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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 264

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (1:35 PM) —The coalition federal government has taken the difficult and brave step of putting its hand up to fix the Murray-Darling water system. This is a historical, nation-building move backed by $10 billion. For over 100 years the Murray-Darling Basin has been managed between four states, with each state competing against the other to obtain the best outcome for their state. Over time this has led to a host of problems, including overallocations and neglected infrastructure.

For the first time there will be one Murray-Darling Basin Authority for the whole Murray-Darling Basin to plan the basin’s water resources, making decisions for the benefit of the basin as a whole rather than just for a state interest. The authority will prepare the basin plan in consultation with the basin states, including Queensland, and the wider community. This plan and the funding of the plan would not have been possible if not for the responsible economic management and disciplined policies of our federal coalition government—and I would like to mention that Labor has opposed every one of the government’s reforms and policies that have made our economy strong.

So far Labor and Kevin Rudd’s only ‘visionary’ input to Australia’s water solutions has been to cancel the construction of the Wolffdene Dam in Queensland in 1989 when he was an adviser to Wayne Goss, who at the time was the Labor Premier of Queensland. I am sure those in the south-east corner of Queensland, who are now on level 5 water restrictions, are still thanking him for that little piece of insight.

The Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, has worked tirelessly with representatives from involved industries on a day-to-day basis to ensure that the Water Bill 2007 was workable and acceptable. He and his staff have also always been available for discussing and resolving the issues that my Queensland constituents and industry representatives have raised with me and Barnaby Joyce over this legislation.

The bills follow on from and incorporate the principles of the National Water Initiative and deliver on key proposals as per the National Plan for Water Security, which was announced by the Prime Minister on 25 January this year. From the announcement, there were some concerns from Queensland irrigators and their associated representatives. Since the announcement was made, Barnaby Joyce and I, and other coalition members, have been working constantly with them to address their concerns.

Water rights, as assets, underpin the value of any farming property. Without the surety of their water assets, their property values do not hold up. This issue is important to their future. As legislators, we need to ensure that we put a high value on these assets as an investment in the future of whole regions. With this in mind I requested the Prime Minister to a write a letter to the Premier of Queensland confirming that resource operation plans that were negotiated with the Queensland government would be honoured. The Prime Minister wrote that letter on 25 March 2007. The letter was the basis of our commitment to Queensland irrigators. When the Water Bill first came out, it did not meet the commitments detailed or implied in the letter. After many amendments and many consultations that Barnaby Joyce, the Queensland irrigators and I held with the office of the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, we now have a Water Bill that meets our commitment to Queensland irrigators.

It came down to two remaining concerns, which we resolved the other day. The first concern was that the Queensland resource operation plan would finish in September 2014 and the Commonwealth would not accept the risk liability until the beginning of 2015, leaving what the irrigators believed would be a three-month gap. As we cannot amend the state legislation, the Commonwealth will be requiring the agreement of the states—through intergovernmental agreements—to bring forward the risk liability. In Queensland’s particular case this will be to September 2014. That is the best that we have been able to do and I believe it should give the irrigators sufficient comfort—but it was not for the want of trying that we did not push it further.

The other remaining issue was an overland flow issue. There are a whole range of different water entitlements in Queensland and the irrigators were worried that some of these entitlements, including overland flows, were outside the national water plan’s definition of ‘tradeable entitlements’. The Commonwealth was sure that they were covered by the definition in the legislation but, in good faith, to remove all doubt we have included the word ‘authorised’ in 26 different parts of the legislation to ensure that the definition of ‘entitlements’ is covered. It now complies with the way that it is written in the Queensland legislation—so there can be no doubt. We have also included a further explanation of the definition in the explanatory memorandum just to be absolutely certain.

Around 15 to 20 issues have been addressed since the drafting of the Water Bill. We now have written confirmation from the QFF and the NFF of their support for the amended legislation. We have done our best—we can go no further. I believe that we have done our bit for the irrigators. We have achieved our commitment.

I will clearly state that the bill ensures that there will be no compulsory acquisition of water entitlements or allocations. The National Plan for Water Security underwrites property rights pertaining to water entitlements and prohibits compulsory acquisitions. Existing water entitlements will not be affected. The current state water share plans under the Murray-Darling Basin agreement will be guaranteed. This includes the resource operation plans in Queensland. The bill will establish a new role for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to monitor and enforce rules for water charges and market rules in the basin.

The bill gives us funding of over $3 billion to address overallocation and overuse of water resources in the basin. An amount of $1.6 billion has been allocated to on-farm efficiencies in irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin. This is a comprehensive bill encompassing a range of sensible, practical initiatives for water reform that will benefit the Australian community long after we are all gone. It is not a quick political fix to a popular issue, as indicated earlier. We have worked hard to create this bill. It is yet another example of how the federal coalition’s good management will secure the future for the environment, the communities and the industries that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin.