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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 237


Senator BARTLETT (12:44 PM) —On behalf of the Democrats, I indicate that, whilst we have a range of concerns with this legislation, on balance it does limp things forward somewhat and therefore we will not be opposing it. Politics has been the key reason why the Murray-Darling Basin has got into such a terrible mess. Unfortunately, the process that has been followed to get to this point at the federal level has also involved a lot of politics, and that is one of the reasons why it is still far from perfect. That is politics across the board. None of us is immune from all of that, but it is a point that still needs to be made.

The point also needs to be made that the process for consultation with regard to the Water Bill 2007 was once again very poor, with the legislation itself only appearing last week and the holding of yet another one-day, last-minute, rushed Senate committee hearing. I can recall being part of the committee meeting to determine who the witnesses might be for a hearing that was to be held less than 24 hours later, with the apparent assumption that people could actually pull together adequate submissions in less than 24 hours. That sort of thing is ludicrous, and the fact that we are doing it so often that people are actually starting to think it is satisfactory is becoming a real worry.

But that is an individual example of a wider problem. There has obviously been engagement, particularly between the Commonwealth and state governments, and landholders to a certain extent, over the course of this year, but the point still needs to be made about the specifics of legislation. It is one thing to talk through all the issues; it is another to then properly examine the actual legislation when it appears. There has not been opportunity to do that. The one-day, totally rushed Senate committee hearing of last Friday happened to occur on exactly the same day as the one-day, totally rushed, completely inadequate Senate committee hearing into the Northern Territory emergency response legislation. Having both those hearings on the same time made it completely impossible for me, someone who has carriage of both areas, to participate in even that limited, inadequate one-day hearing.

Nonetheless, I was able to read the submissions, such as they were and rushed though they were, and the transcript from the hearing. The Democrats agree with a range of concerns that were expressed, particularly those put forward by environmental organisations and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. The scientific basis of those concerns should be particularly acknowledged. As I said, there is a lot of politics in this at the state and federal levels and a lot of vested interests among people who rely on the water, particularly producers but also communities more broadly. I say vested interest not in a nasty sense but as a simple statement of fact—people do have a vested interest in maintaining some access to the water, and naturally that can influence their perspective. That makes the view of scientists all the more important. They, as much as anybody and more so than most, are as objective and evidence based as possible.

Their views were that, whilst this legislation has the potential to move things forward, it still has some significant problems and things could certainly be done better. Some of that is due to the fact that agreement has not been reached with all of the state governments, Victoria in particular. I am not passing judgement on who was right and who was wrong in that one. It was a bit hard to tell, frankly, from the information received at the Senate inquiry or from the public arena. To some extent it really does not matter; the Senate has to deal with the legislation before it. But there is no doubt that if we could get a more clear-cut, cooperative approach across all states it would help move things forward.

Another key concern that the Democrats have is that, despite the atmosphere of urgency that has been placed around this legislation—we have to push it through this week after an inadequate Senate committee hearing—there is not actually a lot of urgency within the legislation itself. There is a very long lead time before a lot of the significant shifts in water consumption will be able to be made, which is a concern, along with what appears to be a capacity for too much rubberiness in terms of targets. On top that is the inevitable reality that you still have quite a mess. We will have the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority; we will still have the old Murray-Darling Basin Commission; state governments and the federal government will still have some responsibility. I know the federal government would wish otherwise, but that is what we are faced with. It really does need to be sorted out.

For me the big question mark with this legislation was whether passing it now would at least move things forward towards sorting this situation out. What can sometimes happen is people put so much effort into getting something in place that they then stop and all further improvements halt there, and you lose the momentum to continue towards the full reform that needs to happen. I think on balance there has been so much difficulty in getting movement in this area over so long a period that even this type of move forward is such that the opportunity should be taken.

Having said that, it would have been appropriate to have had a few extra weeks to properly examine the legislation and allow others to do so and to provide their views and then have the Senate consider it in September. But politics once again intervened and that has not happened.

Another very significant flaw in the legislation is that it does not provide for people to use legal processes to ensure the requirements of the legislation are enforced. In an area that is so politicised, that is a real problem. But there are some positives in the legislation. The linkage and use of powers relating to the protection of Ramsar wetlands and biodiversity protection is a step forward.

I think the legislation could have been strengthened, and I know Senator Siewert has some amendments that seek to do that. In particular, I think it could have been further integrated with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which does provide strong and very clear powers at the federal level. Those powers are not used often enough, I might say, but they are certainly there, and to link them more clearly would have been desirable. That includes, as I said, provision for individuals or affected people to have standing, as they do under the federal environment laws. It is only because of those standing provisions in the federal environment act, on a number occasions, that enforcement and proper assessment has occurred. I think that provision really should be in this legislation as well.

There are a range of other aspects to the legislation. As I said, it is certainly an imperfect beast. But, on balance, whilst we still need as the Senate chamber to try and improve it using the opportunity we have before us today, it is not so flawed that the Democrats will stand in the way of it. But we certainly signal that there is still a lot of improvement that needs to happen, and I think that the federal government would accept, at least up to a point, that this needs to be only a first step and that we need to push on with further momentum after this.