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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 12616

Mr JOHN COBB (Calare) (19:16): I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. This bill is about trust; it goes to the heart of Labor's governance of our nation and asks the parliament to trust the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The changes in this bill would allow amendments to be made without mandatory consultation with the public, without requiring the approval of the minister and via a regulation that is not disallowable. The MDBA would be given full responsibility for making the adjustments. Currently the basin authority does not fill me with confidence. Their public consultation process during the development of the basin plan showed that they just went through the motions. We all thought it would be better the second time, but they were not prepared to actually listen to the logical and reasonable concerns of the community within the basin. The basin plan has largely remained unchanged from the guide and there has been very poor details of, and transparency on, the science used in the decision-making process.

Unfortunately, under these amendments the MDBA will be placed in a more powerful position with no consultation being required and no recourse to the minister or the parliament. Furthermore, while the authority must seek and consider advice from the basin official committee it will not need to heed their advice and can carry on with its own agenda regardless.

The other issue is that the authority cannot make an adjustment that does not reflect an environmentally sustainable level of intake. Unfortunately, with Labor's amendments in 2008, the plan went from a plan to manage 30-odd Ramsar wetlands within the basin to 2,774 environmental sites. Let us be honest, that is a ridiculous overreach. Unfortunately, this amendment will encourage the government, under direction from the Greens, to add more and more environmental sites which are not based on science and force the authority to increase the take and further decimate rural communities. The coalition supports a mechanism that would allow for greater environmental benefits without imposing greater economic or social costs on the basin community. This is different from the government's view on social and economic benefits.

I want to go now to the cost of doing business in the basin. The reduction of water in the basin, without investment in infrastructure, has increased the cost of water production in the basin, which is having an impact on farmers struggling to get over the record drought. You have the same costs, for less water, spread among fewer people. So obviously it has increased enormously in some places, given the lack of planning that went into the buying in the first place. There have been enormous increases in costs for water transfer and water use by the farmers remaining. For example, the cost of doing business has increased by the removal of the 40 per cent AQIS inspection certificate rebate. That is a massive hit on our exporters, especially new and emerging industries, which have seen registration costs go up by 1,000 per cent.

They can talk about the Asian century—and I actually believe very strongly in it, especially with our near neighbours, some of whom they have gone out of their way to upset—but these things are a massive increase in costs that make exports prohibitively expensive. Add to this the world's biggest carbon tax—and irrigators obviously use a considerable amount of power. They are asking our businesses to break into Asian markets against companies from countries that do not pay the carbon tax. I am sure you can get the picture about adding to costs—and that is exactly what is happening with irrigation.

The final point on that is the importance of R&D in growing our production to make the most of it. The government talks about the importance of research, while wanting to reduce its involvement in and contribution to it. It says research and development is the key to capitalising on the Asian century, yet it axed Land and Water Australia and cut $63 million from CSIRO agricultural research—over $33 million was cut from the CRCs, and that means fewer agriculture CRCs are funded each year.

Labor also originally planned to support the Productivity Commission's report which recommended halving the government's contribution to R and D, and they have made no serious attempt at research into irrigation. In other words, you take away the water and people have to produce more with less. I do not see the government backing that with research. So the government says one thing and does another. But I guess we should not worry: they have put 'Asia' in the ministry title of the Minister for Trade, so they must be serious! And that is despite no funding and doing everything they can to undermine a lot of our opportunities in Asia, let alone anywhere else. I am concerned that the amendments in this bill will follow this similar pattern.

Just lately the government finally discovered investments in infrastructure and efficiency as the answer to delivering water to the environment. The government are using all this in their rhetoric now, but the facts are that they have spent $2 billion on water buybacks, while only $500 million of around the $5 billion in water efficiency projects and announcements last week were works and measures. The coalition has always supported priority investments, infrastructure and efficiency because they allow the government to recover water with minimal impact on communities—mind you, that was sharing the savings. On the other hand, while the $2 billion on water buybacks may be good for the stressed-out farmer, selling his water can be devastating for the community that has lost production, jobs and economic activity, leading to a loss in critical mass, leading to a loss in communities. It has actually brought about the situation where it is not the irrigators who are at the biggest risk but the communities that surround them.

I have no confidence that this government will invest in infrastructure over the longer term. Labor, supported by the Greens, will just revert back to the buyout of rural communities, because that is what the recently restored South Australian senator did. She just bought water without referral to where it was needed, without referral to any plan—without any plan, as a matter of fact, as I am sure the member for Watson is well aware.

If you go to Deniliquin, Griffith, Swan Hill, Mildura or Shepparton and ask anyone on the streets whether the water buyback has been good for their communities, there will be a loud and resounding, 'No,' echoing from the empty business houses. This bill does go to the heart of the government's credibility. As a government, we had a plan. The plan was investing in the infrastructure and the farm work to the irrigation and saving the river by doing efficiencies and working with the industry, not getting rid of it.

Mr Burke interjecting

Mr JOHN COBB: I should not respond, should I, across the table, Deputy Speaker Adams, so I will not, except to say that the member for Watson knows very well that was only a contingency in certain circumstances. He knows that very well.

We know that when it comes to agriculture—if you will excuse the pun—agriculture is at the bottom of our food chain. Everything they have done in government backs that up. Since 2007 the annual operating budget of the department of agriculture has more than halved. But this should not surprise you, as the department of agriculture has actually removed the word 'agriculture' from its mission statement, which is now:

We work to sustain the way of life and prosperity of all Australians.

Okay, well, that is a good thought. But it would be good to think about the people who actually live, work and own—for whom agriculture is what they do. But they do not get a mention anymore. Under the previous government, the department's mission was:

Increasing the profitability, competitiveness and sustainability of Australian agricultural, fisheries, forestry and food industries and enhancing the natural resource base to achieve greater national wealth and stronger rural and regional communities.

That actually sounds like a mission statement for a section of the community that goes out of its way and punches above its weight and always has in Australia. However, none of those things apparently matter anymore. If the minister for agricultural is not standing up for agricultural then who is? I do not care what party you come from: when you have that job, your job is to work for it.

Getting back to the specifics of the issue, a mechanism that allows for a reduction of water required to achieve a target is a good thing. If the government can deliver outcomes to the environment by implementing investment in works and measures and that means outcomes can be achieved with less water, I am all for it. It is really the environment doing the same as the farm sector by learning to do better with less water. Perhaps, as I just said, those who work the environment can learn that as well. Farmers pride themselves on continuing to improve productivity and have been doing this for decades. If you water a wetland section by section, it makes sense that it will take less water than flooding the whole thing at once. It is the principle under which irrigation farms have operated for years. The world's population is heading to nine billion by 2030, so we cannot just cut production; we have to increase efficiencies, and we do have to learn to do more with less, which is why R and D should support that.

I will make a couple of comments in response to a speaker I heard earlier in the debate. Labor's member for Kingston said that if we do not restore this river there will be nothing: wetlands and flood plains will die. It does sound a bit like reckless negativity to me—I am not sure whether it is the Macquarie definition before or after it has been changed to suit the government. One thing is clear: the decade-long drought is over, the river is flowing and there are no RIP signs up on any of the wetlands. Yes, we do need to manage the river, but the government has no water plan on how to use the existing water. So the claims by the member for Kingston can only be a reflection on the government's inability to show how water will achieve improved environmental outcomes, because currently it is quite obvious that neither the government nor the Murray-Darling Basin Authority have any idea how they are going to use the water that is being lined up simply for the environment.

The big lie in this debate was when Kevin Rudd stood at the mouth of the river and said, 'Give me an ETS and I'll fill the river.' Actually, it filled without one. Droughts do come to an end, even one that was the biggest in the lifetime of anyone in this place. I do not step back from the fact that we need to look after the environment. But that was a lie.

Labor and the Greens must come to the realisation that, while it may be good for niche markets to grow organic food, if the whole world went organic the world would starve. Perhaps the recent delegation of Senator Wong to the second spot, since reinstated, as I hear—I will correct myself if that is just a rumour; perhaps the member for Watson—

Mr Burke: I've got no idea what you're talking about.

Mr JOHN COBB: Okay. The word is that the delegation of Senator Wong to the second spot has been reversed. Somebody stepped down, which would be a big thing to do, and it was before they had developed a watering plan which showed how outcomes could be achieved.

The reality is the Labor and the Greens have no skin in the game when it comes to seats in the basin and will never have any understanding of the basin communities. And it would seem they have never cared by the way they have processed this from day one. I repeat that: the problem here is that the Labor Party have no skin in the game when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin, which is about half of one electorate. I support this mechanism but not without ministerial or parliamentary oversight so that the water required is lowered to achieve environmental outcomes, not to allow the government to expand its environmental imprint at the expense of basin communities. So I am unable to support this bill in its current form.