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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
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Senator JOYCE (QueenslandLeader of The Nationals in the Senate) (12:32): Welcome back, Mr Deputy President, and congratulations, Senator Conroy. There must have been no-one else in the ballot. What we have here before us with the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 is basically a process that the Labor government have used to placate the Greens and to get to a magical number of 3,200 gigs. You can see the authenticity of how much they actually want to achieve this because, in the $1.77 billion that this requires, they have only allocated $50 million over the forward estimates. Therefore, this is more rhetoric than a reality.

As rhetoric, it falls well into line with everything else that has been insufficient about the government's current process in dealing with the water issue—insufficient insofar as we do not have currently a state intergovernmental agreement. They are state assets. We do not know how the states are going to do this. The states have not signed off on anything to do with this. We do not actually have an environmental water plan.

If this is correct, we will have 450 gigs from this, we have got 2,750 from the Basin Plan—there is your magical figure of 3,200 gigs—and we have already received about 962 gigs from the Living Murray and other state based plans. So we have got 4,162 gigs that have been returned to the river, of which 3,200—if you believe this—are going to be managed by the environmental water holder. That is a rather sizeable dam. That is a lot of water. That would be one of the biggest dams in Australia if it were all held in that dam. But what are they going to do with it? How does it actually work? How do they get this water to their assets? Where do they store it? What are the rights of other people near those dams where they store water? What happens if it pushes out the water that is being stored there for irrigation?

In my area, in the north, it is kind of ridiculous, because what they are doing is buying water that would have otherwise gone down the river to the Culgoa floodplain and the Narran lakes. And after they have purchased it, the water will still go down the river to the Culgoa floodplain and the Narran lakes. They are busily buying water that, in some instances, was never going to be used in any case. But, anyway, it helped some people and got them out of some rather large loans with the bank. They have laughed all the way to the bank—and that is fair enough.

This account is part of a rhetorical process more than it is part of an actual process. How are they managing even the water that they have got at the moment? We know from their tests that they have been trying to get water to South Australia but they actually cannot do it because of restrictions. There are so many issues pertaining to this that make it awfully convoluted. It will just become part of this political debate. It is not worth compromising the plan for an addendum which really is of no real consequence, because there is very little money, if any, actually allocated to this over the forward estimates.

As part of this process, the coalition will be looking to move amendments to reinforce our position so that, if we get the honour of becoming the government, the Australian people will have a strong idea about what we intend to do. Our amendments will remove buyback. We do not believe in buyback. We believe that, if you want to get water back into the river, you should do it the clever way. You should be trying to do it through infrastructure, through on-farm works and measures, through using laterals where you can, through more efficient mechanisms of storage and deeper cells. These are the sorts of things that a clever country would do. Just buying back the water and sending towns and communities broke is not clever. We in the coalition, in the National Party and in the Liberal Party, actually rate people above frogs—based on the Maslow hierarchy of needs—and believe that we are actually in this parliament to try as best we can to represent the 2.1 million people who live in the basin and make sure we protect their economic base. We will also be moving an amendment so that it goes back to what it initially said. This initially said 'up to 450 gigalitres' but, of course, that changed. Do you know why it changed? It changed because the Australian Greens wanted it to change. This is part of this 'Captain Chaos' government, which is currently being dispensed by the Australian people—now being dispensed by people on their own side—because, if you try to serve two masters, you end up serving none. In trying to serve the Greens, the right wing of the Labor Party and the left wing of the Labor Party, it has once more managed to create a piece of policy which is merely rhetoric because it discusses something that we have not actually allocated the money for. It talks things way off into the never-never. It talks it in a form where we are currently $262 billion in gross debt, so wherever this money comes from it is only borrowed money. If the nation does not have the money, what are your prospects of getting your hands on the money if we are so far in debt?

The coalition will be moving an amendment—to make sure that we specifically talk about the current process, because this goes back to the plan—to cap buybacks so that they do not go beyond 1,500 gigalitres. I cannot stress that enough. If you are going to steal from a town, you do it by actually taking the water licence off them. Once you take the water licence off them then maybe the farmers would be happy—because they will collect the cheque, go to the coast and live happily ever after—but the tyre business in the town just goes broke. Maybe they go to the bank to borrow $800,000, $900,000, $1 million or $2 million to build a motel, but all of a sudden the economic base of their business, their rug, is pulled out. These people do not get compensated.

This is why you have to be so careful: because any government that is going to an election talking about economic prudence—talking about having the capacity to get the economy going—is going to look awfully odd if one of its front-and-centre pieces is a policy to actually shut down economies. When you really think about it, the way it is going about this is that it is borrowing money from overseas. We are in debt by $262 billion, and 86 per cent of that money that we have borrowed comes in from overseas—from the good people of China and from the people in the Middle-East. All of these prudent people saving their money send it over to us because we cannot make our incomes meet our expenses and our debt gets bigger and bigger—we borrowed in excess of $2 billion last week—and ultimately we have to pay these people back. But when you think about it, when you really drill down to it, we are borrowing money from overseas not to create a productive asset that can pay things off—not to actually build a new factory or a new dam or to increase our capacity to meet our debts. We are borrowing money from overseas to shut the factories down and to shut the towns down. It is a double whammy. We are borrowing the money and we are reducing the size of the economic component that is supposed to pay it off. It is a very, very strange and peculiar thing. It is a job for Inspector Clouseau, something we must investigate more closely. It needs a rather large magnifying glass to work out why we are doing this.

But we have always said that it is for the environment. Of course people say: 'Well, it's your policy. It's the coalition's policy'. The difference is that we brought this policy about when we actually had money in the bank. That is the difference. Now we do not have money in the bank; we just have massive debts. We are very mindful of the fact that, yes, we must deal with the environmental issue where that was pertinent, but we must not deal with it in a way that destroys the economic fabric of the 2.1 million people living in the basin. We are very aware of and very alive to issues such as the 600 dairy farmers that turned up in Victoria the other day—we are very alive to that. We are very alive to what the pressures are on these people's lives. One is the overcentralisation of the retail market and the fact that they are being exploited by dollar-a-litre milk—we acknowledge that. Another thing is that we have this crazy policy where the government is now basically going into areas and buying out the water, becoming the biggest competitor in their own water market, shutting down their towns and putting extra pressure on them because of a fascination with frogs and moths. We will be part of this process, but we will not do it to the extent that it creates a mechanism for the destruction of the communities that we are supposed to represent and it becomes symbolic of a process that shows that you have no economic credibility whatsoever in that you were going to areas to shut economies down rather than build them up.

In showing a process of cautiously working with the government and in close discussions with our state colleagues, we will go down this path, but we will do it in such a way that we will be moving amendments to clearly show to the Australian people what our views are on this issue. There really needs to be a lot more work that goes into this whole plan. It is a plan that, in some areas, is completely incongruous to the outcome. There is no water. We are probably going to be ending up with about 150,000 to 180,000 megalitres per day going through St George. I can assure you that that water will never, ever get to South Australia—not a chance. Some of it may get to the Menindee storage lakes. There was this view at the start of this debate that Australia was this interconnected garden hose where, if you just tip a bit of water in at Toowoomba and wait long enough, it arrives at the Lower Lakes. That is an absurdity. As I said at the start of this debate some years ago, it is a big old dry carpet. This plan does not properly reflect the hydrology of it. The latest tests that they have done in trying to move and shepherd water have emphasised quite clearly the impracticalities of trying to shepherd water, whether it is from Copeton Dam in northern New South Wales or, even more ridiculously, virtually from central Queensland down to South Australia. It is just impractical; it will not do it. What really were the issues that we were trying to address with this? How did we get ourselves into a position where we are so far down the track? When are we actually going to see an environmental watering plan? When is this document going to turn up? Why is it that we have been in a position where the biggest irrigator with the biggest water asset in our nation will now be the government? Others may be irrigating things that actually produce money, whether it is cotton or rice or apricots or apples or onions or potatoes, but the government are going to be watering swamps and forests and moss. That is marvellous, but the government are now the biggest irrigator and the water asset that they have on the books would be the biggest water asset held by anybody. It is a massive asset. But you do not get any sense of comfort when you think, therefore, that these people better be absolutely competent and on their game. What sense of competence do you get from a government when you find out that they bought a property, Toorale Station, near Bourke, and the Commonwealth taxpayer shelled out $23.75 million. The closest that this government ever got to that place was 30,000 feet on their way to Darwin. They never set foot on it.

The story goes that this place was going to auction and someone from the government rang up and said: 'We may have an interest in that place. What is your reserve?' The sellers said, 'We do not tell you the reserve before we sell a place.' I know that Senator Fifield, who used to work in the Treasurer's office, will be fascinated by this. The government said, 'We are really interested.' They went back and had a meeting and said, 'The government has just rung up and wants to buy Toorale, wants us to tell them the reserve.' The bloke said, 'Tell them to go jump.' Anyway, the number they actually had in mind was $16 million but they said, 'If they ring back, just say 23.' Guess what! They rang back and said, 'It is 23.' They thought they would drive a really hard deal. So do you know what they said then? They said, 'But it has still got cattle on it.' They said, 'They have to go and that will cost more.' So it cost the Australian taxpayer $750,000 to remove the Commonwealth's stock off their own place and have them sold.

Senator Nash: It is ludicrous.

Senator JOYCE: It is. These people are running the country. They say, 'Oh, this is a one-off.' They cannot possibly have bought the place without seeing it. Well, they did. At that stage the minister was Penny Wong. She only turns up once in your life and when she turns up you just have to make the most of her! Then the government came back into the market because after Toorale they went and bought Twynam's water from Johnny Kahlbetzer. I went to college with him. He is a clever man. They bought all his water licences, the whole $303 million. There were other people in tenders up and down, offering it cheaper. But this is the government and this is why the government are so far in debt. This is why I have no confidence whatsoever that these people will be competent enough to complete on this plan.

We started this process in good faith, that there was an environmental issue there and we would try as best we could to address it. We put the money on the table when we had money in the bank. We knew full well from the word go that, if the coalition were not at the table, this rambling disorderly nonsense which is apparently standing in proxy for a government instead of talking to us would talk to the Greens. You will see one of these amendments coming up: rather than saying they want 'up to', they want a minimum of 450 gigs from this. That is what we would have to contend with. They said at the start they wanted in excess of 7,000 gigs to be taken out of communities and put back into the environment. That would absolutely decimate the Murray-Darling Basin. They were kicking and screaming, they were never happy.

It was force majeure for us because we knew full well, if we were not the participants to try and placate the excesses of this ludicrous scheme, who would be doing it—the Australian Greens, as orchestrated from inner suburban Adelaide. That would have not been doing the right thing by our people, by those 600 dairy farmers who were protesting the other day, by the people of Bourke, by the people of Parkes, by the people of Goondiwindi, by the people of St George, where I live. This river goes literally past my front door. I can throw a rock from my front yard into the river without much effort whatsoever. In fact, in a couple of days I will be able to almost kick it into the river.

To be honest, we are extremely reluctant participants in an incompetent government, but we do it because we know that the alternative is disaster. We will be moving amendments that clearly state our position should we come to government. Make no mistake about our position. There will be a cap at 1,500 gigs on buyback. We will make sure that the operations of the environmental water holder do not disturb the market but, if there is the opportunity at times for water that is not going to be used, that people have the capacity to use that productively. These are the sorts of logical things that have to happen. With a sense of scepticism and erring, we cautiously move forward with this bill.