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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 260

Senator BIRMINGHAM (1:27 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

Second Reading of Water Bill 2007 and consequential amendments

I record my support for the Water Bill 2007 and associated legislation, which forms part of one of the most important reform packages as it relates to the state of South Australia in recent times.

The ongoing health of the River Murray and, as a consequence the entire Murray Darling Basin, is of vital importance to South Australia. Our irrigators and many primary producers depend on it, parts of our tourism industry depend on it, and indeed the city of Adelaide depends on it for urban water supply.

Importantly, the beautiful natural environment of our state depends on it too, especially the unique wetlands of the Coorong, which are found at the end of the Murray Darling system, near the Murray mouth. Being at the end of the system, the Coorong is especially vulnerable to the reduced flows the river has been experiencing.

In some states the debate about the river and its usage is dominated by the demands of irrigators and primary producers. And, having worked in the wine industry, where grape growers rely on the river system in many regions, not just in South Australia, I appreciate the importance of treating those whose living is derived from the river, and who generate much wealth for our country from the river, both fairly and equitably.

However, in South Australia we are acutely aware of the need to balance more than the needs of irrigators, we must also balance the needs of those in urban areas who rely on it and, most importantly, balance the environmental demands to sustain the river well into the future. I believe this package and the associated package achieves this balance.

This action is needed because of decades of mismanagement of the river and the emerging realisation that the consequences of this mismanagement will have severe and long term effects.

Our founding fathers—those who established this great Commonwealth of Australia through the federation of states in 1901—got much right, but they got it wrong when it came to the management of our waterways, especially the mighty Murray-Darling system.

By placing the powers of management in the hands of the states, they put the river at the mercy of vested interests. Over the years those vested interests have over-allocated the available water, allowed the prolonged occurrence of inefficient irrigation practices and starved it of effective environmental flows.

It didn’t have to be this way. At the 1897 Constitutional Convention in Adelaide a draft of the constitution under debate included a proposed clause 50 (XII), which gave the new Commonwealth jurisdiction over:

“Fisheries in Australian waters beyond territorial limits and in rivers which flow through two or more States.”

Regrettably, it was not to be. As one of the founding fathers, Charles Cameron Kingston, a former South Australian Premier and an inaugural member of this parliament, said at the time:

“it augurs ill to Federation that the representatives will not trust the Federal Parliament representing all the States, in which Victoria and New South Wales will have a much larger representation than we can have, in connection with this matter in which we feel so deeply, and on which we have sought so long and vainly to obtain a recognition of our rights. It is a pity indeed that the decision we have arrived at has been reached. I hope it may be reconsidered, and that a measure of hope may be held out that the Federal Parliament will be trusted with federal questions of the gravity involved in the use of the waters of the Murray”.

Yes, even then South Australians were arguing passionately for national control over the Murray.

Just as future generations are always beneficiaries of the achievements of those who have gone before them, it also falls to future generations to address the mistakes of the past. That is what the Howard Government is doing with our water reforms.

This Bill must be considered in tandem with the National Plan for Water Security announced by the Prime Minister in January this year. This plan commits the government to investing $10.05 billion to modernise irrigation infrastructure, address over-allocation problems, reform the management of the basin and ensure the collection of accurate, effective data into the future. To make the plan work, the Commonwealth sought a referral of powers from the States.

The plan was widely greeted within the community, especially the South Australian community. As is to be expected with any significant government policy announcement, the Opposition was also quick to greet it and agree with it. In fact it sparked the spectacle of the Opposition Leader going on a national tour to sell the Prime Minister’s plan to the Labor Premiers. This was all part of his claim to being able to achieve a new kind of federalism.

One by one, after discussions with the Prime Minister and Minister Turnbull and media stunts with the Opposition Leader, the states fell into line and committed support for the plan. But not Victoria, where self interest and political opportunism continued to be placed ahead of the national interest and the health of this great river system.

Mr Rudd failed to bring Victoria on board. His new, cooperative federalism was dead before it ever got off the ground. And he has rarely spoken of the water plan ever since. Both he and his other state Labor colleagues have lacked the courage to publicly criticise Victoria’s position. They have put their Labor mates ahead of this important environmental issue.

Without Victoria’s referral of powers a new approach was needed. And so we have the package before us today. This package, which utilises the external affairs and corporations powers of the Commonwealth to achieve implementation wherever possible, remains a good package. It will deliver improvements. The original plan was better and preferable, but with Labor acting as a spoiler we must accept this as a strong, viable alternative.

This Bill will establish the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. An independent, expert body, it is charged with the responsibility of developing an evidence-based Basin Plan that balances the needs of all stakeholders, including the health of the rivers. The Basin Plan will include an Environmental Watering Plan, which section 28 of the Bill says must “safeguard existing environmental water” and “plan for the recovery of additional environmental water”. Further, it must “protect and restore the wetlands and other environmental assets of the Murray-Darling Basin” and “protect biodiversity dependent on the Basin water resources”.

The Bill will expand the role of the Bureau of Meteorology, to ensure that the new authority and other policy makers have accurate data and information at their disposal, and establishes a role for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in managing the market for water trading and water pricing.

These are critical reforms that, when undertaken in tandem with the significant investment announced by the Prime Minister, will save water, put more control in the hands of experts rather than vested interests, improve environmental outcomes and guarantee the water entitlements of South Australia and its urban users. The reforms of this government will increase the chances of the system surviving into the long term, which will be of benefit to all stakeholders, right along the system.

I was pleased to participate in the inquiry into this Bill by the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Standing Committee. I note that after hearing from industry, agriculture, environmental, scientific and government interests the Committee concluded that although there was broad support for the Bill, it recognised “the preference of most stakeholders for the original referral of powers model”.

Once again we see just how much the Labor Government in Victoria was out on a limb, standing in the way of progress on this matter. The Victorian Government sent public servants to appear before the inquiry and attempt to justify their position. Yet in a shameful performance these public servants resorted to political points when it suited them, while hiding behind their policy makers at other times. Meanwhile, the other Labor states sat back, muted and unwilling to criticise their Labor mates.

It is also worth noting that those in this place who are always the first to claim the high ground on environmental matters - the Australian Greens and Australian Democrats - failed to ask a single question during the full day of hearings and were almost completely absent during the entire day. These reforms, the approach of the Howard Government and of Government Senators demonstrates clearly who really cares about getting practical outcomes for the environment.

Despite the pathetic performance of the state governments, I would like to record my thanks to the other witnesses for their constructive input into the inquiry, especially given the short time available to them. I also thank Dr Ian Holland and the Committee staff for their valuable work on this inquiry.

I have every faith that this Bill and the associated National Plan for Water Security is a good measure. It deserves to be passed and it deserves the support of all Senators. But, as Labor has forced a compromise upon us, we must ask if it will be good enough? We must question whether the Labor States, especially Victoria, will cooperate with the inter-governmental agreement that will accompany this Bill when the election has passed, or if they will continue to play politics with the river?

I hope we do get the best out of this package and quickly see the benefits of it. I prefer to be optimistic about these things, even though that optimism might be misplaced where the Labor Party is involved. The river needs this to succeed. The surrounding environment needs it to succeed. And the river communities, especially those in South Australia, need it to succeed.

But if it doesn’t, then a future government must take this matter to the people and seek the powers in the constitution that should have been there from day one. If it takes a referendum to ensure sound management of the Murray-Darling Basin once and for all, then ultimately that is what we should have. As Kingston continued to argue, in relation to power over the Murray River, at the 1898 Melbourne Constitution Convention:

“we ought to give to the Federal Parliament which we propose to call into existence the power, when it deems fit, to legislate on this question in order to remove this fertile source of friction between colonies.”

Indeed we ought.