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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 5984

Mr IAN MACFARLANE (Groom) (18:02): I thank the member for Canberra for her comments. I am sure that her husband is equally grateful for the opportunity—one of those things that come in life too rarely. Australian Capital Territory Water Management Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 gives the ACT government the power to manage its water resources for the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan among other things. There would be no-one in this House who would dispute the need for that. It transfers the power to manage water extraction and use within the ACT from the Commonwealth government to the ACT government. In particular, this bill will allow the ACT to establish a water resource plan under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The changes in this bill are a consequence of the tabling of the basin plan last year. That plan requires a detailed water resource plan be developed for the ACT. However, under the current act, that plan would have needed to be establish by the Commonwealth government. This bill, as I said, transfers responsibility for the development of that plan to the ACT government and transfers broader powers to the ACT to manage its water resources.

While I certainly agree with the sentiment of the member for Canberra in relation to this bill, I cannot agree with her comments in regards to the current government leading ground-breaking work on the Murray-Darling Basin. In fact, the glacial pace of that reform under this government is a major concern to all involved. The coalition has always supported reforms to the Murray-Darling Basin that would deliver on triple bottom line outcomes to the environment, for communities and for the economy. Unfortunately, Murray-Darling Basin reform has slowed to a snail's pace—in fact, that is an exaggeration; it is probably not even glacial, let alone a snail's pace—under this current government. The latest evidence for that was made clear in the recent round of Senate estimates, where officials confirmed that under the Gillard government there still has not been a sign-off on the intergovernmental agreement with basin states, despite more than 25 drafts having been prepared and indications at the February Senate estimates that it was hoped to be completed soon. Three months on, there has still been no progress. Why aren't we surprised?

Officials also confirmed that the government still has not finalised a water recovery strategy, despite releasing a draft last November and having already recovered nearly 60 per cent of the water without a strategy in place. One wonders why people think this government does not know what it is doing. The government appears to have dumped the plan's actual implementation in the too hard basket. As the government obsesses over all of the things that do not matter to everyday Australians who want to see the country back on track, it has dropped the ball on securing vital implementation agreements.

Having already chronically underinvested in water saving infrastructure, Labor has also slashed buybacks for the 2013-14 year to their lowest level since 2007. Deferring more than $100 million in budget spending to the back end of this programs risks creating a spike in the water market, forcing prices higher and creating budgetary pressures beyond the forward estimates. And that is not unique to this portfolio. As well, this government has an appalling record on reform. It is mismanaged such a wide range of programs that there is no reason to think that it is up to the task of completing the Murray-Darling Basin reform.

In fact, the recent announcement that Victoria has signed up to the intergovernmental agreement on implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan leaves many questions still answered. While any progress on strategic implementation of the basin plan is welcome, the signing of just one state in a piecemeal step risks the process descending into chaos—and again there are plenty of current day analogies—confusion or counterproductive bidding wars by the states. The IGA was supposed to have been signed by all the states by 7 December 2012 at the 2012 Council of Australian Governments meeting, shortly after the basin plan was finalised in last November. The minister must explain why—and still has not—seven months after finalisation of the basin plan he has locked in an IGA with Victoria yet other states are still to agree on its terms. Does this mean that other states will have to sign on the IGA as agreed to be the Commonwealth and Victoria or will different agreements between the Commonwealth and each of the different states be required? These are just some of the unanswered questions raised by the government's approach to the Murray-Darling reform package.

Notwithstanding all these mistakes and blunders and the continuing uncertainty covering the government's ongoing failures in this area, the coalition understands the significance of Murray-Darling Basin reform and will support this bill.