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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Page: 5


Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (12:52): I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 as well. This bill has had to be brought forward by the government because the plan that was ticked off by this chamber and by both the government and the coalition did not deliver enough water in order to save the Murray-Darling Basin and restore it to the health that it needs in order to allow communities and the environment to flourish.

Last November the government and the coalition passed the plan. It did not deliver that guaranteed water. In fact, it was a standout failing of the plan, because it started with recovering only 2,750 gigalitres for the environment. When you take into account the adjustment mechanism that will be applied in 2016, that water recovery figure could be even lower than 2,000 gigalitres, which is nowhere near the levels we need in order to save the Murray-Darling Basin and put it on a healthy path to a healthy future.

The government and the coalition passed the plan last year knowing full well that 2,750 gigalitres would not return enough water to save the river. They knew full well that it would not be enough water to allow the communities that rely on it that certainty that they need. They knew full well that 2,750 gigalitres, as outlined in the plan, would not be enough to secure the water that would be needed during the dry times and when drought comes back. Just as an interesting note, obviously Adelaide relies very heavily on the healthy water flows of the Murray-Darling Basin in coming down to the southern end of the system, and only last week it was recorded that Adelaide's water reservoirs are lower at this time of year than they have been in a decade. So despite all of the rainfall that we have had over the last three years, Adelaide's water security is at higher risk in February than it has been for the last 10 years, and we know that part of the big problem here is that this plan never included any impacts on climate change. We know that the plan does not set the management of the system up for a drying climate and for less water to be available overall in the system.

Knowing this, we had the Prime Minister and the water minister come down to Goolwa in my home state in South Australia in October last year and promise an extra 450 gigalitres. They did not put it in the plan even though we knew that it needed to be benchmarked, that we needed that extra water and it should have been the starting point for how the river would be managed—the amount of water to be returned back to the system. Rather than putting it in the plan, they decided they would leave it out and put in a separate piece of legislation, and that is what we are speaking to today. That extra 450 gigalitres is meant to be the top-up that is needed to reach a figure of 3,200 gigalitres, which is the absolute bare minimum that is needed if we are to save the system.

Australia's top scientists tell us we need 4,000 gigalitres, and yet even with this extra 450, as allocated in this bill, we will not even get to 4,000—we only get to 3,200. But the clincher in all this is that even in this bill, despite the promises from the Prime Minister and the big fanfare about giving extra water--that this was going to be the day that we save the river system—there is no guarantee in this current legislation as it is drafted before us today that that extra 450 gigalitres will even come. It is an aspiration. It is not a gold-clad guarantee. We know that governments like promising things that they then, further down the track, realise that they no longer wish to deliver, which is why we will be moving amendments to this legislation; to guarantee that 450 gigalitres is returned to the river and that we do not have to stick by that pushed-out time frame of 2024. Despite the fact that scientists are telling us we drastically have to manage our water system better, that we need more water allocated to the environment and that we have to give the river back its fair share, there are no guarantees that any of this amount will actually be returned to the river anywhere before 2024—far too late to really save the system.

It has been very disappointing to see how both the government and the coalition have worked together on delivering such a pathetic plan. It does not set the river up for a healthy future. This bill before us does not even have strong enough environmental protections. It allocates $1.8 billion from the Australian taxpayer to the most expensive and least effective water recovery methods, and it puts off finding that water until 2024, which allows for the very dangerous position of that $1.8 billion being frittered away before even reaching the figure of 450 gigalitres. We need to guarantee that that amount will be returned. We need to bring in the time frame so we are not asking communities, such as mine in my home state of South Australia, to wait for another 11 years before the river is given back the water it desperately needs. If we all agree—and the water minister has said that he does, the Prime Minister has said that she does and the Premier of South Australia says that he does—that the absolute minimum amount of water for the river should be 3,200 gigalitres then that is what we should be delivering. If that is the minimum then let us deliver it. Why do we need these get-out clauses and weasel words in the legislation if it is not only to allow the government of the day off the hook if they decide they want to put the interests of big business ahead of the protection of our environment and the water security of our communities?

As I have said, we will be moving amendments. We are willing to work with the government to try to fix this mess. The government agrees that 3,200 gigalitres is what is needed. Let us lock it in, secure it and make sure that Tony Abbott and his coalition cannot fritter it away with their big business mates on day one after the next election. We need to lock this in as a floor.

Let us go to a couple of the specific amendments that we will move when we get to the committee stage in this debate. We know that South Australia suffered terribly during the millennium drought. Many of my South Australian Senate colleagues will probably participate in this debate. I see Minister Wong sitting on the front bench here. Minister Wong understands how vital it is to ensure that South Australia gets this extra water. If we do not get this extra water, if it is not guaranteed, then we will have just wasted five years negotiating the Murray-Darling Basin Plan only to have to revisit it in 10 years time.

We have to lock that figure in. In order to do that we have to insert the words 'at least'. We cannot say 'up to 450 gigalitres'; we need to say 'at least 450 gigalitres' because that is the only way we are going to be able to guarantee that the river gets the water that it actually needs. Our amendments will fix this. We will ensure that we get at least 450 gigalitres. With $1.8 billion of Australian taxpayers' money we can do that. In fact, we have already been doing that. We know that we have been buying significant amounts of water—since 2008 over 1,300 gigalitres have been already returned to the river—so securing at least 450 gigalitres with $1.8 billion will not be very difficult. It can be done. We just need the political will to do it.

We also need to make sure that we are spending this money as wisely as possible, which is why the Greens will be moving amendments in relation to auditing and accountability. $1.8 billion is a lot of money. If we were to buy back those water entitlements, we could be getting four or five times more water for that figure. The way this bill has been structured is to allow $1.8 billion to be spent in the most ineffective and most inefficient way. We need to make sure that there are proper balances and checks to ensure that taxpayers' money is not wasted.

The Greens do not want to see the special account become nothing more than an ATM for big business and foreign owned cotton growers. We do not want to see $1.8 billion of Australian taxpayers' money handed out as sweeteners to the big irrigators in Barnaby Joyce's electorate. We want to make sure that $1.8 billion is actually spent returning the water that the river needs. If we are serious about getting to that 3,200 gigalitre figure then there should be no argument about making sure that those guarantees are locked in.

As I have said many times in this place, we know that buying back water is four to five times more effective than spending the same dollar amount simply on infrastructure that cannot guarantee the volume of water to be returned to the river. When a government buys a water entitlement it knows how much water will be returned. Despite repeated reviews proving this and audits that have shown that you recover less water at a more expensive rate by just spending that money on concrete and pipes rather than on real water, that is not what is currently in this bill, so we need to fix it. Our amendments still leave the government of the day all of the options for different methods of finding water, including on-farm infrastructure, while also reopening the door to buybacks. We know that if we are to return 450 gigalitres it cannot be guaranteed that it is going to be delivered through infrastructure. We need to be able to buy those water entitlements as well.

We are not sure what is going to happen in the future. Scientists are suggesting that the climate is drying and there will be less run-off throughout the system. We need to make sure that we can buy the water back that we need in the most cost-effective and most successful way to ensure that Australian taxpayers are not having their precious money frittered away. Our amendments to this legislation also put more rigorous limits on how saline South Australia's Lower Lakes and Coorong are able to become. We know that this is important because we need proper triggers in order to ensure that the government of the day does act on returning the water that is needed. We know that in the last drought the extremely salty water left native flora and fauna struggling to survive. In fact, a quick visit to the southern lagoon in South Australia's Coorong shows you that, despite more water being in the system over the last few years, the system was so crippled by a lack of water during the drought—massive over allocation throughout the whole system—that the environment just has not been able to recover. It is still struggling to survive. We know that very, very salty water has made our wetlands a breeding ground for tube worms which has obviously made a massive impact on the native flora and fauna, in particular the freshwater turtles that live in the Lower Lakes and along the shores of the Coorong.

We almost lost all of South Australia's local industries and dairy farms during the dry period. We went from 40 farms around the Lower Lakes to now four. It had a crippling impact on the local economy in South Australia. We cannot let this happen again. If this is about setting up a management system for the river for the future—for the river itself and for the environment—to care for the local communities who rely on that healthy system then we need to make sure that these things are locked into legislation. This is why we need salinity targets to be legislated—in law—so that there are no weasel words and ways out just because the government of the day decides that the environment is not that important after all.

I am guided in this place by my deep concern about the rights of South Australians and our state's passion for the river Murray. We rely on it. We drink its water. Our kids swim in the lakes, paddle in the Coorong and swim in the river. Our industries rely on it. Our local communities desperately need water security—healthy water security. In South Australia we lead the country with our water efficiency targets. We are the driest state in the driest continent on earth, and we have had to learn to use water in the most wise and efficient way. But, despite all of the work that South Australians have put in, we know that the Murray-Darling Basin is managed across the country. South Australia cannot fix this on our own which is why scientists have always argued for the minimum amount of water to be guaranteed by the federal parliament. Three thousand two hundred gigalitres is the absolute bare bones of what needs to be returned. We have already heard that the minister agrees with that. We know that the Prime Minister agrees with that; so let us lock it in. Let us make sure that this is not a promise that will end up being broken.

I think the idea of the special accounts bill is a good one in order to try and ensure that that happens—that it is locked in. But only if the detail is actually correct. This is why we need those amendments because otherwise it is just a hollow promise and, as we know in this place time and time again, South Australians will continue to miss out once the levels of water in the river drop, once the hard, dry times come back. It is South Australians that will be hung out to dry. I will be moving those amendments when we get to committee stage, and I would also like to indicate that the Greens will not be supporting any of the Coalition's amendments which obviously only serve to undermine this entire process.