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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Page: 100

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (18:12): I endorse those final remarks from Senator McKenzie. I think we all want that—we all want to have vibrant regional communities. We want the Murray-Darling Basin to continue to be the major food bowl of this nation and we do not want in any way to detract from that, but we also need a healthy river system, and I think we all agree that we need to have that healthy river system to get the balance between the two. I also agree with Senator McKenzie that the South Australian government did the wrong thing when in December last year they announced that they were slashing the funding to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority from $26.4 million to $12.1 million. I think that was the wrong move. It sent the wrong signals. It was a wrong move and, unambiguously, the South Australian government made a mistake in relation to that.

I want to make it clear that I cautiously welcome the government's proposal outlined in the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. It is a vital measure in addition to the Basin Plan from the point of view of South Australia. From the point of view of the health of the basin it will lead to a better outcome. I acknowledge that the government has made meaningful amendments in the House of Representatives to ensure that the bill is true to its policy intent, because previously it was simply an aspirational goal. The Dean of the Adelaide University Law School, Professor John Williams, whom I have enormous regard for, for his intellect and for his analysis, wrote an opinion piece in the Adelaide Advertiser on 12 November 2012, where he basically said that the bill in its previous form, as it was then when he was commenting on it, was largely aspirational—it did not carry much weight, and did not have any real teeth to it. I do share the concerns of my colleagues from the opposition on this side of the chamber who want to make sure that the $1.775 billion over 10 years is spent wisely. I think we all want that. I welcome the amendments relating to the independent reviews of the fund, but I am concerned that when it comes to the implementation of this bill we will see more of what has happened before and I am concerned that South Australia, at the tail end of the river system, will be particularly vulnerable. There have been significant concerns raised about misallocation or even misappropriation of funds from previous infrastructure programs. In particular, the Commonwealth Auditor-General's audit of the $650 million Private Irrigation Infrastructure Operators Program in New South Wales was scathing in its assessment of how the fund was managed. The Australian National Audit Office report reads that, whilst the department has implemented the program and allocated available funding:

… weaknesses in program governance and in the management of a number of implementation issues had an adverse impact on the overall effectiveness of the program's administration. In this regard, shortcomings were evident in DSEWPaC's design of the program, the assessment of applications and the development of measures to inform an assessment of whether the program is achieving its objectives.

If the intention of this bill is to deliver an additional 450 gigalitres to the environment then we need to make sure that that is what it does. To that end I will be introducing amendments to ensure that priority goes to projects where the greatest amount of returned water can be guaranteed in the shortest amount of time. I will also be introducing amendments to allow funding to be allocated to projects relating to research and development of water-saving technologies. I acknowledge the work of Senator Bill Heffernan as Chair of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee. We need to be smarter in how we farm. We need to be innovative. We need to use the best technology and spend money on research and development so we can get those best outcomes.

My amendment is based on concerns raised with me by irrigators in the Riverland who have missed out on earlier rounds of government grants because they were already too water efficient to qualify. These early adopters have spent the last 40-plus years spending their own money to become as water efficient as they can because they had no other choice. Living at the end of the river makes you appreciate the need for water-saving measures. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Many of these irrigators as well as those in other areas are incredibly experienced in working with the smallest amount of water possible. They are always looking for ways to improve their efficiency even further because they know from bitter experience that the Murray is not a bottomless well.

These people who have done the right thing and now keep trying to improve deserve to be recognised. For instance, Dave Reilly and his wife, Anita, are just two individuals in the Riverland in South Australia who deserve this recognition. Dave and Anita are on Gurra Downs, a property near Loxton in the Riverland. They grow dates. It is a groundbreaking development for South Australia. Unlike the usual citrus crops in the area, once the palms are established they require very little water to stay alive and can cope with much higher levels of salinity and, in fact, once they are established they are pretty well drought proof. In years where there is enough water you can harvest the fruit and in years where there is not you might not get fruit but your trees will survive and your investment is protected.

Dave and Anita are also working on developing stock specifically for Australian conditions. They have won multiple awards, including the Khalifa International Date Palm Award for best new development project at the Fourth International Date Palm Conference held in Abu Dhabi in 2010. Last year Dave was awarded a Nuffield farming scholarship, which will allow him to continue studying date palms and how to build a viable industry here in the Southern Hemisphere.

Gurra Downs has also been held up as an example of best practice by state and Commonwealth governments, but the Reillys could not get $1 million from the federal government's Private Irrigation Infrastructure Program for SA to relocate their water pump despite the fact that by July 2011 only $14.4 million of the $5.8 billion scheme had been allocated to South Australia. Apparently their project did not fit the criteria. There is incredible irony that Dave has been showered with awards overseas but has difficulty getting the support he needs back home. No wonder farmers want to give up and walk off the land. I am pleased to say that the Reillys are doing well. I hope we will have a thriving date palm industry as a result of their innovation and courage in pursuing this project. Gurra Downs represents the best combination of ingenuity, scientific knowledge and rock hard determination. The work that people such as the Reillys are doing and the technologies and techniques that they are developing will end up benefiting the basin as a whole if they can get the support to keep going.

I note it is unlikely that the government and the opposition will be supporting these amendments, but even if they cannot do so in relation to this bill I ask them both to acknowledge that we need to put more funding towards early adopters who are creating the next wave of developments for the basin. Those who have done the right thing for many years deserve to be recognised and rewarded. It is abundantly clear that we need new ways of doing things.

Further north in New South Wales we are seeing more public policy failure as the issue of evaporation in the Menindee Lakes still remains unresolved. I went there a number of years ago. The local action group there has been talking about this for over a decade. Successive governments have been trying to tackle the whole issue of the massive evaporation from the Menindee Lakes. I acknowledge that the people of Broken Hill absolutely deserve a guaranteed reliable water supply, but there are other alternative projects, such as aquifers. There are the issues of water sports for those who are in the Menindee Lakes area—I get that—but there are issues of significant evaporation and some engineering works can make a significant difference in that respect.

Senator Heffernan: When they are 85 per cent full the lakes evaporate more water than every pump up the river uses.

Senator XENOPHON: There we go. I accept what Senator Heffernan said—that when the lakes are 85 per cent full they evaporate more water than all the pumps up the river use. I do not doubt Senator Heffernan's expertise in relation to that. That is something we need to tackle. There has been an enormous level of policy lethargy, a lack of momentum and inertia in relation to this. The government, the ALP, promised this would be a priority program for the 2007 election. I am not blaming the government as such because there have been a whole lot of roadblocks in relation to this at a state government level.

We must explore these options and invest in innovative new technologies to make sure that we maximise returns to the basin. At the hearing chaired by Senator Heffernan into the Murray-Darling Basin in Mildura on 3 April 2012 we heard I think Mark McKenzie talk about projects that with a little bit of money could save enormous amounts of water. We need to be smart about how we save water and the way that we engage communities. We cannot just cut water allocations without consequence. We need to make sure that we can still grow crops and that the food bowl of the nation can be environmentally and economically sound. But we need to have investment in research and development, because unless we do it just will not happen. I acknowledge that the government have now removed the words 'up to' in relation to their bill, but I think it should be strengthened so that it is at least 450 gigalitres. I know that some of my colleagues will disagree with me on that, but if it is meant to do what is meant to be then it should be clear in its wording. Ultimately, this legislation is only one part of the massive reforms we need to rescue the basin.

I support this legislation—cautiously support it—but I am worried that come the next drought, the state that will be hit the hardest will be the state of South Australia, because we are at the tail end of the river system. I want to finish off with the words of Professor John Williams, who says that:

Future proofing the South Australian agreement against intransigence, backsliding and an evaporation of political will is now a matter of urgency.

He finishes off by saying that:

The certainty promised to the river Murray and the people of South Australia must be reflected in the language of the bill now before the federal parliament.

I agree with Professor Williams entirely and that is what we should be aiming to do.