Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 148


Senator ALLISON (10:41 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

There is little doubt that water use in both urban and rural areas is of primary importance to Australians and fundamental to establishing a sustainable and enjoyable standard of living in this country. Australia is a dry continent. Demands on water resources continue to rise with expanding populations, and with the expansion of agricultural land-use and efficiency.

At the time of its announcement the Australian Democrats welcomed the Coalition's $2 billion Australian Water Fund, a policy made up substantially of initiatives recommended in the 2002 Democrats-initiated urban water Senate inquiry report and through the Senate inquiry into rural water use. The Democrats have for a long time now supported and promoted a national approach to water through the Council of Australian Governments to move Australia towards the end goal of sustainable use of water resources.

The Democrats have done much work on water use in the Senate and through its inquiry processes. Senator Aden Ridgeway chaired the inquiry into Rural Water Use, and I chaired the Senate Inquiry into Australia's Urban Water Management. These two inquiries provided a clear basis for water reform strategy and as a result we will today move a second reading amendment urging the targets, recommendations and proposals that came out of the committee's work will continue to be acted on. Two years after the urban water inquiry reported, I feel that we may be finally making headway towards best use of Australia's precious water resources. The Water Efficiency Labelling scheme was a recommendation of the urban water inquiry and one the Democrats negotiated a year or so ago as part of the Measures for a Better Environment. I look forward to dealing with that bill early next year.

Considering the great importance of this issue, and the absolute necessity of bringing the states on board for all negotiations, the Democrats are concerned the Federal Government has attempted to steam-roll states regardless of whether agreement has been reached or not. This is amply demonstrated by the submissions received from state governments following the Democrats' referral of the National Water Commission Bill to Senate Inquiry.

Despite the Federal Government's efforts to curtail the inquiry by insisting on an extremely tight reporting date, state governments, farming bodies and conservation groups acted in record time to submit comments expressing concerns about the reporting and decision-making procedures as drafted by the government in this bill.

As an example, I quote the Victorian Minister for Environment John Thwaites in a letter received by the Senate Environment Committee today when he says “The Victorian Government does not believe the Bill reflects the spirit of cooperation which resulted in the signing of the National Water Initiative by the Council of Australian Governments. The Victorian Government considers it imperative that the National Water Commission provides advice and reports direct to COAG following consultation with the States and Territories, not report direct to the Prime Minister as is currently proposed. “Minister Thwaites goes on to point out “the National Water Initiative Intergovernmental Agreement (clause 107) states that the National Water Commission reports to COAG will be publicly available”.

The Democrats are concerned the Howard Government is seeking to renege on that agreement through this bill. We do not believe that amendments made by the government in the House of Representatives will result in the appropriate level of transparency or spirit of cooperation and as such will present our own amendments to the Senate.

Wasteful water use practices have resulted in the degradation of many of our water resources, particularly in eastern, south-eastern and south-western Australia. The Democrats believe the establishment of a National Water Commission and commitment of funding to ensure the National Water Initiative is extremely important. At the time of the announcement of the Australian Water Fund, we were pleased to see recognition from the Federal Government of the need for a significant cultural shift in water use and management. We can only hope that state and Federal Governments will adopt the second unanimously agreed recommendation from the Senate Inquiry into Rural Water, namely that COAG should negotiate an ongoing shared programme for funding the reforms in the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Water Initiative.

We are concerned that this bill would make the Federal Minister the key conduit for advice and appears to have the discretion to act, or not act upon the NWC's advice. We also note, that as drafted, the legislation stipulates that the Minister is not required to publish the National Water Commission's advice or recommendations. Hardly in the spirit of the National Water Initiative which states the Commission's reports will be publicly available.

Within the policy framework of the National Water Initiative, the Democrats are not satisfied with the lack of targets for environmental flows for the Murray Darling, and the significant delays in delivering funding and real outcomes toward recovery of the Murray Darling system. We urge the Federal Government to release funding from the Living Murray program to ensure actual on ground action that will release more water into the river and relieve its parched wetland ecosystems in the shortest possible timeframe.

The Australian Democrats recently called for the Federal Government to ensure Australia's northern region's water resources are properly assessed prior to any large-scale expansion farming or ranching activities. We urge the Government to keep a close watch on moves to establish large scale cotton crops in Northern Australia.

We have already seen our most productive agricultural area, the Murray-Darling basin, decimated due to misuse and misunderstanding of the water resources of the area. Australia must not make the same water use mistakes in the north, or we will be facing similar huge bills for reparation and arguments over water rights as we are seeing in the southern states.

Similarly, over the last few weeks, we have seen reports that Western Australia, which I remind the Government is yet to sign on to the National Water Initiative, is under pressure to implement plans to channel water from northern Australia. Coupled with expanding cattle-ranching and cotton-farming, the north's biodiversity and water resources look like being under substantial pressure in the near future. The Murray Darling should not be the sole focus of efforts to move Australia towards sustainable use of water.

Once again I would like to express the great hopes the Australian Democrats hold for the National Water Initiative, and our eagerness to see it pass. However, without a cooperative approach to management of water resources, we fear the process will be stalled. We urge all governments to work together towards a transparent, open and most importantly effective program to move Australia's water use towards sustainable levels. I urge the Senate to re-visit the unanimously endorsed recommendations on water that have come out of the Senate inquiry process, in order to ensure they are implemented in the shortest possible timeframe.