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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 5187

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (17:34): There is no bigger issue in South Australia than the issue of water and water security and the health of the Murray-Darling Basin so I note the minister's very cute response to the Senate resolution. It would be laughable if this were not such a serious issue. We still have no real indication of how the authority has reached its 2,750 gigalitre a year figure. Further still, many of our leading scientists, including those of the Goyder Institute for Water Research, the CSIRO and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists have suggested that this figure will not be sufficient to flush two million tonnes of salt—enough to fill the MCG—from the system every year. What did the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists say? They said:

Our fundamental objection is that none of the 2011 draft Basin Plan documents provide even the most basic information as to the volumes or timing of water that are required to give a reasonable prospect of achieving these objectives.

Take the CSIRO review, that by the Commonwealth scientists, if you like. They said that a 2,800 gigalitre per year reduction does 'not achieve the majority of the hydrological targets that have been set in the draft plan'. The Goyder institute has again reinforced those views that this is not good enough.

As for what is at stake here, the motion of Senators Joyce and Birmingham that was truncated and passed was simply to ask for the scientific modelling. This is simply about transparency. This is about accountability on an issue that is of fundamental importance to the people and environment of South Australia. I am concerned that unless we get this right South Australia will be left in a terrible position, in terms of its communities that rely on the river, in terms of its agricultural production, in terms of the environmental assets of South Australia, particularly the Coorong and the Lower Lakes, and in terms of the health of the lower reaches of the river. We in South Australia are the vulnerable ones because we are the ones that cop it with salinity, with the toxins in the river system that need to be flushed out through the Lower Lakes, through the Coorong. Professor Mike Young, the eminent water scientist and economist, has said the Lower Lakes are effectively the lungs of the river system. And, as Professor Young has said on many occasions, great river systems die from the mouth up—so this is a great concern.

The minister is someone I have a great regard for, but his response in this case was completely and utterly inadequate. It concerns me that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority takes the glib view that things will be sorted out by the market; that somehow, amongst the more efficient irrigators, the market will sort out the 971 gigalitres that need to be clawed back under the plan from the southern reaches of the basin. The problem with that is this: South Australia has been done over. The Water Efficiency Fund of some $5.8 billion is skewed against the state, because South Australian irrigators have already done the hard yards in water efficiency measures many years ago. They had to after the 1968 drought. They had to begin to do things such as having closed pipes and more efficient water irrigation measures. So the ability to be more efficient, to have access to that fund, is limited. I think only $10 million or $20 million has gone to South Australia. It is a tiny, tiny fraction of the billions in the Water Efficiency Fund.

The irrigators and communities in those states that get the water efficiency funds—the lion's share will go to New South Wales and Victoria and some to Queensland—will get money to be more efficient and they will get to keep half the water and the other half will go to the environment. That is the deal, and I understand that. But the concern is that, if the Murray-Darling Basin Authority so glibly says, 'We will let the market sort this out,' the market will be skewed by virtue of that very fund—instituted by the Howard government, continued by the Rudd and Gillard governments—because those irrigators will have extra water to play with, extra water to put in extra crops, extra water to trade with, whereas South Australian irrigators will not have that benefit. From a market point of view, from a basic water economics point of view, that is a disaster for South Australian irrigators because it will mean entire regions will be wiped out.

If we are going to get this right, if we are going to do this once and for all in a way that is in the national interest, that is in the interests of communities and in the interests of the environment, we need the information, we need the science and we need the modelling. I find it extraordinarily disappointing that the minister is not prepared, as I understand it, to order more modelling by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to ensure that the 2,800 gigalitres per year reduction actually achieves the majority of hydrological targets, because the CSIRO review says it does not. Let's see that modelling.

I think it is very important that we get it right. What concerns me is that, with predictions of an El Nino weather pattern, things will be tough. We could have very dry conditions in the next year or two and the impact on South Australia will be devastating. I have spoken to so many irrigators in so many communities who had to sell their assets, who had to sell their water entitlements, who had to mortgage their homes in order to keep their permanent plantings—their citrus trees and other crops—alive. It is completely untenable that we are not given the basic information, the basic research and the fundamental modelling to make sure we get this right. That is why it is important that this totally inadequate response by the minister be noted.

Question agreed to.