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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Page: 90


Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (17:32): I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. In doing so, I note that it has been a very long five and a bit years since 2007, when this all started with the Water Act, and I have been very much involved all the way through. Indeed, at the time I had some responsibility for water and spent a week with the member for Flinders travelling from Toowoomba down to Adelaide—right down the length of the Murray-Darling Basin. I have to say it was a very educational experience in more ways than one. While I live out in the central west and understand regional communities, and am indeed a groundwater irrigator, it certainly opens your eyes to go from one end of the Murray-Darling Basin to the other in one trip. It certainly shows that there is not one area that can lay claim to being the most important part of the Murray-Darling Basin. In no way, shape or form can that happen.

What we have seen over the last five years from this government when it comes to water is an absolute shambles. I have to commend the shadow minister for water, Senator Joyce, and also Senator Birmingham for the continued work they have done in trying to make sure that we get the right outcomes for those regional communities across the Murray-Darling Basin. But it has been an absolute shambles from this Labor government. Indeed, my good colleague Senator Birmingham pointed out earlier that it took the minister at the time, Senator Wong, 18 months to appoint the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. We should have had a glimmer then that the whole process was going to be an absolute dog's breakfast. It is a shame that that trend of mismanagement has continued right throughout these five years.

As Mark Twain once said, 'Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.' There is no doubt that there have been various views on the way forward for water, but one thing is for certain: there is in no way, shape or form ever going to be a day when the Nationals back away from a fight. We will not stop fighting, as we have done consistently for these regional communities, to make sure that they get the best outcome that they possibly can when it comes to water.

What we have seen with the legislation for the 2,750 gigalitres of water to come out of those communities is that it is not perfect. I am not happy; I do not think it is great. But it is certainly better than what we would have had if, as Senator Joyce said earlier, we had backed away, pulled ourselves out of the debate and let the Greens shape the way the Murray-Darling Basin water plan was going to go. Let me tell you, Madam Deputy President Stephens—I suspect you know anyway, having such great regard for regional communities as you do—that would have been an absolute disaster. There is no way that the Greens were ever going to take a triple-bottom-line approach and get a balance between the social, economic and environmental factors that all have to be considered equally when it comes to water in the Murray-Darling Basin and how the removal of water impacts on those communities. There was no way the Nationals were going to stand here and let that happen.

While I know a lot of people out there think that, perhaps, the outcome we have seen for the Murray-Darling Basin plan is not the one they would have liked to have seen, I can assure those people that if the Greens had got their hands on the driving levers for this we would have had an absolute basket case out there in the regions. I say that as a senator from regional New South Wales. I have lived in the central west for over 20 years and I understand the impact on these towns of permanently removing this water.

I remember several years ago when the minister at the time, Senator Wong, had responsibility—she would say: 'Farmers just have to get used to doing more with less. They have to deal with drought all the time.' What the government's intention has been all the way along—which the minister at the time, Senator Wong, never realised—was that they were proposing a permanent drought for these communities through government policy. That is what they never got their heads around: farmers are incredibly resilient. People who live in regional communities are incredibly resilient. They can deal with drought. They are extraordinary people. But you tell them they have to have a permanent drought, that you are going to permanently remove water from their communities, and that is a different kettle of fish entirely.

There are so many aspects of this that the government has never understood. I give Minister Tony Burke some credit for turning up in these places and putting himself in front of all these people. There were quite a number of testy meetings. But it still did not ever translate properly for him. He still never really understood what the impact of what the government has been trying to do was going to be on the regional communities. He never really got it.

When we look at the Murray-Darling Basin—what an extraordinary land mass in terms of production, what it does and the people it feeds. The Murray-Darling Basin contributes something like $15 billion to the economy. Within the Murray-Darling Basin itself is around 39 or 40 per cent of agricultural production. It feeds 2.1 million people. What people do not realise is that this legislation in front of us today—this potential extra 450 gigalitres—could potentially feed 600,000 people. If you take that water out of the system for food production and apply that to environmental purposes, where is that food production going to come from? It becomes like a chessboard, not only across Australia but also across the globe. This is a much bigger picture issue that has not had nearly has much attention.

I put the issue of food security and how we are going to feed the growing global population. The global food task is going to exponentially increase. We are looking at a world population of around nine billion people by 2050. It is the bigger picture that we also have to consider, and I do not think this Labor government has considered it properly at all. When we are taking this water out, removing it from food production, where is that food-productive capacity going to be? Where is it going to come from? While acquiring the funding to do what the government wants to do under this legislation may not be directly related to this particular piece of legislation, it is a serious question for this nation and one that we have to talk about, one that we have to debate.

Future food security is absolutely vital. What we are up against at the moment is the fact that when we export around 70 per cent of what we produce, there is not the imperative to discuss it now. I venture that it should be. We should be discussing it now, because while we are not in a situation at the moment where food security is an issue, we may well be in the future. We need to make some decisions now about how our agricultural productive capacity is going to look in the future, not only for our domestic needs but to fulfil our responsibility to feed the growing population and to contribute to the global food task that is going to increase exponentially. While we have a lot of hot-headed debates across this chamber around current legislation in front of us, there are some really big-picture issues that we need to consider. We need to consider how we want Australia as an agricultural nation to look in 20, 30 and 40 years. That vision is sadly lacking from this government. While we have agreed in principle to this piece of legislation, we as the coalition are not happy with the legislation as it currently stands and we will be moving some amendments to it.

The bill requires an additional 450 gigalitres. Interestingly the government initially said 'up to 450 gigalitres' but now we see in the legislation before us a straight 450 gigalitres. That is again the Greens snuggling in under the armpit of their Labor coalition partners, trying to prod and push them in a direction that the Labor government know they should not be going in. Maybe it is time that the Labor government realised that the Australian Greens are a barnacle on their government, because some of the things that the Australian Greens have been able to make the Labor government do I am sure the Labor government know are not in the national interest.

We will be moving an amendment to ensure that in this legislation the bill refers to up to 450 gigalitres. It must come from infrastructure efficiency and investment. The government have indicated that this will not be coming from buybacks in the bigger picture. We know that there is some capacity under this legislation for the on-farm infrastructure efficiency to include a buyback component from the irrigators for the efficiency upgrade, but in no way, shape or form under this piece of legislation should straight buybacks be allowed. If the government are serious when they say their intent is not to do that then they should support our amendment. All it does is make it clear in the legislation that there will be no further buybacks under this piece of legislation which would enable the extra 450 gigalitres. When we saw that today around 1,031 gigalitres has been bought back by this government and only about 280 or so has come back through the infrastructure investment and efficiency, we do not have any confidence that the government mean it when saying that this legislation will not result in any further buyback. I think it is imperative that the government make sure that it is put very clearly in the legislation that that is the intent.

The other amendment we will be moving is that the buybacks must be capped in this process at 1,500 gigalitres. They have to be because our regional communities need some surety. They need some confidence to be able to plan to go forward knowing that after a certain point there will be no further buybacks, so that they can start to plan with some certainty for the future that they have not had to date. That is something that the government have never understood about this. They have never understood that this lack of certainty has created enormous ramifications for these regional communities in terms of the loss of confidence, the drop in the real estate market, the inability to plan and the absolute devastating effects caused by the uncertainty of all of these pieces of legislation surrounding the water debate in this nation. The Labor government have never understood the very dire ramifications that have already occurred simply because of the uncertainty.

We think it is vitally important that the legislation include the cap on the 1,500 gigs of water buyback. What that means—and this is very important—is that, because the Environmental Water Holder has already purchased a significant proportion of that 1,500 gigalitres, there is only around 270 gigalitres of water left that can be bought back through the buyback process. So I say to people out there that, when they hear the cap at 1,500, under the coalition—and this is what you will get if the coalition is in government—no more than about an extra 270 gigs can be purchased through buyback. That is our absolute commitment in government. The coalition in government will make sure that the people of regional communities have that—and there is no way, shape or form that we will go back on that.

The shambolic process that we have seen from this government to this point, over the last five or so years, has been nothing short of breathtaking. They just do not understand. They have no idea. Senator Joyce commented earlier about the purchase of Toorale for—I think Senator Joyce said—about $23 million. He also mentioned the purchase of Twynam for $303 million. That $303 million did not belong to the government; that is Australian taxpayers' money—that is, $303 million of hardworking Australian mums' and dads' money went to that purchase. There is no bucket of money under the flagpole in the middle of Parliament House; that money was the money of the Australian people. And what did the government do with it? On 28 May 2009 there was a release and the government were crowing about purchasing the 250 gigs of water for $303 million—equivalent to one-half of all the water used in Sydney each year. That is a story for another day. Perhaps if we actually looked at run-off in some of our capital cities and the waste of water from our city people, they might be able to contribute to saving water in this nation as well.

But what is particularly interesting is that this water was actually bought over four different catchments—Murrumbidgee, Lachlan, Macquarie and Gwydir rivers—and, guess what? The government was offered it as a job lot. The government had absolutely no ability to assess the water and the licences that were on offer across all of those catchments and decide which ones would actually be appropriate. Twynam—and good luck to them; they are very smart people involved in that organisation—offered it up as a job lot and the government had no choice but to spend $303 million worth of taxpayers' money on the 250 gigs of water without actually determining whether any of it would be any good. I wonder if at the time the minister had a look at the Lachlan, because, guess what? It only runs into the Murray about once every hundred years. That is going to be a lot of use, isn't it? But, no, they could not excise that one; they had to take the absolute lot. My understanding is that they paid about $2,800 a gig for this water. Prior to that particular purchase, my understanding was that the average was about $1,900. Where were they plucking these figures from?

But it gets better. At the end of last year—and I am taking this from the Jemalong Irrigation report—the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder:

… announced that it may sell the water onto the temporary water market this year in the Lachlan Valley. As all environmental targets have been met on the Lachlan this year without the use of these entitlements, they are surplus to their requirements.

So the government spent $303 million acquiring water from Twynam—part of which they have now clearly overpurchased, quite possibly distorting the market at the time when they made all these purchases under this $303 million agreement, given that now I think it is around $1,400 a meg for high security—and then we see the Environmental Water Holder going: 'Oh, gosh, we've got a bit too much; actually, we've probably got a lot too much. So we'll just pop it back into the temporary water market in the Lachlan.' And what is that going to do? It will quite possibly distort the market for the temporary trading in the Lachlan as well.

This is how stupid the government are—I am sorry but I cannot think of a more technical term—and shows just one example of how they have not thought things through. They never thought these things through. Everything was just a kneejerk reaction along the way. While there may have been good intent from some quarters, they got it so wrong in so many ways, because they simply did not understand what they were doing.

Through many of our committee processes, when we asked the Environmental Water Holder, 'Where is the benefit of the environmental water? Where is the water going? What is it watering? How much is going there? How are they determining what is the appropriate environmental purpose for any of the releases of that water?' we got virtually nothing. The level of understanding along the way has just been pathetic. And we have seen that again recently. Part of this whole process will obviously be the infrastructure efficiencies, and so much of that is to do with removing the physical constraints in the system. It cannot actually happen. What the government are trying to do will not work if some of those physical constraints are not addressed. And yet the department seems to have absolutely no idea how this is going to work. There is just so little evidence of how they have come up with the costings of actually removing the constraints. The whole thing is an absolute dog's breakfast.

I can only say that, having been involved in this process in one way, shape or form since the beginning, the priority of the Nationals has always been, and will always be, making sure that we get the best possible outcomes for those people living in regional communities. That is our job. That is what we do. That is why we are here. That is why we have fought so hard—and I have to again commend my Senate leader, Senator Joyce, for the work he has done trying to get the right outcomes for these communities. We have worked hard and we have done our best. It is not perfect; it is in no way, shape or form perfect. But I can guarantee to all people in regional communities and right across the nation that the Nationals have not stopped fighting to make sure that we get the best possible outcome we can, because this is about a sustainable future for regional communities and a sustainable future for all of those families, people and businesses who live in those communities into the future.