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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 243

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

Labor supports the need for greater Commonwealth leadership in water policy and has consistently called on the Government for action. Consequently, we will support this Bill as a step in the right direction.  However, Labor has concerns that this Bill does not go far enough to ensure security of water supplies for the people and businesses that rely on the Murray Darling Basin.

The Murray Darling Basin occupies fourteen per cent of Australia’s total area and produces some 40% of the value of our agriculture. Thousands of households and businesses rely on flows from the Basin. Its wetlands provide habitats for many threatened animal and plant species. If these wetlands dried up, some of those species would become extinct. For all of these reasons and more, we need to implement changes that will ensure the continuing good health of the Basin and the rivers that flow through it.

The health of Australia’s rivers has deteriorated over the last one hundred years due to a number of factors, ranging from over allocation of water for horticulture to planting of commercial and domestic flora that requires more water than native varieties. Rural research has gone a long way towards improving the efficiency of irrigation, yet a proportion of inefficient systems such as unlined channels on sandy soils remain and these contribute to inefficient use of  the Murray and other water courses in the Basin that are used for irrigation.

Other significant influences on river health have been:

Our growing population which has increased our water extractions by 500% since the 1920s;

The manipulation and diversion of flows, largely for irrigation, leading to a severe impact on the natural environmental flow.   According to CSIRO, the mean annual discharge from the Murray Mouth for the last ten years has been about 2,700 gigalitres, whereas without diversions the average annual figure would be about 12,000 gigalitres;

Salinity, pests and weeds which affect the health of major rivers in the MDB including the invasion of carp which have caused the decline of native fish species; and

Climate change.

The climate change issue deserves special attention. As we have already begun to see, when the Earth’s temperature increases at an accelerated rate, our  weather conditions become unpredictable and severe. 

The impact includes both devastating floods and long droughts. Numerous reports have been released identifying climate change as a genuine threat to the Murray-Darling Basin’s health, but the Government has taken over ten years to even consider responding to the threat. We need a comprehensive climate change adaptation plan for the Basin so that it can continue to provide for our country through drier and hotter climates.

According to an expert review panel appointed in 2001, the Murray River needs 1,500 gigalitres more water per year to be a healthy, effective river. But we have only seen an approval to purchase 20 gigalitres for return to the Murray. This is evidence that once again, the Government does not see the environment as a priority.

Labor has a much better record on water and on climate change  than the current Government. Before the election of the Howard Government, the Labor Governments were dealing with the issue of water, particularly in regards to the Murray Darling Basin. In 1987 Labor created the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement in a partnership between governments and the community. In 1993 a new agreement was reached and legislation was passed in relation to management of the Murray-Darling Basin. In 1996, Queensland became involved and took part in all discussions.

It was also Labor that negotiated the first national drought policy, which we did in 1992. Unfortunately this good work was not carried on or built upon, and 11 years after the election of the current Government we are discussing a water bill for the first time during the term of this Government.

Not only has the Government not introduced water legislation, but in the 2003 budget it cut funding to water initiatives. Though this should hardly be surprising, remembering we are dealing with a Government that refused to acknowledge climate change existed until it was swayed by public opinion. We are, after all,  talking about a Government which will still not  ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

As a representative of South Australia, the state that is the driest and that is home to  the mouth of the Murray River, I feel very strongly about the importance of this Bill.  Every South Australian has an affection for the Murray. It is part of our heritage, integral to our economy and a much visited holiday destination. Tell any South Australian that you are “going up the River” for the long weekend and they will know exactly what you mean and where you are going.

There are also many South Australians who live in the Riverland where fruit trees, in particular citrus, are grown as well as grape growing and winemaking. We are fortunate to have the benefits of the Murray Mouth, the Lower Lakes and the Coorong in our wonderful state. We are not as fortunate when it comes to rainfall.

The South Australian Labor Government has attempted to manage current water resources wisely, but is facing an uphill struggle as rainfall is increasingly sparse and unpredictable. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, “in the Mt Lofty Ranges catchment areas of South Australia’s main reservoirs, the winter of 2006 was the driest on record, and the first two months of spring were the driest since 1914.”

In South Australia, despite having average rainfalls this year, inflows into rivers are still well below the long term average. July inflows, for example, were 450 gigalitres compared to the long term July average of 1190 gigalitres. Catchments take a long time to recover after severe shortfalls of rain over a period of time. Another reason that water management should have been dealt with consistently by this Government instead of by the  legislation-by-press-release method we saw with this Bill, and which seems to be the policy setting method preferred by the Prime Minister when he knows that public opinion is turning against the Government

Obviously no Government can directly control rainfall, but Governments can decrease and, hopefully, stop the deterioration of our rivers. To ensure all Australians have access to water, it is crucial that we work to save not only the Murray Darling Basin, but all of our water systems.

The South Australian Labor Government supports a national approach to the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, but expressed significant concerns in its submission to the Senate Enquiry to this  Bill. The South Australian Government  noted the Bill  does not implement all of the National Plan for Water Security.

Of considerable concern is the open-ended adoption date for the Basin Plan. The plan places limits on water extractions to provide for long-term sustainability. The SA Government believes “the Water Bill 2007 should set a deadline for adoption of the Plan of two years after the legislation takes effect”. This is necessary because without the Basin Plan in place, nothing will change.

The South Australian Labor Government also stated the Water Bill 2007 in its current form does not include mandatory provisions for meeting critical human water needs. Without this provision, we won’t be able to supply a sufficient amount of water during shortages to towns and cities throughout SA, Victoria and NSW which rely on the river.

Another matter raised by the South Australian Government is the changes to the institutional arrangements. It is concerned that states will have increased responsibilities without being provided with the necessary level of consultation. The South Australian Government believes that it will be critical that states are appropriately consulted regarding membership of the newly created Murray Darling Basin Authority and key legislative changes.

There is also an urgent need for better research and data to enable the nation to plan properly for water security. The  February 2006 CSIRO paper “Water for a Healthy Country : The Shared Water Resource of the Murray Darling Basin” , identified, among other things the need to:

Establish water requirements for environmental needs (Living Murray)

Develop hydrology models to consider ecosystem health consequences of changing flow regimes

Quantify the effects which improved irrigation practices have on the volume of return flow to river systems

Urgent clarification of such parameters will lead to appropriate allocation of funding to restore the health of the Murray Darling Basin. It will also  assist with the framing of regulations and practices to ensure there is sensible use of water resources for agricultural production, clean water supplies, and environmental protection.

Lastly, something that I seem to be mentioning every time I speak on a Bill is the lack of detail provided in the legislation. Unfortunately, this Bill is no exception. In fact, key stakeholders were not even provided with a copy of the legislation before its tabling last week.

I note the additional comments of the Labor Senators who participated in the Senate Enquiry into this Bill with regard to the refusal of the Prime Minister to provide the proposed Intergovernmental Agreement to the Committee to assist its deliberations.

A Bill of such high national importance needs detail, it needs proper examination and it needs to be written with adequate consultation. Rushing the Bill through both houses, allowing people little over a day to make a submission to the  Senate Committee does not allow for these things.

This Bill is a move in the right direction, but there are many more steps that need to be taken to help protect and improve our water supplies. The additional comments of the Labor Senators included in the Senate Committee Report of the Bill outline those additional steps.

I look forward to seeing  more comprehensive water legislation in the future,  however I believe we will need to see a Labor Federal Government for that to happen.