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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 771


Mr BURKE (WatsonManager of Opposition Business) (17:36): First of all, I acknowledge the departmental officials who are in the chamber. I remember a number of them from when we worked more closely together than we are allowed to these days. I want to acknowledge the professionalism of the work that they do. Importantly, a bill like the Agriculture and Water Resources Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, which deals with a whole lot of technical amendments across a range of different pieces of legislation, is the sort of legislation that, even though a minister comes in to introduce it, has a whole lot of work done in due diligence. That is done in the department, which makes this work possible and important. So I just want to acknowledge them at kick-off.

I want to talk about a specific part of the bill that is in front of us. The bill amends a number of different acts, but one of the acts it amends is the Water Act. It is a very opportune time for the Water Act to be opened up, because we are in a situation where, late last year, the Deputy Prime Minister cast doubt as to whether or not the Murray-Darling Basin Plan would be implemented in full. I have no interest in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan being changed. I have no interest in the outcomes for one state or the other shifting and the balance changing. I have a great interest in the possibility which was brought to life last year by the Deputy Prime Minister when he made clear that he might effectively only deliver half the plan, so that we end up with those parts of the plan that were things that were demanded by irrigation communities being delivered in full and those parts of the plan that were demanded by environmentalists and downstream people generally—but that is often summarised as being the state of South Australia—do not happen, where the specific additions to the plan that they sought do not happen.

The reason I have this concern is very straightforward. I have this concern because the Deputy Prime Minister put it in writing. He put it in writing in a letter to Minister Ian Hunter of the South Australian government on 17 November last year. Before I read the letter into the Hansard, I need to explain what the challenge is here. The way the plan works is: you have a benchmark of 2,750 gigalitres to be obtained, and, from that point, you can get better outcomes for communities if it is done in a way that does not hurt the environment and you can get better outcomes than the 2,750 gigalitres outcome for the environment if you can find a way of doing it that does not hurt communities.

How does that work? The best example of how you can get better outcomes for communities without hurting the environment is the work that is done at Hattah Lakes. Hattah Lakes is a beautiful environmental asset in Victoria. I have visited it. I have been kayaking on it. When it is in a good state of health, you are kayaking past the red gums. They are not off to the side; they are in the middle of your path, in relatively deep water, when the system is healthy. In a completely natural system, this would happen through overbank flows, but to get the overbank flows from the river, you would end up having to have a very large amount of water, a lot of which would then be lost over farmland, which would create a problem for the farms in the intervening areas, and a lot of water would be used up where it was not wanted, before a smaller amount of water made it through to Hattah Lakes, where it very much was wanted. What is done is that water is pumped out of the river directly to Hattah Lakes so that you do not get the sideways flow over land where it is not sought and you target the environmental asset very specifically. That means you do not need as much water to be able to get the environmental outcome. Through these sorts of changes, through managing environmental water more effectively, you can end up getting the same environmental outcome as was going to be delivered with the 2,750 gigalitres, without actually having to use 2,750 gigalitres worth of water.

Those things are called environmental works and measures, and what the plan allows, to the benefit of irrigation communities, is for there to be up to 650 gigalitres that is not directly obtained—it is referred to as 'virtual water'—where states put forward projects that deliver environmental benefits without requiring the high volumes of water that would otherwise be required. You cannot do every environmental outcome without water, just through management—you need some level of volume—but for the irrigation communities that was the way that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan found that would allow the environment outcomes to still be achieved while having less harm to communities by not engaging in buyback for that additional 650 gigalitres of water.

The flip side was 450 gigalitres for the environment, but you were not allowed to achieve it through buyback. You were only allowed to achieve the additional 450 gigalitres through actions such as on-farm infrastructure improvements. So, from the perspective of the farmer or the irrigator, they got to use their water more efficiently and therefore they could still have the same productive purpose on their land, and the water that was no longer required would go to the environment.

What the Deputy Prime Minister has now contemplated is banking the 650 gigalitres benefit for the irrigation communities but not delivering on the 450 gigalitres of benefit for the environment. This plan is not something where you can deliver one half without the other half. The reason I am concerned about this is that the Deputy Prime Minister wrote the following letter to Ian Hunter, Minister for Water and the River Murray in South Australia:

Dear Minister Hunter, Ian,

Thank you for your letter of 9 November 2016 regarding the Water for the Environment Special Account (WESA) and the recovery of 450 gigalitres of environmental water through efficiency measures.

I hear and understand your concerns about my recent conversation with Minister Brock.

If it was genuinely possible to put an additional 450 GL down the river without hurting people, then none of us would have a problem with it. The reality is that it will.

South Australia's default share of the 450 GL target is 36 GL. Does the South Australian Government have a plan for where this water would come from without causing negative social and economic impacts to South Australian communities?

I believe that we are heading into an unprotracted and unsolvable stalemate, where the funding will stay on the books for a recovery that will be impossible to make in accordance with the legislative requirements - that the recovery must has positive or neutral social and economic outcomes.

Recent work carried out, including that by the Victorian Government, indicates deeply concerning outcomes if further water is removed from production in Basin communities.

I think the only way to resolve this is to see if there are any other ideas, which would be mutually beneficial to South Australia and the broader Basin community.

My main concern is this - just as you have an understandable desire for one outcome, your colleagues in other states have an equally understandable desire for another regardless of what side of the political fence they are on.

I cannot foresee them agreeing that the additional 450 GL of water can be delivered without significant social and economic detriment.

The hard conversation has to happen about how we resolve this stalemate. I look forward to discussing it with you more at the Ministerial Council.

Yours sincerely

And it is signed by the Deputy Prime Minister.

I read the whole letter—and obviously I did not need every part of it to make the case—as a matter of good faith to make clear to the minister that I am not wanting to play games with this. But Labor cannot see a situation, and will not accept a situation, where we have a government that is willing to deliver the 650-gigalitre benefit to irrigation communities and then says the 450 gigalitres additional is just all too hard. This is the whole way we managed to get a Murray-Darling Basin Plan and a bipartisan consensus and a consensus across the states for the first time in what was a Federation debate—that means this negotiation had been going in different ways for more than 100 years. The money to bring it to a head and the legislation which underpin the plan were brought in under the Howard government when the current Prime Minister was minister for water There has been good work done by both sides of parliament, but we cannot have a situation where the Deputy Prime Minister decides that that bipartisan cooperation has to come now to an end and expects the 650-gigalitre benefit for irrigation communities to be delivered and the 450-gigalitre improvement for the environment to be something that is just too difficult to deliver.

In making his case, the Deputy Prime Minister has—there is no other way of putting it—been very selective in his quoting of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. In the parliament on 21 November, in answer to a question from the Leader of the Opposition, the Deputy Prime Minister said this with respect to the 450 gigalitres:

'The efficiency contributions'—that is what the 450 gigalitres is about—'to the proposed adjustments have to achieve …' listen!—

he was looking at me—

'neutral or improved socioeconomic outcomes.' Now, the person who wrote that is just sitting behind you—

at which point he pointed to me—

he is the member for Watson. So what we are actually talking about is what is in the plan. It is actually the reality of the plan.

The problem with that argument from the Deputy Prime Minister was that he did not read the next sentence, because, while the plan does say that you must have positive or neutral socioeconomic outcomes, it then says what will be taken as evidence of that, and it then says:

… the participation of consumptive water users in projects that recover water through works to improve irrigation water use efficiency on their farms.

So, if it is an irrigation efficiency project that farmers have voluntarily entered into, it is taken as given in the plan that there are neutral or positive socioeconomic outcomes. That is what the plan says, and yet the Deputy Prime Minister's argument is that it is impossible to have a project and it is impossible to deliver the 450, because how on earth can we do anything that is neutral or a positive socioeconomic outcome if it is also for the environment? The answer is in the next sentence.

There is a similar caveat over the environmental side of it—the 650 gigalitres with respect to the environment. The rule is there. Some environmental organisation said, 'How on earth can you ever deliver exactly the same environmental outcome while using less water?' And they are right. There is a similar protection there that says that for the environmental outcomes, if they meet the requirements of the benchmark study, which is contained in schedule 6 part 2 of the Basin Plan, then it will be taken as being an equal environmental outcome. The truth is on the way between Hattah Lakes and the river. Of course there are small environmental sites that would have benefitted from the overbank flow but do not, because you pump the water. It is not an identical environmental outcome across the whole system, but it is on the sites that are critical, and that is how the compromise was made.

What the Deputy Prime Minister has done is that he wants to take advantage of the compromise when it benefits one part of the system and then pretend that the compromise is just undeliverable on the other side. I do not want to be in a situation where we are using this bill to amend the Water Act when it reaches the Senate, but unless we can get a guarantee from the Deputy Prime Minister that he will deliver the plan in full by making sure that the 450 gigalitres is as significant as the 650 gigalitres of downwater, and unless he can step back from his argument that the 450 gigalitres is undeliverable by refusing to quote the entirety of the plan, Labor will have no choice, when this bill reaches the Senate, but to move an amendment to the Water Act which says, 'You cannot get the full 650 gigalitres unless the 450 is delivered as well.' We are having that amendment drafted now. I want to be in a situation where we do not have to move it. But if the Deputy Prime Minister keeps on his current course, misrepresenting the plan and pretending he can deliver half a plan and say it is the whole plan, Labor will have no choice. We are not going to let a compromise, an outcome that was 100 years in the making, fall over because of an accident of history of who has the water portfolio right at this point in time. Unless the government can satisfy us that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is safe and unless they deliver the 450 gigalitres, the 650 will not be deliverable either.