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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 13993

Dr STONE (Murray) (16:56): I am very pleased and proud to second the motion to disallow the law that is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I rise to speak on behalf of the people of the electorate of Murray, which I represent. As the name implies, this is a region in northern Victoria bordered by the great Murray River. It is not in our nature in Murray to simply look the other way when governments deliberately or knowingly do us wrong or are so incompetent that their actions have the power to literally destroy our environment and our food-growing capacity, which in turn can destroy us as economically independent Australians.

This is not the first time in Murray that we have had to say no to bad government policy. Ironically, it is typically Labor government policy. We have had to say no before to policy that had the potential to destroy us. In 2007, the Bracks Labor government announced that the drought was seriously hurting Melbourne. They had been forced to put restrictions on people watering their lawns and their concrete and washing their cars. Since that government had failed to build an extra dam or put in decent water-recycling works or stormwater harvesting, there was a problem, but they had a great idea: they would push a very big pipeline over the Great Dividing Range and into the Goulburn River at Yea, and then the mighty pumps would be turned on and they would suck up 74 gigalitres a year out of the irrigators' resource. Bear in mind that this was in the middle of the worst drought on record, and the irrigators at the time were on less than 30 per cent allocation and many of them on zero allocation. But we were told that that was not really a problem, since a total of 220 gigalitres a year would be saved in the Goulburn-Murray irrigation area, in particular by changing how the irrigation water was measured and by plastic lining some of the channels.

Of course, this figure of savings was fictitious. It was a nonsense. It was immediately challenged and discredited, but the pipeline was built. There was no business case. There was no public consultation. It was a done deal inflicted on the Goulburn Valley and the people of the electorate of Murray as simply the right thing to do for the people of Melbourne. No-one thought about the food production capacity that was to be lost. No-one thought about the devalued irrigation properties. And certainly no-one from the government seemed particularly concerned that there was no business case to support the project that they intended to build.

A brand new bureaucracy was set up to manage the business of finding these mythical water savings, and it had a billion-dollar budget to do it. The Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project, as it was called, was subsequently abolished by the incoming coalition Baillieu government, and the tasks of the NVIRP were rolled into the Goulburn-Murray Water authority. The Baillieu government was responding to the damning ombudsman's report that identified NVIRP's corrupted behaviour, its unprofessional behaviour, its inefficiencies, its probity issues, its failure to consult properly, failures to properly tender, failures to protect farmers' private interests, insider trading and so on. I recommend that the minister reads the ombudsman's report.

So, yes, we know all about what bad governments can do and how bad plans can damage communities. After an incredible community fight-back we did silence the pumps in the Goulburn River at Yea—in fact, in the middle of the flood. The community fought back on that occasion and we won. So you can imagine why my community is saying to me: 'We can't lie down now. We can't wave this Murray-Darling Basin Plan through and simply hold our breath and hope that the coalition win at the next election so they can put it all right.' Like the member for Riverina, I have to say right now: no, this plan is not sufficient to secure the future of the basin. It does not address the social, economic and environmental outcomes that are needed—and that was not so hard to do.

The communities were insulted by the lack of proper consultation. The communities were insulted when it was implied that no farmers had ever tried before to save water or to improve and innovate on their own irrigation properties, that somehow they had always been profligate in their water use. They 'wasted' it, we were told. This plan is about politics. It is about South Australia and it is about the Greens. It is about the Greens saying to this Labor government, when they had to find a partner to move from their minority status: 'We want two things out of you. We want a carbon tax and we want a Murray-Darling Basin environmental bucket of water as big as we can possibly get.' Don't worry about the fact that there are no detailed studies and no research about what different icon sites or ecosystems actually need. Don't worry about the fact that we have been putting environmental water down the Murray River, for example, in Barmah-Millewa Forest since 1979—I repeat: 1979. In 1997 the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council allocated an annual 100 gigalitres to the Barmah-Millewa Forest and its magnificent Ramsar listed wetlands, which are mostly in the electorate of Murray.

The Greens would have it that all of the Ramsar listed wetlands and the places of iconic significance are at the bottom of the system, just as you exit to the sea. In fact, there are significant and invaluable environmental resources and assets throughout the basin. But a new water bill that we unfortunately could not stop was introduced last night—probably the last of the collection of mismanaged, rushed in, ad hoc and poorly drafted water bills. It said to us: 'Look, we've got to take another 450 gigalitres to keep the mouth of the Murray open 95 per cent of the time.' Yet the mouth of the Murray was a natural sand-duned landscape and under pre-white-settlement circumstances the river regularly ran dry and those sand dunes were often a barrier between the river and the sea; it was and is a natural occurrence. But the Greens have convinced Labor that it will be a very good thing if they can have another 450 gigalitres on top of the 1,270 gigalitres additionally committed so they can flood the upper reaches of the Murray and Goulburn and other major Murray tributary systems. They know there is a problem, so they have said: 'It's all right. We'll commit $1.77 billion extra of the next government's money into that effort so we can remove the barriers which at the moment inhibit more water going down, without flooding people out, and we'll push that water through to keep the mouth of the Murray open without any actual machinery 95 per cent of the time. And we'll also improve the salt levels of the Lower Lakes.'

A very funny thing happened during the floods just recently, when the biggest flush of fresh Murray water ever surged down the system towards the mouth and the sea. Do you know what happened? Because of the existence of the barrages and all of the other infrastructure—all the works and measures which inhibit the natural and free flowing of water in and out of the lakes and into the Coorong—that huge Murray River freshwater surge actually flowed right on past. So, as I said, the Lower Lakes, down at the bottom of South Australia, did not get much of a freshening or a reduction in their salinity at all—because, you see, it is a sacred cow. We are not allowed to talk about it: 'Don't mention the barrages.' But the realities are that you also have to look at the barrages and the engineering, much of it very, very old now, that have constricted and constrained natural freshwater flows into those Lower Lakes and into the Coorong. The Coorong was drained. Let us face it. There were drainage works in there in the 1930s.

So let us get sensible and real about this plan. This plan is not about rescuing environmental flows to match the circumstances of the entire Murray-Darling Basin. This plan is about taking water from the food producers and fibre producers in the biggest fertile crescent in Australia—after all, let us face it: they are all coalition seats—and putting it into this very big Environmental Water Holder bucket and then boasting about it in metropolitan Australia. Don't worry about the fact that you do not have any environmental watering plans, you do not know exactly when and how the water will be used and there is no actual statement in the plan which acknowledges that this is not just about adding water and standing back. You actually have to have natural resource management plans which cover the whole of the basin.

In Victoria and in the member for Riverina's area, we do have those plans. We know that to have the rivers flow well you also have to have plans which look at biodiversity beyond the river and the riparian zones.

Mr Katter interjecting

Mr Briggs: Crazy as a coconut!

Dr STONE: You have to look at feral animals and weeds. You have to look at things like the potential for revegetation and fencing to protect biodiversity. All those other elements of work need to be done besides just pumping down as much water as you can buy from so-called willing sellers, in the teeth of the worst drought on record, and then standing back and saying: 'Hey, how good are we? We're the first ones in 100 years'—that is what the minister said—'to address these problems.' No, you are not. In my electorate and the electorate of Riverina, our communities have been addressing the environmental needs of the basin for nearly 200 years, and we know that if we do not get the environment right then we cannot continue to be productive. We cannot grow efficiently and make a living producing food and fibre. We know that the growing of food and fibre in turn generates the jobs—the transport sector jobs and the commercial jobs. It gives the small towns their populations, who in turn can create a rich and wonderful community life. Volunteering in our electorates is second to none, because we know that all that tree planting, feral animal destruction and protection of endangered species requires community voluntary work. We do it in our electorates.

But what has this government done? It has simply dipped into our irrigators' markets at times when they were most vulnerable, when the lenders had their feet on the necks of our farmers. Penny Wong, when she was minister, said: 'Here's a tender. You can sell your water to the Commonwealth. We'll pay a bit extra. You know, we won't force you, so you're willing sellers.' Do you know who those 'willing sellers' really were? They were drought-stressed, debt-stressed primary producers who had pushed out their borrowings to buy extra feed to keep their herds and flocks alive, to buy extra expensive water to keep their fruit trees alive, and to finish off their crops. That is who the so-called willing sellers were, and the banks were gleeful. They said: 'Fantastic! A lot of our borrowers have really eroded their assets. A lot of our borrowers are in deep, deep strife. But here's Penny Wong with her tenders. You go put in a bid.'

We have already seen over 400 gigalitres sold to the Environmental Water Holder out of the electorate of Murray. This means that water has gone for all time out of production. This government could have invested not much more money than there was in the buyback bin and had on-farm water use efficiency gains, or they could have invested in infrastructure. But, as the member for Riverina pointed out, much more money was thrown at the water markets because it was easier and cheaper and it served their purpose to say: 'Those rotten irrigators! The water was overallocated to them. In fact, they have been stealing water during the drought. Look at poor old South Australia's dried-up lakes. Obviously the water was stolen upstream.' So that is what we have had to put up with, with this plan—that false information, that false emphasis on buyback rather than on investment in productivity, water saving and real enhancement for the environment.

This plan is cynical, it is crude, it is unscientific, it is just a political instrument and I am not going to simply wave it past. I am not going to just stay silent and say, 'Well, I really hope the coalition wins the next election because then we can do something about it,' because my electorate is suffering right now. We actually have stranded assets right now. We have people with dried-off farms who cannot sell their dried-off farms who are in despair. We have those who are paying more for their water because they are the only ones who are left. We have lost factories. We have lost jobs. We have 200 empty shops in Shepparton.

So I am sorry—I am not going to be silent. With the member for Riverina, I am going to speak up for my electorate. I know this vote will be lost, but I am going to take a stand, a principled stand, because I am the member for Murray and—in the tradition of my predecessor the great Sir John McEwen, who would have said the same things at similar times; he was a great country man—I am going to stand up and say no, and I am going to try, having said no, when we are in government, to start again.