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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 266

Senator IAN MACDONALD (1:42 PM) —I want to briefly address the Water Bill 2007, which is the first water reform program that has been introduced into the parliament in 106 years. This is a nation-building bill, not just for our generation but also for generations to come. This bill will ensure the sustainability of one of our great national assets—one of our great natural assets. It will underpin our nation’s water resources and secure the future of industries and communities and the environments on which they rely.

I want to congratulate my Liberal colleague Malcolm Turnbull on his consultation, his determination and his ability in getting this bill to the parliament. It has not been easy. He consulted with all forms of politicians, with various industry groups, with the states—which is something in itself—and he has come up with this bill. I am proud that my Liberal colleague has been able to deliver a bill that many before him have not been able to. This bill contains the key proposals that are outlined in the National Plan for Water Security, which was announced by John Howard on 25 January this year. It addresses the modernising of irrigation and the overallocation and overuse of water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin, and it is supported by a $10 billion investment.

Forgive me: I get very frustrated and angry when I hear some of the speeches in this chamber from people who allegedly have some idea about this bill. Senator Allison did not even bother to attend the committee hearings on this bill, and her speech was loaded with inaccuracies. It seemed clear to me that her speech had been written by the Victorian government. She went on at length about the problems in the Murray-Darling Basin system and why they had not been addressed before this. But when there is a piece of legislation before the parliament that actually addresses the problems, she says, ‘There’s not enough consultation and it should have been delayed.’ She was also inaccurate in suggesting that the Victorian farmers were opposed to the bill. Clearly, if she had been at the committee hearing she would know that the Victorian farmers support the initiatives and the direction of the bill.

Everybody at the committee was concerned that the bill did not go as far as it could, but the only reason that it did not was that the Victorian state Labor government would not come in and play ball. Every other state government in the basin was prepared to cede its powers. Victoria would not, for what I can only determine, having heard the evidence, were pretty cheap political purposes. It should be rammed home: yes, there are some deficiencies in this bill; yes, everybody would have liked it to contain other things—and it would have contained other things had the Victorian government been prepared to cede powers as every other government did.

Senator Allison was criticising the bureaucracy and the duplication. Sure, we all know that. Most of that duplication and additional bureaucracy would have gone had the original intention been put into place. As for suggestions by several of the opposition speakers that there was not consultation, the consultation on this bill was enormous; in fact, the consultation—a bit like the with Aboriginal children’s legislation we have just been dealing with—has been going on for the last 20 or 30 years. But people have not been prepared to go ahead with it because it might offend some sensitivity; someone might not have been spoken to. Here is a government that on two issues this week has addressed the difficult positions, the difficult things, that people have been talking about for decades. We are doing it this week but what do we get from those who profess an interest in and a concern for the Murray-Darling Basin system? A criticism and an urge to delay it till we have yet further talks—more talks, more consultation; don’t do anything.

I was pleased in the committee session to be able to say to those who were sort of mirroring or predicting the concerns that Senator Allison was raising: ‘If this bill is this bad, do you want me to vote against it? Do you want me to propose that the bill be put aside, bearing in mind that there will be an election before the end of the year? By the time the new government led by Mr Howard is put in place and starts consultation you’ll be in the middle of next year, and it’ll be this time next year before we think about passing a bill; is that what you want?’ To a man, to a woman, the people at that inquiry all said: ‘No, do not talk anymore; do not delay. Go ahead with this because, while it is not perfect because of the Victorian government’s intransigence, it is a great start.’

I have often said I think we have been a bit wimpish. I would much rather have had a referendum put to the Australian public on this question—that the national government should take over management of our Murray-Darling Basin system, which crosses four states and is so important to all four. I have for several years attended meetings of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, and my attendance at those meetings simply confirmed that people were not interested in the Murray-Darling Basin system. The national government was, but the states all went there with particular agendas that were very parochial or, worse still, political. The state Labor ministers would gang up on the Commonwealth, hijacking them at times, just to score political points. As I sat through those meetings, I used to think: if only we could get a national arrangement that looked after the health of the river, the interests of those who are served by it, then we could get something done. And this bill does it. It establishes an independent authority which will have considerable powers, but not as many powers as we would have had if Victoria had come on board. We are still hopeful that, once this bill is passed and the intergovernmental agreement is made, Victoria may come on board and we can fix some of the difficulties in this bill that have been caused by the Victorian government’s intransigence.

We have the constitutional power for this bill. It is not as good as it would have been had the states ceded their powers, but we have been able to get this bill on the back of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The new authority will be one basin-wide institution. It will be responsible for planning the basin’s water resources and making decisions in the interests of the basin as a whole, not along state lines. As a Queenslander and one who travels widely in the Murray-Darling Basin part of Queensland, I know that most people in the basin—and Australia—want to have a system that is fair and healthy and that serves all of those that it is meant to serve.

The basin plan will be one of the tasks of the new authority, and the central element will be the introduction of a sustainable, integrated cap on groundwater and surface water diversions. The basin plan will set the limits on the quantity of water that may be taken from the basin water resources as a whole and for particular water resource plan areas. The cap will be enforceable by the authority in the interests of everybody. A Commonwealth environmental water holder will be established to ensure that water recovered through the rollout of the irrigation efficiency program and structural adjustment program of the national plan will be used for environmental water purposes, and this independent person or body will hold the water for the environment.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will be involved, as my colleagues have mentioned. The Bureau of Meteorology, which I once had the honour of leading in a ministerial sense, will also be very involved. They will be putting their expertise into collecting up-to-date, accurate and comprehensive information on water use and availability across Australia. This is going to be critical to the input to the basin plan.

The bill provides for metering of stock and domestic water use under the basin plan. As the minister has previously confirmed, there is no intention to require metering of stock and domestic bores, except in very special circumstances where a groundwater system is under stress or where there are local disputes about water sharing. Those issues were canvassed in the National Water Initiative. In very rare cases where the metering of stock and domestic bores is warranted, the cost will not be borne by the landowner other than with his or her agreement. Governments will pick up the bill there.

Our objective remains to have a comprehensive Commonwealth water law. We will seek to negotiate that law through the intergovernmental agreement with the basin states. Under that agreement, the states will refer powers to underpin this comprehensive legislation within 12 months of signing.

Senator Sterle —That is a long 10 minutes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Senator Sterle, your understanding of the time is about as good as your understanding of procedures in this parliament—very poor and very wanting. In spite of the interjections that seek to delay my speech beyond the 10 minutes that I allocated myself, I want to applaud the bill, applaud the minister and congratulate the Prime Minister on at last doing something about one of the major issues that have been confronting Australia since Federation. I commend the passage of the bill to the Senate.