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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 239


Senator WORTLEY (12:53 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

Labor has consistently supported national leadership in water policy and water reform…there is no doubt that what is required is effective legislation to ensure the restoration and protection of the Murray Darling Basin…

National water reform began with the COAG agreement in 1994 led by the Keating Labor Government, and the Murray Darling Basin Act 1993.

Sadly, the situation we are faced with today in many parts of Australia and in my home state of South Australia, with significant water restrictions in our cities and regional country towns, means even young children are concerned about the water crisis we face. There is no doubt about the critical condition of this most precious resource.

I have said previously that if there was a report card presented to the Howard Government, it would not be one that you would want to take home.

It would read: ‘Eleven years of inaction in the face of Australia’s greatest environmental challenge.’

Like many of my fellow Australians, I have long been aware of the escalating water crisis gripping our nation.

Everyone in this chamber now must accept that addressing such water issues as efficiency … allocation … quality … research and rights, is crucial and compelling.

Our rivers are overtaxed and because of their degeneration, indigenous animal and bird species and plants are facing extinction.

But while the Murray-Darling Basin becomes an even-more inhospitable host to unique flora and fauna … conversely introduced pests and weeds are thriving.

Almost 3 million people live within the Basin region, which generates approximately 40 per cent of the agriculture dollars earned in Australia.

The blight of climate change is only adding to our water woes … a fact that makes the Government’s unique and disturbing blend of indifference, indecision and infighting on this subject even more incomprehensible.

The situation is dire … we must work for change before even more irreparable damage is done.

The Commonwealth’s Water Bill 2007 is a step in the right direction … a step towards addressing some of the Murray-Darling Basin’s long-range problems.

At the one day public hearing of the Senate standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts on this Bill, the South Australian Representatives, Mr Scott Ashby, Deputy Chief Executive, Departmental Affairs, Department of Premier and Cabinet and Mr Robert Freeman, Chief Executive Department of Water, Land and Biodiversity Conservation made it clear that South Australia supports a national approach to the management of the Murray-Darling Basin through an independent expert based authority.

However, concerns were raised that a number of elements important to South Australia were lost in this version of the bill including that:

  • It does not address the issue of critical human needs.
  • It does not include an end-of-basin flow target.
  • It does not include a deadline for the basin plan.
  • It does not include a No-net increase in cost provision for Basin states.
  • It does not include compulsory consultation.

South Australia’s position is clearly that as far as possible the Bill and associated IGA should reflect and reinstate the full package of reform principles as agreed by First Ministers in February 2007, and subsequently negotiated at senior officer level.

In his letter to the Prime Minister, South Australia’s Premier, Mike Rann highlighted the following as issues that the legislation and the IGA should enure:

  • The establishment of an independent, expert-based authority to prepare a Basin management plan, recommend allocation caps and undertake other functions previously agreed;
  • Eligibility qualifications of members of the Authority are reflected in legislation;
  • Any decision by the relevant Commonwealth Minister ever-rule the new Authority be tabled in the Commonwealth Parliament;
  • Preservation of South Australia’s existing entitlement flow of 1,850 GL per annum;
  • Basin States face no-net increase in costs under the new arrangements and agreed arrangements regarding compensation and liability are retained;
  • Land use planning decisions remain with state and local government authorities;
  • Commonwealth funding is directed on an objective and scientific basis to the areas of greatest need within the Basin;
  • All states are treated consistently in the implementation of the National Plan;
  • A review of the new arrangements in 2014
  • As an interim measure, until replaced by provisions of a Basin Plan approved by the relevant Commonwealth Minister, The IGA to provide for an average of 200 Gigalitres  per annum of river “health and maintenance” flows to be delivered by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder at the mouth of the River Murray.
  • As an interim measure, until such time as this requirement can be addressed appropriately through the Basin Plan, the Commonwealth to make alternative arrangements for the emergency provision of water to meet critical human needs, which would be reflected in the IGA.
  • The proposed Bill to set a deadline for the adoption of a Basin Plan by the Commonwealth Minister, not being later than two years after the commencement of the legislation.

Under the Bill before us, a new Murray-Darling Basin Authority will be established to develop and oversee the implementation of a water management plan.

As part of the plan, there will be a new cap on water withdrawals in the Basin … water trading rules … a water quality and salinity plan … and an environmental watering plan.

Other moves will include increasing the amount of water information available nationally, in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology … regulating the Basin water market … and establishing processes for accrediting catchment-level water plans to make sure Basin Plan goals are achieved.

Our hope is that this Bill will provide a structure under which the Basin can be nursed back to good health.

Only then can we secure a prosperous future for the communities who rely on the river system.

Labor unequivocally supports the need for greater federal leadership in water policy … especially in cases where resources traverse state borders.

But our call for action in this area is not new. For decades we have called for, and backed, moves to improve water planning and resources.

Since the 1980s, Labor has spoken out about the need for national leadership on water.

And under the watch of the Keating Labor Government, true national water reform began with the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement and Bill of 1992, and the historic bi-partisan COAG Agreement of 1994.

There was no doubt Paul Keating understood the importance of this network of waterways. In December, 1992, he said:

‘‘The Murray-Darling is Australia’s greatest river system, a basic source of our wealth, a real and symbolic artery of the nation’s economic health, and a place where Australian legends were born.

‘‘Nowhere is the link between the Australian environment, the Australian economy and Australian culture better described.’’

Here we are 15 years later … and while warning signs on the health of our country’s main river system have been stark and clear for some time … only now is the current Government taking any action.

But while the proposition before us is worthy of encouragement into law … it is disappointing … and I’m disappointed to have to say, anything but watertight.

This recent legislation has been conceived in haste and out of expedience with a Federal election looming large.

Yes … the holes in this potentially lifesaving bucket are worrying to say the least…

The Howard Government has failed to consult in good faith with the stakeholders - including the states - over the final version of the Bill, which has been altered dramatically, and is disappointing in comparison to what it delivers…

The legislation also disappoints on the front of providing pertinent protections to my home state of South Australia …

Professor Mike Young, the Research Chair in Water Economics and Management at the University of Adelaide and member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, believes the Basin Plan’s goals list … as in Clause 20 … should be extended to carry ‘‘a requirement to consider the downstream consequences and ensure the water flows through the entire system’’.

As well as an apparent failure in the field of environmental flows … there’s the mysterious Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) associated with the Bill.

The Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (ECITA) … to which the Bill was referred … was not given a copy of the agreement.

In fact it has not yet been released …the States have not received a copy of the agreement,  despite the fact that the documented intended function of the IGA will be to steer water-based federal and state relations, make sure water plans work well, and to guide investment in the Murray-Darling system.

There are many questions raised by the reviewed Bill … as noted by ECITA committee members, including myself.

Why do we have both a Murray Darling Basin Authority, and a Murray Darling Basin Commission?

How will compulsory water entitlement reductions work under section 77 … which deals with payments to water access entitlement holders … and how are they different to compulsory acquisition?

When will the Government circulate the all-important Inter-Governmental Agreement?

What will the risk-sharing arrangements be with the states and why should the states carry more risk than was agreed to with the Prime Minister in early July?

Why aren’t the water needs for towns and cities in the Basin and the other down-stream consequences of water planning dealt with in the Bill?

Surprisingly people from many vantage points have expressed disquiet about legislation that is aimed in the right direction, is sorely deficient in detail…and lands slightly off target…

These shortcomings have brought together farmers and environment groups, irrigators and academics, Indigenous community representatives and governments.

For the sake of the Murray-Darling Basin…for the people who rely on it for their living and those who rely on it simply for their life sustaining water, Labor will not stand in the way of the passage of this legislation…

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t believe more needs to be done. We have not just sat idly back, we have made plans of our own.

In December 2006, Labor’s Shadow water minister Anthony Albanese released the discussion paper Protecting our precious natural environment and water supplies.

The basis of that paper … and the heart of Labor’s attitude to the water crisis … was to focus ‘‘natural resource programs on national priorities, streamline decision making and make sure that it is water that flows… rather than red tape’’.

While the Government seems to be overflowing with cynics and sceptics, Labor’s benches are full of believers.

We believe strategies dealing with climate change and with water are inextricably linked.

We believe the nation’s water resources need and deserve more than a spare-change commitment by the Government.

We believe it is essential to work cooperatively with the states and all interest groups to develop and instigate the plans and policies necessary for long-term solutions to the Murray-Darling Basin crisis.

In addition, Labor Senators agree that what is required for ongoing national water reform is:

  • A cooperative and constructive approach with state governments to assist water reform and investment in urban and rural water infrastructure;
  • The full implementation of the National Water Initiative principles agreed to in 2004:
  • Fixing of the over-allocation of water licences and establishing coherent, streamlined rules which ensure the problem of over allocation never recurs:
  • Recognition that economic instruments including water trading are necessary to address the fact that water has been over-allocated, under-valued and misdirected;
  • Proper consultation with key stakeholders in the Murray Darling Basin, including all water users, farmers, water scientists, environment groups and the broader community to ensure the adoption and consistent use of efficient agricultural practices:
  • Returning the sufficient water to the rivers in the Murray Darling Basin to ensure the long term health of all rivers, wetlands and all connected groundwater systems in the basin and as a result, ensure the health of the communities and businesses that rely on the health of those rivers and
  • Measures to ensure industrial and urban water users adapt to maximise water efficiency.

We believe meaningful change is worth the hard work it takes.

We believe Australia’s future… the future of children and our livelihood and the survival of some of our most treasured and fragile natural wonders … depends on it.