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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 14005


Mr WINDSOR (New England) (17:46): I rise to speak against the disallowance motions; the two of them. I thank the members of the Standing Committee on Regional Australia that looked at this issue and spent a vast amount of time examining this issue in the chamber. At the moment we have the member for Bendigo, the member for Murray, the member for Riverina and the member for Barker. I thank the member for Barker for his contributions, particularly in relation to some of the potential options in the Lower Lakes in the time that he spent with us when the committee was down that way. The member for Makin is here as well. I thank all of those members for their participation through that process.

We have to look at the history of this, and many members have done that. I listened to the member for Wentworth last night talking about what he saw as the history. But the genesis of what will go through the parliament—the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—came out of the Howard government years, and I have a little bit of sympathy with the members who have moved the disallowance motions, because I was the only member of parliament—I think in five parliaments—who voted against the original 2007 act. The reason for doing that was that it was rushed together for political purposes rather than for the real purpose of trying to establish a breakthrough in terms of working across state boundaries and to gain same sanity in the management of the systems. It was done back then, because Kevin Rudd was gaining some ascendency in the climate change debate, and the coalition at the time felt that they needed to reclaim some of that space, and the good old Murray-Darling, which had been a pretty good drag horse for some years—about a century—was dragged out of the bag again and put together—it was quite openly called the $10 billion cigarette paper plan. That was developed by the bureaucracy and the member for Wentworth, who was the minister at the time.

For those who are dissenting from the plan itself, particularly in the coalition, the plan is the genesis of the act that both sides of parliament voted for, except me. It was a coalition act of parliament that was worked up. So a lot of the processes that came out of that particular act of parliament are the ones that the authority has had to deal with.

I will fast forward to the authority making its announcement and this absolute focus on the number. The whole debate became about: 'What is the number? What is the government going to take away from us?' There have been two years of fear dredged out of the Murray-Darling system by the political process. There were two years of fear that the government—'the filthy Labor government'—was going to come and take their water. There has never been any intention to do that by anybody. The Howard government set up the act not to do that but to have a series of processes and timelines for it to be constructed. That is exactly what this parliament has done.

I will fast forward again to the nature of this parliament, which I think has had some bearing on the outcome. It is a hung parliament, so we have not had one side or the other in total control of the agenda. I think that has been able to assist the government of the day and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to look more closely at how you can obtain the efficiencies within the system to reinvigorate the environment. If there had been a majority government—I do not think a coalition government would have made much difference to a majority Labor government—the focus would have been on a more city based agenda in terms of, 'What is the easiest way to solve the problem and return some water back into the system?'

There was general acceptance that there were some sustainability issues within parts of the system. What was the easiest way? The easiest way—and it was encouraged by the environmentalists—was to just buy the water. The farming community had agreed some years earlier that you could break water from land in terms of ownership. I personally had some issues with that but, nonetheless, the NFF, the farming bodies and the irrigators wanted to break the grip between land and water. What that effectively did was allow water to be sold out of catchments, and it was sold out of catchments.

We have had this odd sort of scenario where those in the farming community who consistently argued that they had the right to sell their water out of their community did not believe that the government or just water purchasers had the right to take water out of their community. So they had this degree of hypocrisy built in. I saw it happen in Moree when 'the filthy Labor government' was in New South Wales—and there were water adjustments taking place in New South Wales; I was part of the committee that looked at that over 10 years ago when I was in the New South Wales parliament—and there were sustainability adjustments made and water entitlements removed without any compensation. Some people around Moree argued quite strongly and said, 'This is going to destroy our community.' But when Penny Wong came along with a cheque book and put a price on it, some of those very same people—some quite large water holders, with up to 10,000 megalitres—decided that the coast was for them and said, 'Who cares about Moree?'

The water market creates that form of mechanism in itself. So I think what all of that—the hung parliament, the committee process, the engagement, Craig Knowles, to his credit, and you, Minister—was able to do was help engage the community with a number of things. One was that no-one was going to come and take their water. Barnaby Joyce and a few of those people are probably still out there shouting that from a hill in some place the telephone line hasn't got through to yet: 'They're going to take your water. They are coming to Griffith and they are going to take your water.' People quite genuinely thought that was the case.

You could see that confusion even in the latest debate we had, the one about the 450 gigalitres—which has nothing to do with this motion; it is not part of the disallowance. It has been quite clearly said—and a senior member of the bureaucracy, David Parker, who is in the gallery today, made it very plain in Hansard—that this is about on-farm efficiencies, which is exactly what the members for Murray, Riverina, Bendigo and Makin have been arguing for. The argument has been: 'If you are going to try to get water back into the system, do it without impacting on our productivity. Try and do it through on-farm efficiencies. Give us the money to make ourselves more efficient so that the productivity of our areas does not drop.' That is exactly what the recommendations were and exactly what the minister accepted in the plan. The minister has accepted those recommendations for the 450 gigalitres—the upwater, as they call it.

The committee was able to help with one other major issue. If the farmers were being asked to make all these efficiency gains, what about the environment? Why couldn't it make some efficiency gains? The Treasury and others—and even people within SEWPaC—may well have been saying: 'The cheapest way, Minister, to get water is to just buy it. Have a general tender.' But the committee, with two dissenting members, found that the Swiss cheese effect within the southern-connected system, the irrigation districts, was having a real impact on the fixed costs of those districts. So that was removed, exactly as the committee recommended. There was a gate left open for strategic buyback in certain areas, noting that there have been examples where parts of a district were agreeable to at least looking at the option of selling. Some farmers gauged themselves to be in an area that was not terribly efficient in water use. It is possible, in some cases, to remove an arm from the irrigation district and for those farmers to re-establish themselves in other areas or move on. Requests from some areas for that to be looked at were being made.

When we recommended that the Swiss cheese buyback arrangement not take place—and the minister agreed—the deputy chair and I got abusive calls saying, 'You have taken away my right to sell my water to the government.' I made the point that the water market would still allow them to do that—that they could create their own Swiss cheese if they wanted to. 'But no-one wants to buy my particular bit,' they said, 'and you have taken my potential way out of trouble away.' So there are two sides to that coin. My personal view was that the side the committee was on was probably the more appropriate. It recognised the operational costs of the irrigation districts as well as the value of irrigation to the particular communities.

This debate is about the plan, but I did start off by talking about the number. The number now is 2,750. There are still people running around out there saying it is 3,200. But the plan is 2,750. Because of the way the arrangement works, the basin states are saying to the government and the authority that they can find 650 gigalitres of efficiencies through works and measures in environmental areas. So the actual number—if you remove what I call the virtual water—is 2,100 gigalitres. That is what is left to find. If you analyse the water which has, since this process started, already been found through general buybacks, strategic buybacks, on-farm efficiencies, environmental works and measures, and real changes in the way the rivers work—and there are a range of efficiencies still available to be made—you end up with a number at the end of that.

The real number that we are talking about—up to a week ago people were out there saying it was 3,200—is somewhere between 600 and 800 gigalitres of water to be obtained. That water can be obtained in many ways. The minister made the point on a couple of occasions in the last few days that if the basin states come up with projects—Menindee Lakes, the Lowbidgee in the member for Riverina's area; and I presume he would be opposed to that now—they are the sorts of things where you can have quite significant amounts of water obtained without anybody losing anything. Water for Rivers and the Computer Aided River Management program, CARM, are the sorts of things we should be looking at, because they have an impact on the way in which the river pulses and the way in which you can use environmental flows to great advantage to achieve the same outcome—the number—actually dictated at the start of the process. The process got off to a very rocky start because of the politics of the number.

I do congratulate all members who were on the committee, but the parliament has actually been able to work through a process that has been a challenge to parliaments for a hundred years, and I am very proud to be part of that process. I am a little bit sad that people want to return to the past, because, if they analyse the way in which this has been done and will be done into the future—and there has to be real trust, Minister—and if that trust is established, our communities will maintain their productivity, they will maintain the right to sell their water down and upstream if in fact it can be delivered and the environment will be better off for the work that has been done. If it costs a little bit more to go down the efficiency road rather than the buyback road, that is the price the taxpayer I think is quite willing to pay.