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Tuesday, 10 December 2002
Page: 7538

Senator LEES (2:29 PM) —My question is to Senator Hill, the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment and Heritage. I ask the minister what progress was made last Friday at the COAG meeting toward establishing a nationally consistent policy for how water rights should be determined. Did the meeting discuss the need for the capacity as well as the health of our rivers to be determined before property rights to the water in them are determined?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I was not present at the meeting, obviously, but I understand an agreement was not reached. Not surprisingly, the disagreement largely related to the issue of who should pay. We saw how difficult it was to get the state Labor premiers to the line on hand gun control. In relation to paying for what is a primary responsibility of theirs—that relating to natural resources—it proved to be even more difficult.

Senator Carr —This is very longwinded.

Senator HILL —Actually I have three minutes.

Senator Carr —To say you don't know? Why don't you say, `I have three minutes to say I don't know'?

Senator HILL —The difference is I am suspecting the honourable senator who asked the question is interested in the issue, which is more than you would ever get from the Australian Labor Party. When you look at their record in relation to water management and natural resource management, it is deplorable. Certainly, from my discussions with the Prime Minister subsequent to the meeting, the feeling was that some progress was being made but, in determining the issue of what legal right should apply to particular water interests, there is still a considerable way to go. As I indicated before I was rudely interrupted by Senator Carr, there is an even further distance to travel in relation to the issue of who will meet the funding responsibility. It is primarily a state responsibility to do so; the Commonwealth has always said that it is prepared to support the states in good natural resource outcomes, but it is important that the states pick up their primary responsibility.

Senator LEES —Mr Deputy President, I ask a supplementary question. If we could put to one side at the moment who is going to pay—I do understand that the Commonwealth, however, will be putting in some of the money—does the federal government believe that a national approach to how water rights are determined is the best way to proceed, given that in the Murray-Darling Basin in particular decisions made upstream will very much affect the minister's home state of South Australia? Does the federal government agree that entitlements, or water allocations, should be allocated in direct proportion to the percentage of water that is able to be taken out of the river after environment flows have been calculated?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —We have always said that the best approach is to determine what is needed to be retained for good environmental and ecological outcomes and determine from that what can be taken for other legitimate objectives. The problem is, of course, that we are not starting with a clean sheet of paper; we are starting with river systems that are overutilised. It is an issue of needing to claw back what is necessary to sustain the health of the natural systems. That is obviously much more complicated. On the issue of a national system, our approach has been through the previous COAG direction to seek consistency across the nation, although not to dictate one national scheme. Those of us who have advocated cooperative federalism are still hopeful that it will ultimately work. But, unfortunately, in relation to good water outcomes in Australia, it has not worked as successfully as we would like. (Time expired)