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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Page: 13


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (13:26): Thank you very much Mr Acting Deputy President. It is a pleasure to note that the debate is not being closed and that I do not need to go through the same processes we did at the end of last year in seeking some leave from the chamber to make a contribution as I had to on the basin plan disallowance motion. On that note, it is important to recall where it is that we finished last year, because there has been a lot of action in the water space over the period of months leading up to the end of last year, and of course that continues through to the debate of this bill before the chamber today. It is important to recall that last year both chambers passed amendments to the Water Act; amendments that allowed for the implementation of an adjustment mechanism; a mechanism that will allow greater flexibility in the operation of the sustainable diversion limits set by the basin plan; a mechanism and amendments that were supported by parties across the chamber, through both chambers at that time and that facilitated getting the type of agreement that was necessary between the states and cooperation to finalise the basin plan. I am pleased that the coalition was able to give support to the government and that the government was able to work with states of different political persuasions to construct an adjustment mechanism that achieved that cross-party support.

Most importantly and significantly, at the end of last year both chambers voted down a disallowance motion—voted to reject a motion to disallow the basin plan. The plan was the subject of much of Senator Wong's commentary as it provides the very firm underpinnings and the great basis upon which this bill builds. I gave a speech not dissimilar in some regards to Senator Wong's late last year. I am not going to revisit all of that territory in terms of what happened historically to get us to the point of having that basin plan or the importance that it has to our home state of South Australia, but it is important to note that it is the bedrock that underpins the bill that we are debating today. I do acknowledge the work of Senator Wong amongst many others in getting to that point and in her time as water minister. That is not to say that Senator Wong and I did not have some fierce disagreements in that time and that I do not continue to have policy disagreements with Senator Wong, Mr Burke or the government about the way aspects of water reform are handled. I do think that South Australia should acknowledge that, in the main, its parliamentary representatives, over a significant period of time, in both chambers have come to this place and fought for the interests of their state in getting water reform. But they have done it inside their parties and inside this parliament, and they have had some significant victories as a small state—as the smallest of the mainland states—against some of the larger states to achieve significant reform in that time.

Minister Burke, in speaking on the disallowance motion late last year, acknowledged that the work could be traced back to the Keating government's adoption of some principles through COAG to try to address overallocation. He also rightly acknowledged the very, very important 2004 amendments of the National Water Initiative which finally sought to establish a functioning water market, and that of course then provided a capacity to start looking at how you may deal with issues of overallocation. Then there were the 2007 national reforms of the Howard government that led to the passage of the Water Act itself.

Senator Wong in her remarks, though generously acknowledging me and other South Australian Liberals—and I thank her for that—did equally claim that it was only in the last year of the Howard government that those reforms were passed. I acknowledge that it was only in the last year of the Howard government that the Water Act was passed, but it was with a great deal of work done in advance to set the basis for that. More particularly, I note, that of course it was not the Labor Party's policy at the time for such sweeping national intervention into the Murray-Darling Basin. It was only because John Howard took the brave step of saying that it was time for national management that the federal Labor Party then adopted that as their policy as well. Never before then had we heard federal Labor suggesting that it was going to be their policy. Only thereafter did it become their policy, and even then in the period of time between John Howard's Australia Day announcement in 2007 and the 2007 election it was the Victorian Labor state government that held up reform so very much.

I also note that Senator Wong tried to say that it was not the coalition that delivered the plan with regards to the fact that South Australian Liberal members rightly highlighted to the South Australian electorate the support given by the coalition to the development and establishment of the basin plan. It was the coalition and the Howard government that provided the legislation that made the plan a possibility. It was the coalition and the Howard government that took the brave step of standing up to the states and saying, 'Enough is enough of the state management of the system. We need to have national management.' Given the many failings we have seen of the reform agenda adopted by this government, if that act had not been passed under the Howard government I am far from convinced that it would ever have seen the light of day from those opposite. Again, to remind the chamber, until it was adopted by the Howard government it was never even mooted as a potential Labor Party policy. But I acknowledge that the government finally got a plan in place, and I will turn back to some of the issues around delays and concerns that I have in just a couple of moments perhaps.

I want to reflect very briefly on Senator Hanson-Young's contribution prior to Senator Wong. I again remind the chamber of what occurred late last year when across the parliament the only party that consistently opposed the adoption of the Basin Plan was the Australian Greens. In this chamber we saw the Greens vote against it, whilst Labor senators, Liberal senators, National Party senators and Senator Xenophon all supported the plan's adoption. Perhaps there were varying degrees of reservation, but all acknowledged that it was an important step forward and that we should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good despite our various reservations. It was the Greens that moved a motion in this place to disallow the plan. It was the Greens that voted in the other place—with, yes, a couple of coalition members and Mr Katter—to oppose the Basin Plan. It was perhaps a very strange and eclectic collection of voices against it in the other place. The coalition stood firm to say, 'This is a reform we started, it is a reform we are proud of, and it is a reform we will stand by into the future.' We should not forget that it is the need to make those difficult decisions rather than making sanctimonious speeches sometimes that is important in achieving reform in this place.

Reflecting on the time since we debated that on the last sitting day of last year, I am concerned though that we have not seen further progress in the development and implementation of the Basin Plan and in particular the finalisation of the intergovernmental agreements required for its implementation between the Commonwealth and states. I am concerned that in some ways there seems to be a deafening silence coming from the government at this point in terms of where we are with the finalisation of the Basin Plan's implementation and agreements that need to be struck with the different state governments.

I do hope that in the closing parts of this debate we will hear from Senator Farrell and that he will be able to tell the chamber just why there seems to be this delay. Or, if I am mistaken, perhaps he will tell us that there is no delay and give us a firm timeline for when we can expect finalisation of the remaining elements around the implementation of this plan. We did see at the time of the release of Basin Plan's Environmental Water Recovery Strategy for the Murray-Darling Basin, a draft of consultation, and I understand that that will form at least part of those discussions with the states as to how the Basin Plan is to be implemented. My concerns about the delays we are seeing are perhaps driven as much by the track record of the government when it comes to delays in this space as by the two months that have elapsed since we saw the disallowance motions rejected in this place. I recall that at the very outset of the life of this government, with the Water Act freshly minted in 2007, it took then Minister Wong 18 months just to appoint the chair and members of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority—a terrible delay right at the outset. I recall that the original timeline was to have the Murray-Darling Basin Plan finalised in 2011 and that we were to have seen a draft of the actual plan before the 2010 federal election. Instead, we did not see a draft of the actual plan before the 2010 federal election, and even after the election all we ended up getting was a guide to the draft, an outline of it, which proved to be one of the very tragic steps in the development of the Basin Plan. We know that it was more than a year after the original deadline was set that we finally saw the finalisation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. So, once again, delays are proving to be a consistent theme through this important reform under this government, which drives my concern today about the silence from the government since we saw the rejection of the disallowance motions to the Basin Plan and the adoption of the Basin Plan late last year.

On the infrastructure projects side we have the iconic project of fixing the Menindee Lakes, so often talked about as having the potential to allegedly save up to 200 gigalitres of water—a very significant potential reform. In Labor's policy document at the 2007 election it was listed as the top priority amongst their infrastructure projects. Here we are in 2013 and not a single sod of soil has been turned and, as far as I am aware, agreement is something that is still being worked upon. I know there are difficulties with the state government in getting that off the ground. Of course, initial delays did not exactly help in that regard and, perhaps, if agreements had been struck earlier we may have seen action by now. Whether it is that project, the 2008 promise of the Sunraysia modernisation project or the chronic underspending in the budget when it comes to water infrastructure, the government has a track record of just not delivering. It is those delays and those failures to deliver that feed my concern about where the current process may or may not be up to. I do hope that we will see the government drive this hard to ensure that they get the necessary agreements in place rather than allow things to set in and drift, as appears to have happened on far too many previous occasions.

The topic of infrastructure projects allows me to turn to some of the detail of the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 and how it will operate. I think it is fair to say that this is an unusual bill. It is unusual for the chamber and this parliament to appropriate funds so far in advance, and this bill appropriates annual allocations all the way through to 2024. At face value, that is an act that I would have a concern with; however, understanding the interrelationship between this legislation and the Basin Plan I can understand why this step has been taken. The Basin Plan essentially sets out that 2,750 gigalitres of water must be recovered to meet the new targets for sustainable diversion limits. That water simply must be recovered. If governments of either persuasion are to honour the promises that we have all made not to have compulsory acquisitions or the like, we simply have to find the budget to undertake the actions to get to that 2,750 level.

We then have the decision that, despite some changes to the wording of the legislation in the other place, we are going to try to get another 450 gigalitres on top of that to get to a 3,200-gigalitre reduction. To ensure that the government of the day actually does try and actually does have the capacity to get through this process and get to the end of that 450 gigalitres if possible, the money is being set down. Had the 450 gigalitres been included as part of the Basin Plan, and had there actually been a 3,200-gigalitre reduction in the Basin Plan, then, quite clearly, appropriating this money in advance would not have been necessary. But because it is being done as an addendum, as an additional target to try to achieve, I can see that there is some case to budget those funds.

I am not 100 per cent convinced whether the funds in question will prove to be enough, but I note the assurances of the government that it believes the sums do stack up to get a potential 450-gigalitre target. I particularly note, though, that there is a real inconsistency in what Minister Burke argues when it comes to how the 2,750 gigalitres is achieved versus how this 450 gigalitres is achieved. When it comes to the 2,750 gigalitres, the government rejects the cap on buybacks because it says that, basically, you need to maintain the threat of buybacks so as to get the state governments to deliver the water infrastructure projects and ensure that they occur. Yet, when it comes to the 450 gigalitres and this bill before us, it prevents the use of buybacks and says that it must be via infrastructure projects, with some allowances to recover all of the water saved under those infrastructure projects through buybacks. But it requires infrastructure projects in the first place with no threat of buybacks existing as an incentive.

So there is a serious inconsistency in the argument made when Minister Burke or others say they oppose the request of the New South Wales government or the policy proposition of the coalition to cap buybacks and say, 'We will definitely deliver on infrastructure policies and projects'. They seem to argue that cannot possibly be done. And yet when it comes to this legislation, it is very clear that they believe it can be done. So if it can be done for the 450—if you can say that you can get all 450 without recourse to buybacks, that it can be done through infrastructure projects—then very clearly you should be able to do likewise as outlined in the targets of this water recovery strategy. Those targets should be enshrined.

As Senator Wong rightly said today, the reason to reject buybacks across the board—I wish she had done a little more of this as minister—is because you have to balance the environment with the communities. That is why this is so important.

This bill earns the support of the coalition because it balances the environment with the communities. In the end, it makes clear—the government has made clear—that infrastructure comes first to deliver the water savings for the environment; that you try to achieve the win-win outcomes that get water for the environment without decimating the economic fabric or productive capacity of the communities along the way. That is the reason we are supporting this bill. I welcome it as the next step in this process and, of course, welcome here the government perhaps responding to some of the questions I posed.