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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8587


Dr STONE (Murray) (21:30): The National Food Plan green paper recently put out by Labor pays very little attention to irrigated agriculture and Australia's 40,000 irrigators. These farmers make the major contribution to food production and food security in the country. I was disappointed in the green paper and this omission in particular but not surprised. After all, this is the Gillard government, which has wilfully presided over the biggest transfer of water out of food and fibre production to a Commonwealth environmental water holder which has no science behind its water use intentions.

I am particularly concerned about the economic and community impacts of the Labor government's ongoing effort to buy back irrigation water in northern Victoria, but this is compounded by the maladministration and incompetence of the state-owned Goulburn-Murray Water authority as it tries to modernise the century-old irrigation system. The Victorian ombudsman has already reported his serious concerns about this maladministration and project delivery and has given all sorts of advice about what should be done. Unfortunately, that advice has not been followed through.

In 2002 the Goulburn-Murray Water authority managed over 1,640 gigalitres of high-security irrigation water on farms covering over 68,000 square kilometres and utilising over 6,300 kilometres of gravity-fed channels. More than 1,000 irrigators supported 52 great little towns and two cities. They generated the country's biggest regional transport sector, over 20 food factories and the biggest exports of milk products out of the country and supported icon brands like Heinz tomato sauce and Goulburn Valley preserved fruits. We had and still claim the very well deserved label of the food bowl of Australia.

However, by 2012, the over 1,600 gigalitres of high-security irrigation water producing food had been reduced by 32 per cent to some 1,000 gigalitres. Some of this loss was due to farmers forced to sell their water downstream during the drought, but much of it was in response to the government choosing to enter the irrigators' market, offering tenders, distorting the water prices but pleasing the banks, which could then retire some debt.

The results of Tony Burke's most recent water tenders have not yet been announced but again he targeted high-security water in the southern Murray-Darling.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): I have just made the point about members using the appropriate title.

Dr STONE: I beg your pardon: the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Thank you.

Dr STONE: His most recent water tenders have not yet been announced, but again he targeted high-security water in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, water that once grew the food to feed the nation. Some claim that the city- and union-centric Labor Party is simply ignorant of the impacts and consequences of this ruinous water and agricultural policy. Unfortunately, Craig Knowles, the Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, has belled the cat. At a public meeting at Swan Hill on 22 February this year, he said: 'If we take 30 per cent of your water out of this community, it will have damaging, severe, devastating effects.' When the public demanded to know why Labor was continuing its 'devastating' water buyback policies, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority chair declared: 'We've said that to the government: "Don't do it this way." We don't support that; I want to be clear about that.' Apparently, Craig Knowles's pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Irrigation buybacks continue, even though we have now removed more than 30 per cent of water in what are 'damaging, severe, devastating' impacts. We are in that zone that Mr Knowles identified.

This is a serious problem. It is madness, I can hear you say. What about the 52 towns and two cities? What about the jobs? What about the farm families who want to rebuild their herds and orchards after the drought? What about the growing global food task? What about all those export earnings in jeopardy if you continue to diminish the water available for irrigation? Unfortunately, part of the deal for an extra $1 billion to fix up the irrigation system was another 214 gigalitres to be taken out of the Goulburn-Murray irrigation system. That is in return for the $1 billion for stage 2 upgrading to be funded by the federal government. This is a serious problem for us.

The solution lies in the Goulburn-Murray Water authority being transferred into an irrigator owned cooperative, where it can become efficient and smart. GMW is now $266 million in debt. It employs over 800 people. This is ridiculous, when you compare similar authorities that are irrigator cooperatives in New South Wales. They deliver similar amounts of water with only 122 staff compared to the over 850 employed by the state owned agency in Victoria. We have to do better. My 52 towns and two cities deserve better. They will work hard to rebuild the herds and grow back the orchards, but they cannot do it if their irrigation water is being taken away by irresponsible government policy and incompetent and inefficient water authorities.