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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Page: 9

Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (13:11): I rise as a senator of South Australia to speak to this bill. For the purposes of making sure the chamber is clear, I am obviously not the minister closing the debate and I think Senator Birmingham would be quite grouchy if I did. Senator Farrell is obviously handling this debate for the government. I did think it was an important bill for me to speak on given the history of this area of policy and the importance of this issue to South Australians. While the health of the Murray River is important to the whole of Australia—and certainly to the eastern seaboard—it is in South Australia that the impact is most acute, and so I am very pleased that we are debating this bill—one more step towards water security for people from my home state.

As people in the chamber would know, in this last decade we saw the worst drought in the nation's history. The Labor government was elected during this drought crisis and it is probably useful at this point to recall some of the challenges that faced us at that time. It was not only the environment that was suffering; the future of our irrigation communities was also under threat. Consecutive years of low water allocations from 2006-7 onwards—for example, in South Australia's Riverland—risked thousands of hectares of perennial plantings. For rice growers in Deniliquin, the drought resulted in water allocations of zero for two years running. Across the basin water levels were reaching critical lows. From 2007 to 2009, the annual amount of water flowing into the river Murray system for each of those years was just one-fifth of the long-term average. This was the period for most of which I was water minister. Obviously I did not have much luck in getting it to rain.

Hyper-salinity was affecting aquatic and plant life and changing ecosystems. A lack of water was putting at risk environmental sites across the basin with wetlands being isolated from rivers because of low water levels, and the Murray mouth was closing up. Flows down the river Murray were so limited that silt was not been flushed out to sea, and Goolwa locals could walk across its mouth. Ferry crossings were closed in the Riverland as water levels dropped, and long heat waves were evaporating six to seven billion litres of water each day from the Lower Lakes. Compounding the impacts of the drought, and in spite of multiple warnings from experts over many years, too much water was being taken out of the basin without proper regard for the consequences. Since the 1950s basin governments had tripled the amount of water that they could take out of the system. Old infrastructure which was leaking vital water failed to be replaced as new technologies came online. For too long we allowed the lack of water to stress native wildlife to the point of no repair and to damage valuable ecosystems. For too long the heartache of drought and the uncertainty of water supply placed considerable stress on the many communities which rely on the Murray-Darling. For too long the overallocation of water in the Murray-Darling Basin meant we failed to properly manage our precious water resources, and for far too long governments lacked the courage to secure the Murray's future. They were too timid to find the balance, a fine balance, between what our farmers required and what the environment needed. So over the years we have seen much talk. We have seen promises made and promises broken, and we have seen report after report, but we did not see action. That is why this Labor government made it a priority, where those that preceded us had failed, to action a sustainable path to manage our water and river systems, because, fundamentally, whether it is in this policy area or in terms of our fiscal policy, the onus is on a generation to leave things in good shape.

As a South Australian, and as I think all South Australians in this parliament know, I felt keenly the need for reform of the basin. We could see the effects drought and overallocation were having on the basin in ways many others could not—the strain on the Coorong and the Lower Lakes; concerns over Adelaide's ongoing water supply; the plight of Riverland farmers, who have become as efficient as possible, to make their diminishing water resources stretch further. It was a privilege to serve as water minister for 2½ years; a privilege to take up the fight for basin reform and to start the work to find a position of consensus with the states. It was by no means easy because management of the basin is never the sole responsibility of one government. Governments always need to work together to achieve an enduring solution, bringing together those on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and moving past the 'not in my backyard' approach, which for too long has dominated the politics and policy of the Murray-Darling Basin and consigned the last 100 years of inaction to the records of history.

The Labor government considered finding a solution to the Murray to be one of our most important environmental reforms, and we worked hard to secure agreement of the states to allow the Commonwealth to proceed with cross-border planning, and we got it for the first time in our nation's history. We succeeded in getting this agreement in early 2008, less than six months after coming into office. We created a single agency charged with the responsibility for planning the integrated management of water resources across the basin. The agreement also launched state-led projects, which are now assisting irrigators with the challenge of continuing their ongoing viability with a smaller pool of available water to modernise irrigation systems, develop new technologies or consider different approaches requiring less water. While carrying out these tough and often protracted negotiations with the states we also got on with the job of returning water to the rivers, to return a greater share of water to the basin rivers when it became available. It is never about the health of just one wetland or one particular ecosystem; it is about improving the overall health of the basin. By the eve of the federal election in 2010 federal Labor had purchased over 900 billion litres of water entitlements for the basin's rivers. We did this without resorting to compulsory acquisition because we considered such an action would diminish the property rights of farmers.

There has been criticism on both sides about the pace at which the government carried out water purchasing and the extent to which we did. What I would say is that, without this significant purchase of water entitlements, the implementation of the Basin Plan would have been much harder. If we had not purchased water in those years, the implementation of the plan, which the chamber is debating, would have been much harder. These purchases laid the foundation of lasting reform and demonstrated to communities that an agreement could be done. It would have been made harder had we not undertaken the task of bridging the gap—bridging the gap between the amount of water we take out of the basin and the amount of water the authority determined that the basin needed to survive.

Late last year my colleague and successor as water minister, Tony Burke, signed into law the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the presence of the Prime Minister. After 100 years we finally have an agreement to return a stipulated amount of additional water to the environment. I congratulate Minister Burke on this huge achievement. He has delivered what many thought was impossible—a plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. Members on this side of the chamber should be very proud of what has been achieved by this Labor government. We secured in law through the Basin Plan a base amount of 2,750 gigalitres of water for the environment. The government's view was that more should be done in order to ensure greater environmental outcomes. We wanted to maximise those outcomes by delivering additional water but not at the expense of social or economic outcomes.

The bill we are debating here today formalises the Labor government's commitment to deliver an additional 450 gigalitres to the basin. Along with this additional water the government will also fund projects which remove the existing constraints that stop high flows of water being delivered to environmental assets in an efficient way. Constraint removals include actions such as providing for flood easements, securing agreements with landholders or raising bridge heights. To put this plan into action funding of $1.77 billion has been committed from 2014-15. That funding will be contained within a separate account with money appropriated each year, because we believe the setting up of a special account is an important mechanism to ensure a long-term funding stream. It is a long-term funding stream that delivers long-term benefits and ensures that the future health of the basin could not be undermined by governments ransacking its funds to balance its budget. It is a plan that has been carefully designed to recognise the concern of Murray-Darling Basin communities.

I want to respond briefly to comments that Senator Hanson-Young made about water buybacks. I would make the point that this government has to balance not only the environmental outcome but also community outcomes. Whilst it is the case that you could spend the entirety of the money only on water buybacks, that would not give the desired outcome for communities and industries that rely on the rivers and which is in the national interest.

This bill is the final piece of our plan for restoring the basin. Along with the finalised Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the sustainable diversion limit adjustment legislation it sets out our plan to return the basin to health. It is unfortunate, on what should have been an issue worthy of cross-party support, that some of those in the parliament have not engaged to achieve agreement. Clearly those opposite remain divided. The member for Riverina stated: 'It will certainly not get my support. It needs to be discarded because it's poor policy.' The member for Murray, Dr Sharman Stone said: 'I'm going to stand up and say "no", and I'm going to try, having said "no", when we are in government to start again.'

I do acknowledge that Senator Birmingham with his South Australian colleagues sought to be a voice of reason, but I do make also note of their dubious efforts to claim credit for this reform in the South Australian media. I do remind the chamber that it was not the coalition who negotiated with the states, it was not the coalition who started buying back water and it was not the coalition who delivered a plan for management of the whole basin. In 11 years under Prime Minister Howard the Liberal Party had an opportunity for over a decade to reform their basin. It was only in their last year of office that they finally sought to act.

Then there are, of course, those who seem more interested in protesting than in delivering meaningful change, those who oppose reform on the basis that it does not go far enough. Governing is always about balancing the needs of competing interests, and that is not a concept just applicable to this debate. For the basin there are the competing needs of the environment, irrigation communities and critical human needs or the needs of a state at one end of the vast system to be balanced against the needs of another. To oppose this bill on the grounds that it does not do enough for the basin is to oppose both the greater returns of water to the environment and the security of the funding mechanism proposed. To oppose this bill is to deny farmers in the basin additional funding to improve their water efficiency.

For South Australia and its representatives here in the federal parliament, this is an opportunity to turn around the cumulative inaction of 100 years of decision making. I think South Australians would hope that their parliamentary representatives could vote with one voice in favour of this reform.

If the chamber would indulge me, I do want to makes some comments about the work of many people over successive parliaments who have contributed to this reform like Tony Burke and his staff. I acknowledge the work of Mr Turnbull, the Member for Wentworth, for starting the process of change in 2007 with the first Water Act. For officials in the environment department—the name of which has changed on many occasions—some of whom are here in the chamber today, I thank you for having served the government of the day to deliver a reform that will be looked upon as one of the most significant environmental achievements of our nation. There are many people to acknowledge, but I particularly want to acknowledge the work of officials who served me well in my time as water minister: Robyn Kruk, James Horne, Mike Taylor, Rob Freeman, Mary Harwood, Tony Slatyer and Ian Robinson. To Mike Kelly: I thank him for his work as Parliamentary Secretary for Water to me in my first time as minister. I also thank my personal staff from the previous term of this government who, because of the work they put in place, helped shape the policy we see today and laid down important foundations for long-lasting reform. To Tim Fisher, Don Frater, John Olenich, Samka Thach and Ilsa Colson: your dedication is reflected in this final policy.

We cannot be fooled into thinking that Australia will not enter another period of drought in the near future, and when the next drought comes we need to be better equipped to handle the stress of less water. The best help we can give the environment is through the basin plan and important supporting legislation such as this bill. Successive governments and legislators failed the basin, its environment and its residents for over 100 years, and we are moving on from this disappointing legacy. Water reform has never been an endeavour that can be achieved over the short term. It is multi-government, decadal reform. No-one ever expects—although sometimes the media does—an instantaneous flow of water or wetlands to suddenly spring into life as a result of any one government's actions, but action now will ensure we see results in the future. As parliamentarians we have the enormous privilege of leadership and a great responsibility, and in the future, parliamentarians will also be required to lead and to ensure this plan comes into fruition. The basin plan is the blueprint, but the execution of it, the reality of it, is in the hands of future parliamentarians and future governments, state or federal. I hope that they live up to the expectations not only of Australians but particularly of South Australians from my home state.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Ludlam ): Thank you Senator Wong. The debate not being closed, I call Senator Birmingham.