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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 247

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

I rise today to speak on several issues raised by the Government’s twin Water Bills. Labor believes in strong national leadership in this area, and acknowledges the step that this Bill takes. We are therefore supporting these pieces of legislation. However, there are several concerns about the manner and form of the particular Bills before us today. Notwithstanding the obstacles appearing in negotiations with the States, there have been some significant short comings in the development of this legislation. I would like to speak to some of these as well as outline specific issues affecting South Australia.

Water is, as can be clearly seen by any Australian, especially in recent years, a very serious and important national issue. The Murray-Darling Basin, spanning four States, over a thousand kilometres, and impacting on a myriad of diverse interest groups, is a water resource worthy of careful scrutiny and prudent management.

Indeed the Basin has been on the agenda for a most of our history. As early as 1886 the need for water management was debated in the States. The Shadow Minister, Mr Albanese in the other place, reminded us of the involvement by the Commonwealth in the negotiations with the States in 1915 and later of the 1980s, the landmark Murray-Darling agreement of 1992 and the subsequent Murray-Darling Basin Act 1993. 1994 saw the COAG agreement on national water reform and in 2004 the National Water Initiative. In the same COAG meeting the Intergovernmental Agreement on Addressing Water Overallocation and Achieving Environmental Objectives in the Murray-Darling Basin was agreed. 

Perhaps it is obvious to say that there has been much concern and discussion about the need for nationally coordinated water management in this area.

Recently the matter of Global Warming has brought into focus the need to guard our natural environment and resources, especially in areas that have been taken for granted in the past such as air and water supply and quality.

Yet in the face of all this discussion and compelling reality, the Federal Government waited until 25 January 2007, the first month of this election year, to announce a significant commitment to securing the Murray-Darling Basin for the future.

It was difficult to criticise Prime Minister Howard when he stood up on that day and pledged 10 billion dollars to save and manage the Murray-Darling. Labor gave our “in-principle bipartisan support”, we have long seen national water security, and national water leadership as being important future-focused issues. That the Coalition needed an election year to address this issue was something forgivable considering Mr Howard’s substantial financial announcement.

Labor’s in-principle support for the Government’s plan reflects our willingness to support the idea and objective of the Government’s policy. But, in our view, measured decisions and prudent management of the Murray-Darling Basin are the only way to move forward on this matter of national importance. Unfortunately we have not seen this reflected in the Government’s actions since the Prime Minister’s January announcement.

We now know that the Prime Minister did not consult either the Treasury or Cabinet before his announcement, demonstrating from the outset the kind of reckless present-minded decisions that have seen the Murray-Darling Basin descend into an environmentally unsustainable state.

Turning the Senate’s attention to the Bills before us today, and specifically the Water Bill 2007, we see another example of abrupt decision making and inadequate consultation. I am referring of course to the manner in which the Bill was presented to the Parliament, the pressure exerted by the Government for a speedy passage of the Bills, the subjugation of the Bill to just a one day hearing, and the general lack of parliamentary scrutiny.

Unfortunately, this approach to law-making is becoming more the rule than the exception under this Government. It seems it regards the Parliament as a mere rubber-stamp - not as a place for careful scrutiny of legislative measures. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Government has the numbers in the Senate and can therefore dictate the timing of debate and ensure that the legislation passes without amendment. This is exactly what we do not need when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin. Almost 250 pages of legislation regarding such an important investment in the future management of the water supply of over 2 million people not given the appropriate scrutiny which is expected by the Parliament and the Australian people. For the Murray-Darling it has the potential to be extremely damaging.

Unfortunately this is what we have come to expect from this Government.

It is no wonder that there have been criticisms raised by Farmers Federations, Irrigators, leading environmental scientists and even the Queensland National Party. Not to mention various State Governments.

South Australia sits in an interesting position as it is touched by the very end of the Murray-Darling Basin. In the one-day Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts committee hearing last Friday the South Australian Government outlined its particular concerns about this Bill. I would like to reiterate some of those concerns.

Firstly, as Senators are well aware, Australia is in the grip of a particularly severe drought. In times like these there can be serious critical human need for water, perhaps in larger quantities than may be sustainable in the longer term. In extreme dry periods it may be necessary to raise caps or even suspend them. This has happened this year with the Murray-Darling Basin agreement and associated Acts which have been set-aside. It is therefore predictable that the same may be necessary in relation to the Water Act. It would be preferable to have an emergency provision included in the Water Act to cope with such a situation and to ensure consistency and preserve the longevity of the legislation.

Secondly, as I mentioned earlier South Australia sits at the end of the Murray-Darling Basin. For this reason and for the practical significance of having an end-of-basin flow target in achieving environmental goals, it is preferable that such a target be incorporated into the legislation. I say this however while acknowledging that the Basin plan should contain such a goal as well as general flow goals and other such targets. Like the South Australian Government I see no reason why the Commonwealth Government could not place some general and important long term goals in place for end of flow outcomes, as running guidelines to direct and coordinate the efforts of the Basin Authority in creating the Basin plan. Perhaps they really do have “goal-phobia”.

Thirdly, and related to my second point, there is no particular deadline attached to the creation of the Basin Plan. As “the plan” is such a pivotal instrument in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin it should not of course be rushed. However, we should equally ensure that it not be left to an open-ended deadline leaving the Murray-Darling in the same unsustainable situation for potentially several years. Mr Turnbull spoke of a two year period in his second reading speech, this is fine, but it would seem prudent to place some form of deadline in the legislation itself.

Fourthly, concerns were raised about the costs involved in the implementation of the Basin Plan. Again, if we cast our minds back to the 25th of January, to that grand and impressive figure of 10 billion dollars over 10 years, questions appear about exactly where that money will be spent. The Prime Minister outlined that the jurisdictions would suffer no additional cost as a result of this plan. There is however no assurance of that in the Water Bill before us. Similarly, so far we have in the May budget a mere $53 million of that $10 billion commitment being flagged for the upcoming financial year. There has been no specific plan outlined for the distribution of funds for this endeavour and it once again demonstrates a lack of sensible practical planing that is so desperately needed to secure the Murray-Darling.

Finally, the South Australian Government submitted their views about the lack of legislated requirement for consultation between the States and the Federal Government.  It should be noted that section 93 of the Water Bill requires consultation with the States to be included in any regulation made concerning water charge rules. However, this is the only compulsory consultation in the Act. Given the nature of the Basin, the deep stake that the States hold in its welfare and the significant effects the management of the Basin can have on the people of those States, it would seem appropriate to have some form of legislated requirement for consultation with State Governments regarding any major changes in the operation of the legislation.

In conclusion I would like to state once again Labor’s view that the Murray-Darling Basin and Water generally form some of the most important and precious resources in Australia. It is an issue that affects so many Australians, crosses State boundaries and is so universally appreciated that national leadership is the best and most appropriate way to move forward. In supporting this bill Labor is acknowledging the need of Australia to better manage and preserve our environment. This Bill begins to address these issues and while more can be done and better ways found, it is a step in the right direction.