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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 245

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

For many decades, Australians ignored clear warnings about the health of the Murray Darling Basin. When I returned to South Australian in 1983, I worked in an office next door to the then Member for Hawker, Mr Ralph Jacobi. Ralph Jacobi was a passionate advocate on several fronts, but one of his major campaigns was redressing some of the damage that had been done to the Murray Darling Basin. He was successful in raising awareness of the need for action by the federal Parliament. He was especially effective in getting a number of influential South Australians interested in the matter. I only regret that not enough of his vision was carried out at that time. Here we are, nearly a quarter of a century later, still trying to get some concerted plan to deal with the management of the Basin.

In my State of South Australia, early action was taken to regulate water use and allocation. South Australia put in place a self imposed cap on diversions from the Murray River in 1969. Successive State governments have worked with agricultural interests and other users to develop more effective management regimes. Some action caused friction and dissent but focus was maintained on the overriding interests of improving the health of the system. So, for example, much more efficient irrigation systems were introduced along the Murray River. Unfortunately, not enough was done, at least partly because users upstream were not able to be brought on board. As we are on the lower reaches of the system we had early first hand experience of the effects of the over allocation and declining health of the Murray Darling. Salinity affected formerly arable land and the potability of the water, and flora and fauna along the river deteriorated.  The Murray Darling Basin is critical to South Australia not only for much of our productive agriculture, and tourism, but also for urban use including drinking water for Adelaide.

South Australia has therefore been very eager to work with other Basin States to manage the system better. Consequently I support this Bill and am pleased that the federal government is prepared to contribute a significant amount to the budget required. I do share the frustration though of many stakeholders that this new management regime is not optimal. The announcement was made hastily, and the resulting Bill was put together quickly. The government of South Australia in its submission to the Senate inquiry on the Water Bill 2007 identified some significant concerns:

  • mandatory provisions for meeting critical human water needs were lost
  • environmental returns are not guaranteed
  • there is an open ended adoption date for the Basin Plan
  • no allowance is made for increased implementation costs faced by states
  • more complex institutional arrangements are established.

Again and again, reports have been made and plans prepared with poor results. If the commonwealth government is prepared to take the radical step of assuming management of the whole Basin, then it should put in place sensible and measurable outcomes and deadlines for action. The commonwealth is assuming control, but it will find it difficult to achieve its objectives without putting a reasonable proposal before the States. 

It should also put in place the measures required to ensure implementation. I find it difficult to believe that the reforms required will be possible without some form of compulsion but the government continues to dance around this issue because it has political difficulties. Having made the announcement of the takeover and basked in the political benefit of riding to the rescue of the Murray Darling, the government now finds itself dealing with the negative political consequences. Or rather finds itself trying to avoid the negative political consequences. It suffers from internal divisions and confrontation with some of its National Party colleagues.

This matter is far too important for short term politics to impede progress and once the election is over I urge the government, which I naturally hope will be a Labor government, to direct strenuous urgent efforts to ensure the management of the Basin works effectively, and with the powers it needs to achieve concrete results.

There are many competing interests within the Basin. All can make compelling cases for their use of the water. If the federal government is to intervene to achieve progress and implement reform, using its sweeping powers to make it happen, it must make fair, firm and justifiable decisions. If any decisions it makes, particularly early in the regime, are found to be flawed then management will become very difficult. The only way, I believe, to avoid errors is to base those decisions on sound scientific evidence and make the process very transparent.

One of the best results to come out of the recent focus on water resources is that some money has been devoted to a study of what resources there are and monitoring how they are used. There is probably far more to be learned about the nature of water reservoirs and the behaviour of the Murray Darling river system. The ecology of the area must be very complex, and I am certain that the more that is learned about the nature of the system, the better the decisions will be on how to manage it. There is, for example, still considerable debate about the quantity that should be assigned to the so called environmental flow - that portion of water that is needed to flow unallocated down the river to maintain the health of the ecosystem.

There is also much more to be done in research to assist agricultural interests who will have to cope with a severely curtailed water allocation. Ongoing research and development has been the framework for much of Australia’s agricultural advantage, and I am confident that our scientists and technologists will be able to assist farmers to maintain their crops or switch to more appropriate crops. Adequate funding should be made available to ensure that this research and development is possible, not from the funds made available for the Basin management, but from increased funds for the scientific community.

It is disappointing that after bold statements about taking control of the Murray Darling and getting something done at last, it appears from several submissions to the Senate inquiry that there is a widespread view that the new regime is overly complex. A bureaucratic system chews up funds, and unnecessary complexity runs the risk of having another scheme bogged down in endless discussion and reporting. The time for action really has come.

There is great goodwill in many quarters to ensure this Bill achieves its stated objectives, and many support it despite its flaws. I am one of those, and I hope I live to see the late Ralph Jacobi’s vision implemented.