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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 26


Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (11:14 AM) —That is a very fair question and one that I have undertaken to report back on. Just on 26 November we have agreed on the first projects put forward by the Victorian and the New South Wales governments, under famous clause 36. Those first projects were agreed to by the state ministers. They will only commence with the recommitment of the states to the National Water Initiative. We are very hopeful of an outcome. As I have said, I will report to the Senate on a regular basis on progress. It is a very fair question. The Commonwealth wants to see those projects flow. We do not want to stop at 240 gigalitres. It is a good start, though, Senator Brown, if you want to get to 500 gigalitres. It is a substantial first step. Let us get to the 500 gigalitres. You say that we should get to 1,500 or 2,400 gigalitres. The road to good intentions is paved in fact by substantial, solid and in this case very expensive steps. We should congratulate the proponents—the states in this case—and their partners in getting to the 240 gigalitres.

It is entirely appropriate that I report on a regular basis on the progress of those projects and on the environmental flows that they deliver. I think the concept of having the six icon sites that include the red gums you were talking about, Senator Brown, is a great way to focus accountability on the environmental outcomes. Quite frankly, we should be able to say exactly how many litres of environmental flow go to those icon sites as the projects unfold. I think that is good accountability. It is good pressure on governments and the commission to make us environmentally accountable for these outcomes. It is a good process.

The National Water Commission Bill 2004 focuses on places other than the Murray. There is a risk in the environmental debate of just focusing on one river. I know that state ministers are concerned about that. It is not in the interests of the Murray, which is obviously a vital and crucial environmental and natural asset for Australia—a piece of our natural heritage—to just focus on one river. For example, I think the Premier of Western Australia used this bit of politics to not sign up to the National Water Initiative, when he went back to my own state of Western Australia—as Western Australians are known to do from time to time—and said, `This is just a Murray-Darling agreement; it's got nothing to do with Western Australia.' You get that reaction the further you get away from the Murray River.

The government will invest more heavily than any other government in the history of Australia in the Murray River, the Darling River and the Murray-Darling Basin. But we need to ensure that Australians support that process and that they see the government and other governments investing in river systems all around Australia. In Tasmania, in Queensland and in my home state of Western Australia people need to see environmental repair taking place across a whole range of rivers, river systems and their estuaries. Also we cannot ignore, as Senator Allison has drawn our attention to, the very important need for far better management of urban water. That is why the Prime Minister travelled to Adelaide to announce investments in reforms and projects there. There are projects right around Australia, as Senator Allison quite properly referred to, that need urgent and massive investment.

Historically, there has been a massive underinvestment and massively bad management of water in many of our urban centres. We are not casting blame on anyone here. We have had massive growth in this country. We have had urban sprawl expanding at massive and, dare I say, unsustainable rates, and water management is dragging many years behind. Getting that right means major investment. The water fund can provide that major investment, but you also need some reform to the way in which people price water, use water and manage water. This fund can underwrite that.

In relation to environmental repair of other rivers, the government has invested, through the Natural Heritage Trust, in a number of other projects, including $74.7 million in the last six years for the Great Artesian Basin; the Lake Eyre Basin projects; $32.7 million for on-the-ground works aimed at reducing the impact of stormwater and waste water on coastal and marine water quality; and $10 million over the past eight years through the Waterwatch Australia program, which sees local and state governments, industry and the community working cooperatively and has included about 50,000 volunteers across the states and territories in protecting and managing our waterways. All those examples give you a flavour of the sort of work that has been enabled by the government's environmental programs across the rivers and waterways of this whole nation. A lot of that work goes unsung.

I asked the department to provide me with details of specific Natural Heritage Trust projects on Australia's rivers other than the Murray, because we invest heavily in the Murray. I think there is a big risk in us all focusing our attention on the Murray. We need to invest heavily in the Murray—it needs that investment—but we also must make sure that Australians across the country know that their rivers in their own backyards are being looked after by appropriate levels of investment. We need to engage catchment groups and farmers, industry and dairies along the banks of our rivers, making sure they improve their work practices and stop nutrient flows into the rivers. That work is all happening as a result of the Natural Heritage Trust, through the integration of both the catchment plans and the work of volunteers across the country.

I will get information on just how many projects the government is funding through the Natural Heritage Trust for river care in this country. The early estimate is that there are 1,700 to 2,000 projects on rivers other than the Murray. I think it is really important we get the balance right.