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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 11987


Senator O'BRIEN (1:05 PM) —The Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 amends the Murray-Darling Basin Act 1993 to give effect to an agreement between the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victoria on new arrangements for sharing water made available to the River Murray catchment. The Murray-Darling agreement was made in June 1992 between the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and replaced the River Murray waters agreement. The state of Queensland became a party to the agreement in 1996.

The agreement concerns the management of the basin's land, water and environmental resources. In short, this bill gives effect to the Murray-Darling Basin amending agreement signed by the Prime Minister and the premiers of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in June 2002. The basis of the amending agreement is a deal between the Commonwealth and the governments of New South Wales and Victoria to allocate an additional 70 gigalitres per annum in environmental flows for the River Murray. This deal is also designed to deliver improved environmental outcomes for rivers in the Kosciusko National Park.

The New South Wales and Victorian Labor governments have agreed to a staged return of 28 per cent of average natural flows to the Snowy River. To do this, these two Labor governments have committed $300 million to the task. A key element of the arrangement is the absence of adverse consequences for irrigators' water entitlements, South Australia's water security, water quality or existing environmental flows.

The Murray-Darling Basin covers one million square kilometres and comprises about 14 per cent of Australia's continental landmass. It extends across four states and includes Australia's three longest rivers: the Darling, the Murray and the Murrumbidgee. The basin incorporates 75 per cent of Australia's irrigation and supports 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural production. The health of the basin is critical to the Australian economy and the prosperity of the regional communities that depend on it. About one per cent of Australia's farmland is under irrigation, yet it accounts for 26 per cent of the value of agricultural production and 96 per cent of the water used in rural Australia. The extraordinary growth of the Australian wine industry, which is now exporting $2.5 billion worth of product a year, has been driven by irrigation.

The building of irrigated agriculture in the basin is largely the result of the building of the Snowy Mountains scheme. It must be remembered that it was the Labor Party that had the vision in the 1940s to make this a reality. Of course, for vision like that there is only one party to look to, and that is the Australian Labor Party. It was Ben Chifley, as Treasurer and later as Prime Minister, with advice from Bill McKell, who created the Snowy scheme, which in turn allowed Australian and immigrant farmers with initiative to grow crops under irrigation where once those pieces of land were all but useless. Hand in hand with this project was Ben Chifley's assisted immigration program, which delivered not only workers to the scheme but a boost to the postwar economy of Australia, a home to tens of thousands fleeing the destruction in Europe and a lasting positive impact on Australian society as a tolerant and open nation able to respect people of all cultures and religions. How sad it is to watch the way in which the Prime Minister, with the loyalty of the Liberal deputy leader, has worked to undermine the tolerance in our community. How much sadder to see the Treasurer speak of tolerance only as a political device to differentiate himself from Mr Howard now that his loyalty and patience have been so sorely tested. But these are issues for another debate

Just as the Curtin and Chifley governments, based on the economic need and science of the day, delivered the Snowy scheme to the people of Australia and all the good things that came with it, so it is in that same tradition that Labor, under Simon Crean, displays a vision for our rivers and our nation. In this year's budget reply speech, Simon Crean announced a new deal to save the River Murray. A Crean Labor government will deliver 450 gigalitres of environmental flows within the first term, enough to keep the mouth of the Murray open; it will deliver 1,500 gigalitres in environmental flows within 10 years, the minimum required to restore the health of the river; it will create Riverbank to fund the river's restoration and make an initial capital injection of $150 million; and it will establish the Environmental Flow Trust to manage environmental flows.

That fourth point is very important. The establishment of the Environmental Flow Trust is proof that Labor knows that there is more to saving the Murray than simply putting more water into it. Labor knows that the water must be managed within the river—sent to the right parts of the river and at the right time—to ensure that we get the maximum environmental return for that water, and this will be the task of Labor's Environmental Flow Trust. Labor understands the intersection between water property rights, sustainable agriculture and delivering environmental flows.

Our opponents claim that, for them, water is a key third term agenda item. In their 2001 election document, entitled `Putting Australia's interests first', those opposite claimed that they would `ensure the protection of the legitimate property rights of farmers'. They also said:

There must be a clear understanding that compensation should be paid where individuals give up property rights ...

Of course, that is no revelation regarding compensation—it is a constitutional surety. They go on to say:

The Coalition will ensure that the next COAG meeting addresses definitions of property rights, including water rights, and mechanisms to deliver just compensation for the loss of these rights.

Two COAG meetings have come and gone since this bold statement. In April 2003, water was talked about but no ground was made. In November, the premiers realised that Mr Anderson was not interested in moving the public policy agenda forward and, attempting to draw some leadership from the Prime Minister on this issue, asked that Mr Anderson not be present at that meeting. All through 2002 and into this year, we have had it hinted and then blatantly stated by this government that competition policy payments to the states would be in jeopardy if the states did not fund the Howard government's election promises on water rights. In effect, this government's solution to the most difficult of problems is to take money out of the system—the standard big stick—and take the `blame the states' approach so favoured by the tories. Contrast this with the approach taken by Simon Crean and Labor.

Labor have done the hard yards on policy development when it comes to saving our rivers, Labor have the money on the table and Labor have the track record of working with the states, which are pivotal to any outcome to deliver environmental flows to our rivers and certainty to our farmers. Labor know it can be done because we have done it before. It must be remembered that when Simon Crean, as Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, developed the national drought policy seven of the states and territories were in conservative hands. But they signed up to the plan because it was the right policy for the nation and Simon Crean negotiated in good faith.

We can contrast Labor's record on dealing with the states with that of this government. Where Simon Crean was able to build a national drought policy, this government—largely due to the ineptitude of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Truss—has been unable even to negotiate reforms to the current exceptional circumstances system with the states. Where we can build a scheme from nothing, the minister can only play politics with the worst drought in 100 years. And where Simon Crean could—and certainly can in the future—work with the state governments to deliver for our rivers and for the certainty of farmers, this government can only threaten competition payments to the states unless they kick the can for the Howard government's promises. Clearly this debate is beyond Mr Truss and beyond Mr Anderson. The Prime Minister must take leadership on this issue and work cooperatively with the states where his ministers have failed so miserably to date.

Many—and I include among them the leader of the once great National Party—fail to understand why Labor would want to save the Murray. Two words would sum it up: sustainable agriculture. Labor knows that the Murray-Darling Basin accounts for 75 per cent of Australia's irrigation and supports 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural production and that the one per cent of agricultural land under irrigation delivers 26 per cent of the value of agricultural production. On this most critical of issues the Howard government are all over the place. The National Party, through Mr Anderson, have expressed a view about water trading, Senator Heffernan another. This is, I suppose, symptomatic of two things: their lack of a rigorous work policy on water and the deeper tension that exists between the Liberal and National parties—tensions that we saw flare in this chamber during yesterday's discussion on the report into the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill.

Unlike the Howard government, Labor are united in our desire to deliver healthy working rivers and therefore a sustainable future for farming families who rely on irrigation. That is why Labor, and only Labor, bring to this debate the vision to save the Murray and the method with which to do it. Labor support the bill and commend its passage.