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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 273

Senator ABETZ (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) (2:15 PM) —In the summing up, I will talk generally and then will seek to deal with some of the matters that were raised by honourable senators. The reforms embodied in the Water Bill 2007 before the Senate today represent the most significant reform to water management in the Murray-Darling Basin in over 100 years. For the first time in the basin’s history, one institution will be responsible for planning the basin’s water resources, requiring planning decisions to be made in the interests of the basin as a whole and not along state lines. The Water Bill and the National Plan for Water Security will accelerate the 2004 National Water Initiative, signed by all Australian governments. This bill will greatly enhance the Commonwealth government’s capacity to implement its commitments under international agreements such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The current governance model for the basin, which has remained largely unchanged since 1915, requires the agreement of all basin jurisdictions before any reforms can be implemented. It enables the parochial interests of one state to stand in the way of the common good. The waters of the basin do not respect state borders, nor should the way we manage them. The Water Bill establishes an expert independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The authority will develop a basin plan that will enable the waters of the basin to be managed as one interconnected system. The central element of the basin plan will be the introduction of a sustainable and integrated cap on groundwater and surface water diversions. The basin plan will set enforceable limits on the quantity of water that may be taken from the basin’s water resources as a whole and from particular water resource plan areas. The authority will consult widely with communities, irrigator groups and other stakeholders in the exercise of its functions, including the formulation of the basin plan.

The bill establishes a new role for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in developing and enforcing consistent rules for water charging and operation of the market across the basin, consistent with principles agreed in the National Water Initiative. A Commonwealth environmental water holder is established by the bill. It will be the custodian of water access entitlements obtained by the Commonwealth through the savings generated under the irrigation refurbishment program and the overallocation funding provided for in the national plan. Under this bill, the Bureau of Meteorology will collect up-to-date, accurate and comprehensive information on water use and availability across Australia. The cooperation of basin states remains an integral element of this reform and for the effective implementation of the Water Bill.

I take this opportunity to thank the members of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts for their work on the inquiry into the Water Bill as well as the representatives of stakeholder groups, scientists and officials who appeared before the committee and made submissions to the inquiry. The bill has enjoyed strong support from a wide range of groups, including environmental interests as well as irrigators, which I think is a reflection of the government’s commitment to consultation throughout the formulation of this legislation.

Let me say that this is the first reform of its kind—the first time the Commonwealth government has reformed water management in Australia to give the Commonwealth powers over water management. This is the first fundamental reform of its kind and this historic legislation is only possible because the Howard government had the courage to implement it. Where the Victorian Labor government would not cooperate in the interests of the basin, the Howard government was determined to move forward with this much-needed reform. The reforms in this bill are needed to meet the future challenges facing water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, one of this nation’s great natural assets. With scientists predicting a hotter and drier future for southern Australia, these reforms will ensure the viability of the basin’s water-dependent industries. They will ensure healthy and vibrant basin communities and they will ensure the sustainability of the basin’s natural environment.

I will turn to some of the contributions that were made. I did have a few notes that I jotted down in relation to the Greens and Democrat contribution but, if I might say, Senator Ian Macdonald dealt with them quite well. I thank him for that contribution and remind honourable senators of that and indicate that I say, ‘Hear, hear!’ to that.

In relation to one other matter, I remind honourable senators that we have three-year parliamentary terms. As soon as you are in the last year of a parliamentary term, according to the opposition, everything that the government does seems to be election driven. It really seems, according to those opposite, that, after two years have clicked over, the government ought to just free-wheel, not introduce any new initiatives and not do anything. Of course, if we did that it would be a tired old government without any initiatives and without any legislative programs. So you do have a legislative program, you come up with new initiatives and of course then, according to the opposition, it is all election driven. What I would invite honourable senators to do is actually look at the legislation, see what is in it and judge it on its merits.

Senators Joyce and Boswell made contributions. I will respond to the matters raised by Senator Joyce. The Commonwealth will meet the commitments it made with the adoption of the national plan in February, but on the basis of the full referral of powers for implementing the plan. The Commonwealth has no intention of exposing irrigators or the states to liabilities they would not have assumed had the original intent to implement the national plan with full referral of powers by all basin states been realised. We intend addressing the issue of the National Water Initiative liabilities for new knowledge applied to water plans through the intergovernmental agreement. It is not appropriate that these be dealt with in the legislation. We are fully aware that in the case of Queensland, relevant water plans expire in September 2014. The challenge for the IGA will be in ensuring an appropriate share of liabilities between the Commonwealth and the states ahead of 2015. We will present the draft IGA to the states this week. Senator Joyce asked what is to guarantee that a future government will respect these arrangements. As the senator will know, we in this place—unfortunately, we think sometimes, but chances are it is fortunate in the total scheme of things—cannot commit future governments to any policies, programs, intergovernmental agreements or even legislation. Historically governments have respected commitments made through intergovernmental agreements.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Except Western Australia in relation to the regional forest agreement.

Senator ABETZ —Yes—a point that I do acknowledge, but I will move on. Senator Heffernan raised some issues. I indicate to those opposite that my dealing with these matters in the second reading debate will mean that they will not be contributing through the committee stage. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s main role is the preparation and enforcement of the basin plan. Clause 20 of the bill sets out the purpose of the basin plan, which is to provide for the integrated management of the basin water resources in a way that promotes the objects of the act. The government considers that this requirement gives the MDBA responsibility for meeting the objects of the act within the scope of its functions. The government notes that meeting some of the objects of the act is more a responsibility of the ACCC or the Bureau of Meteorology than a responsibility of the MDBA.

In relation to clause 178, I indicate to the honourable senator that the structure of the authority reflects the workload and functions of the body. Should a full referral of powers be made then the structure of the authority would be reconfigured consistent with its expanded functions to include full-time membership. Retaining part-time membership of the authority will ensure that expenditure on its resourcing is commensurate with its functions.

In relation to Senator Fielding’s contribution, the final contribution, I engage with him in relation to the assertion that no detail has been presented. This is wrong. There have been seven months of consultation. There were over 50 meetings on the detail of the bill, including with irrigators across the basin. It would be fair to say, unfortunately, that the Victorian state officials provided little or no contribution. My colleague Minister Turnbull met several times with the National Farmers Federation, who represented the irrigators across the basin. Having made those comments, I commend the bill to the Senate.