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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 268

Senator HEFFERNAN (1:54 PM) —Firstly, I have to put on the record that I am a farmer and declare my interest—I have a water licence, unlike probably most people who are speaking to the Water Bill 2007. I strongly support this bill and the minister. I am aware that over many years—I got a water licence in 1968—water has been catastrophically mismanaged in Australia by governments of all persuasions. We are now going through the routine again of trying to find someone to blame, as we did with the Indigenous matter. We are all to blame. Every government in New South Wales has mucked up water, and a lot of that has been due to the fact that they did not understand the science of water—even the simplicity of the connectivity between groundwater and overland river water. We are just coming to terms with that now. In the US, that issue has been locked up in the courts for 20 years; it has provided a lawyers’ feast.

The Murray-Darling Basin, which this bill is about, represents 6.2 per cent of Australia’s run-off and 23,000 gigalitres, of which 13,000 gigalitres is extracted. It is seriously overallocated. So, whatever way you want to do the sums, the sums are not going to add up. So this legislation is very important to enable us to come to terms with that. In the committee hearing the other day, we were very grateful that all state governments were represented, with their correct bureaucracies, but not one of them has done any modelling on what it means if the CSIRO science is right and we lose between 3,500 and 11,000 gigalitres of run-off over the next 30 or 40 years. No-one has even thought that through, which is all the more reason why we need this legislation.

Victoria owned up that they were prepared to put in $1 billion and that they needed a further $1 billion. But, as I said many weeks ago, they are bloody stupid for not signing up. They can pretend that they are representing the interests of the irrigators but the fact is that the two representative bodies for irrigators at the hearing said that they agreed with the government’s position. You can hide behind all the bloody garbage in the world you like, but the fact is that this is very important legislation.

At the hearing the other day, I asked Peter Cullen to describe what an irrigation area in 2020 might look like. Also, given that there is a 50 per cent vagary in the science, the best of the worst-case scenarios is that somewhere between 3,500 gigalitres and 11,000 gigalitres will disappear from the system. What does that mean? I know what it means: it is going to be a catastrophe. We need to come to terms with that. If I can put in a little plug for the north, that is why we are looking at developing it.

I would also like to talk about some of the things in the legislation that are wrong and some of the things that might have to be handled federally, which is going to take more than political courage and require some robust use of this process. As we are not going to talk about this legislation in committee, I want to mention two things that ought to be changed in the legislation. I am not a lawyer. I am a worn out wool classer and a welder. In section 172(1), we should insert ‘The authority has the following functions: (a) to pursue the objectives of the act’ so as to give it more power. All those layers of lawyers out the back here might think there is something flawed with the English in that statement. It is a very simple statement. If we do not want this new body to turn into another Wheat Export Authority, which is a complete bloody failure, we need to give it some teeth. Also, in section 178(6), which refers to appointments, why can’t we say that members ‘may be’ and not ‘must be’ part time? If the right bloke comes along in the right circumstances, why wouldn’t we give ourselves the option to make him a full-time member? Best of luck to the wordsmiths.

For many years we have had a group of people in New South Wales above the wetlands and the Macquarie Marshes thieving water. We all know who they are. I asked the question in the committee hearing the other day, and the people from New South Wales said, ‘Senator, we’re working on that.’ Everyone knows who they are. You can go there and take beautiful colour photos of the water being diverted. As they send the water down to the Macquarie wetlands, you see it being diverted out onto pastoral properties. These are the sorts of things which, despite the politics, we have to have enough courage to deal with, and that is why I support this bill.

Another concern—and I will not describe the sort of sandwich which we have been given by the states, but is a pretty messy sandwich—is the hideaway of the problem that has occurred in places such as the Hay shire. Because of the separation of the water title and the land title, the rate burden will be taken from the people with the most capacity to pay the rates and given to the people who have the least capacity. The state government in New South Wales have no idea what to do about it. They put a moratorium in place for two years, they have provided no solutions and, I presume, they are hoping that under this act it will be the Commonwealth’s problem, which we will inherit from them—and I guess it will be. I can give one example of that for rate based purposes. A picture paints a thousand words. For example, a place in the Hay district—and I must confess that I have had a place there since 1967—has a 28,000-megalitre water licence. It has thousands of acres of irrigation in country that naturally and normally is dryland. There would be a sheep to four acres. It is beautiful sheep country. But now, it is probably four sheep to the acre, with the irrigation water.

Because of what is occurring in New South Wales with the separation of land and water titles and many of those water titles disappearing into office blocks in Sydney and all over the place—people up on the Gold Coast making a living out of them and all sorts of carpetbaggers—the people of Hay will be asked by the Shire of Hay, after the moratorium has been lifted, to pay rates for the wealth that is created by those water licences. So this particular property will get an 80 per cent reduction in its rating notice, and in the bill it has to pay, and that will be loaded onto people who have no water on their land. That is a crazy situation. As some members on this side of the chamber will be aware, I raised that issue in the party room the other day and the best we could get out of it was, yes, it is a problem. I would like to know what we are going to do about it.

Senator Barnaby Joyce will not be surprised to hear me say that the draft ROPs in some of the river systems in Queensland have had no science applied to them. They pretend the science has been applied. Peter Cullen was present in the committee hearing the other day. He is the standard bearer for the ROP in the Balonne, and he has been the most misquoted scientist in Australia. I think there should be a corruption inquiry if the draft ROP for the Balonne is implemented. I cannot see how an independent chair of the process can be a co-owner of the largest water licence that will be issued under the draft—it is still in draft form—with no science applied to it, for overland flow, in a system where the land flow eventually returns to the main stream, so it is the riparian right of someone downstream. This is a national disgrace. Do not ask me how it is compliant with the National Water Initiative, the ROP and the water resource plan of 2003. Do not ask me how it is compliant, because it is not. I asked John Cherry, who represents the Queensland farmers, that question the other day in the committee hearing—and, Senator O’Brien, you heard him—and he said, ‘We can’t answer that.’ And, when I asked the Queensland bureaucrats, they said, ‘We can’t answer that.’

How do you get an entitlement conversion to a licence, based on earthworks and capacity to harvest water when you do not have that capacity? What do you do? You have a commercial-in-confidence arrangement with your upstream neighbour and do it that way. I think it is a disgrace. As Peter Cullen said the other day, before that ROP is implemented there should, at the very least, be a full scientific study of that system. I have spoken to people such as Bobbie Brazil at the top of the system. They have given up. They said, ‘We couldn’t work it out with the bottom mob, so we just let them go.’ We need a full scientific review of that ROP before it is implemented. I think it would be a catastrophic fraud of the public purse to issue a licence for some 400,000 gigalitres and have to then retrieve it because we do not have the science. These sorts of issues will have to be dealt with under this plan and it will take a lot of guts to do it.

There are all sorts of state planning decisions, which is pretty scary. Given the emergency circumstances at present—and there is a catastrophic circumstance confronting many of our permanent plantings in the Murray Valley—you cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the concerns that farmers would have down there, given what Mother Nature is dishing out, according to the science. If you have a little mole on your arm and the doctor says, ‘It’s a melanoma, son; you’d better get it taken off,’ I think I would get it taken off. The scientists are telling us there is going to be a decline of between 25 and 50 per cent in the run-off in the Murray-Darling Basin, and we ought to have a plan to deal with that.

We had the announcement in Albury that they will tip the outflow from the Albury paper mill into the river, so the people down at Corowa, I presume, will be drinking the outfall. I do not know what science has been applied to that decision, but it sounds mighty odd to me. Much of this comes about because of the economic intimidation argument, so everyone is scared of the politics of it all. I understand there will be a full scientific review of the outfall of the Tasmanian pulp mill. I will look with great sensitivity at what it all means. I know that 200 tonnes a year of the most serious carcinogens and chemicals, out of 60,000 tonnes a day, will flow into Bass Strait. If I were a fish swimming around there, I would probably grow three heads and five legs.

So there is a lot of stuff that has to be dealt with. No-one should be in denial that we need this bill, and I commend the courage of the government. To say that it is somehow a political exercise is incorrect. This is another thing that is in the national interest for us to do. Obviously if there were no state borders we would not be here having this legislation; we would manage the system as Mother Nature designed it. Mother Nature did not design it to change the rules when it got to the bloody border. So there you go. I fully endorse the bill. I am very grateful to the minister for the way he has accepted approaches from people like Senator Boswell and Senator Joyce and for being patient with people like me. But my plea is that it just does not turn into another bureaucratic process that eats its head off.

Senator Patterson —I think Senator Heffernan should withdraw the word ‘bloody’.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I withdraw it.