact, it would be in breach of the Water Act. The bill does give farmers the opportunity in the main in a voluntary sense to accept money—not quite $1.77 billion but over $1 billion—to make themselves more efficient within a socioeconomic contract so that there is no loss of productivity within their system. If I have 100 megalitres of water and I have an investment in water-use efficiency and achieve the same productivity with 50 megalitres of water, my payout would be that the 50 megalitres goes back to the environment. But there is still mythology out there that the government are going to come in and buy the water within the 450-gigalitre package, which is a voluntary arrangement. I think the government probably will achieve that, but that does not mean they will. If you do the numbers again and assume that the 450 will be attained, you are looking at somewhere between 1,050 and 1,250 gigalitres of water to go back into the system in one form or another.

I know the shadow minister will move an amendment to put a cap on buyback. If the basin states do their work as they say they will, there is absolutely no reason for buyback in either the 450 gigalitres or the balance, the 600 to 800 gigalitres out there. There are a number of areas where, other than strategic buyback which might be in the interest of various groups in the basin states, through various efficiencies and some strategic buyback this could be achieved. Our inquiry identified about 1,600 gigalitres of water that could be found through various projects—nothing to do with buyback. But we still have a fear campaign about what this means for the buyback.

I endorse the bill. I congratulate the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. And I thank the people of the Murray-Darling for the kindness they showed the committee over a number of inquiries. (Time expired)