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Thursday, 11 October 2012
Page: 8072


Senator HEFFERNAN (New South Wales) (18:23): I rise to speak on the tabling of the interim report on the Murray-Darling Basin. We will be, as a committee, analysing the final plan when it is put down by the government.

All governments of all persuasions, throughout the history of Australia, have managed to muck up the management of water. It is a bit like the railways. It took them a long time to work out that you did not have to get off the train at Albury; you should have the same gauge to Melbourne. The same sort of thinking has occurred in water. The attempt in recent years, by the previous government and this government, to come to terms with that is commendable. But I have to say that part of what we have discovered in this inquiry is that this solution really is not a scientific solution; it is a political compromise. I further say, as the previous speakers have mentioned, that we do have to bring irrigation into the modern age with technology and efficiency. The most efficient irrigation in Australia is the Israeli-Spanish technology—which is comparable to your tomato people, Senator McKenzie—of root zone irrigation, which is 40 times more efficient than furrow cotton on the use of water for the production of income.

Sadly, the science prediction, at 40 per cent accuracy for 2050, means that in most river systems in the lower Murray-Darling Basin, if that science—which has vagary attached to it—is 40 per cent right, there will be zero allocation in most seasons for general purpose water. That will be quite a challenge and it really does mean that we have got to go to more efficient use of water. The minimum prediction for the loss of run-off from a two per cent increase in temperature and a 15 per cent decline in run-off from the Murray-Darling Basin, which has 6.2 per cent of Australia's run-off, 23,400 gigalitres of run-off and 14,000-odd of extraction—bear in mind that the killing sentence in all of that is that 38 per cent of the run-off comes from just two per cent of the landscape—is 3,500 gigalitres by 2050. While this is a plan, it is an interim plan and we are going to have to learn to do a lot more with a lot less in the future if we are to manage the global food task.

I am grateful to the committee and to the secretariat—for putting up with me, especially, but for the input they have had into it. I would not let this occasion go by without mentioning that this is a seriously difficult job, because of the politics involved. Once again I would like to raise the prospect of the difficulty of the politics involved and of coming to terms with the various states—a bit like the gauge of the railway line. New South Wales at the present time is attempting to sell water from the lower Murrumbidgee to the Commonwealth, as part of the buyback plan for this plan. One of the tricks that they are employing is trying to con the Commonwealth into using water money, which as previous speakers have mentioned has been used mainly for water buybacks rather than water-saving infrastructure. They are actually saying to the lower Murrumbidgee irrigators, 'We'll give you 2¼ times the value for your water,' having issued the licence last Thursday but having determined the price months ago, before they even issued the licence to buy it back. The licence is issued for nothing, by the way. Something like $200 million is involved in the deal, which is all commercial-in-confidence: various people, including Mr Harris in New South Wales and the government of New South Wales and the federal government, do not think the taxpayers are entitled to know the details of it. So it is all commercial-in-confidence. They will not tell us what the market value is so that we can determine what 2¼ times the market value is. The trick behind it all—in New South Wales saying that they have got agreement and the Commonwealth has now got the plan before them to buy water at 2¼ times its real value—is to get the Commonwealth to put money in so that New South Wales can not only buy the water licences back but buy the land back that goes with the water, because the landholders have said, 'You can't have our water unless you buy our land.' So it is almost political blackmail.

These are difficult issues and a lot of due diligence and a lot of hard work will be required by the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee that I chair, and it will require the patience of the secretariat and witnesses to come to a sensible resolution as to not only what we know now but also what we have got to figure out that the future holds for us. It is a great pleasure to speak to this motion, and our work is only part done.

Question agreed to.