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Monday, 25 June 2018
Page: 112


Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaAssistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) (20:20): Can I just foreshadow that, at the end of my contribution, I will be moving an amendment which has been circulated in the chamber. This bill, the Water Amendment Bill 2018, introduces a new direction power to the Water Act 2007. This power will enable the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources to direct the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to promptly prepare an instrument that has the same effect as a previously disallowed Basin Plan amendment. It is a bill that will provide certainty to irrigators and communities and to basin states. Importantly, it will allow the Australian government to achieve the key objective: to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on time and in full. As a nation, we want a sustainable, thriving basin to support farmers, communities and the environment, and this is what this bill supports.

The Basin Plan is now back on track, with the welcome support of the federal opposition. This bipartisanship is critical for communities, particularly the small towns and communities that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin for their very livelihoods. Since the 14 February disallowance of the Northern Basin Review instrument, there has been anxiety about the future of those communities. The government is pleased that the federal opposition could again join us on the journey to deliver the plan. It is exactly what these communities need from their representatives in Canberra.

We look forward to implementing the measures agreed through the bipartisan agreement as soon as possible. The measures will build confidence and enhance community engagement in the implementation of the plan. These measures were based on the best available science and data. They were recommended by the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority, following a series of reviews and a long and fulsome consultation process, and were developed fully in line with the requirements of the Water Act 2007.

The Greens amendment that is before us proposes to remove the 'neutral or improved' socioeconomic test for the delivery of the 450 gigalitres of efficiency measures. This amendment is unnecessary and therefore is not supported by the government. This requirement for efficiency measures to achieve neutral or beneficial socioeconomic outcomes is absolutely fundamental to implementing the Basin Plan, and removing this test puts at risk the delivery of the 450 gigalitres of efficiency measures by the basin states. What the Greens amendment does is deliver more uncertainty for our river communities. Once again, the Greens are proving that they don't really care about the people who live and work along the river. They have no regard for a balanced approach. They simply ignore the science when it doesn't fit with their view of what they want. The Greens amendment is an unwarranted distraction from the important task that is before us: delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The new directions power in this bill is subject to a number of strict limitations. The minister can only use the power within 12 months of the disallowance. The amendment prepared under the direction power must be the same in effect as the disallowance amendment. This means it must achieve the same outcome. The amendment prepared under the directions power is required by the Legislation Act 2003 to be tabled before both houses as a disallowable instrument for 15 sitting days. Therefore, the process of the disallowance remains. The power is only available if the previous disallowance instrument has been through the consultation requirements as set out by the Water Act. These limitations mean that the integrity of the consultation process that a disallowance amendment has been through is preserved.

In its report published on 12 June 2018 the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee recommended that the Senate pass this bill. Not surprisingly, the Australian Greens put in a dissenting report. The Senate committee's report on the bill contained an error, which I'd seek to correct. The report states that the Basin Plan amendment made under the provisions of the proposed new section 49AA would not be a disallowable instrument. This is, in fact, incorrect. The amendment is made under section 49AA. The direction is a disallowable instrument. I believe that the committee secretariat has published and will table the correction.

In conclusion, the government can now get on with implementing the Basin Plan. The next steps on this pathway are the remaking of the Northern Basin Review. This will provide certainty to basin states and communities, as the states prepare Basin-Plan-compliant water-resource plans, in consultation with water users. More importantly, communities across the Murray-Darling Basin want to see the Basin Plan succeed. They want a healthy river system that supports both their livelihoods and the environment well into the future.

Before I commend the bill to the house I'd like to respond to Senator Bernardi regarding the South Australian royal commission. The South Australian royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was announced by the South Australian government on 26 November 2017. This followed a number of allegations, including a Four Corners report about water theft and noncompliance, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland. At the time, the Commonwealth agreed to cooperate with the royal commission insofar as it related to compliance. In fact, the Prime Minister wrote to the South Australian government to this effect on 18 January 2018. On 23 January the South Australian government formally established the royal commission, and the terms of reference that we saw at the time were far broader than the compliance intentions originally flagged by the South Australian government as the reason for its establishment of the royal commission. At the time, there was certainly a change in position from the South Australian government and the royal commission as to what they would be seeking to prosecute by the establishment of the commission.

Again, in April and May 2018 the royal commission released two issues papers and two explanatory memorandums outlining the areas of particular interest that it intended to pursue. In the latest issues paper, on 30 April, the commissioner suggested that the Basin Plan 2012 was unlawful. In this regard, the Australian government is confident of the legal underpinnings of the Basin Plan. In addition to requiring that the Commonwealth produce legal advice on the validity of the Basin Plan in the Water Act 2007, the commission issued formal summonses to the Commonwealth officers on 31 May and 1 June 2018. The Commonwealth's view is that the royal commission cannot compel Commonwealth entities and officials to provide documents and give evidence, and has commenced proceedings in the High Court to obtain a ruling on this matter. It has been joined by the Western Australian and Tasmanian governments, as well as the South Australian government. As this matter is now before the High Court, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further. However, the South Australian royal commission must not be a distraction from implementing the plan, and the government's priority is to continue to ensure that the Basin Plan is delivered on time and in full.

Before I commend this bill to the house I'll move the amendment that I foreshadowed at the beginning of my contribution, which has been circulated in the chamber:

At the end of the motion, add:

"and for the purposes of subsection 48(2) of the Legislation Act 2003, the Senate approves the making of an instrument the same in substance as the Basin Plan Amendment Instrument 2017 (No. 1), which was disallowed by the Senate on 14 February 2018".

I commend this bill to the house. Thank you, minister.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator O'Sullivan ): The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Ruston be agreed to.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator O'Sullivan ): The question is that the bill, as amended, be read a second time.