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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Page: 103


Senator HEFFERNAN (New South Wales) (18:23): I would like to recognise in the chamber the hardworking Mary Harwood who has had to put up with me for years. How are you, Mary? I apologise to all the hardworking government officials who have had to put up with the lack of science in water planning and the overindulgence of politics. This bill is part of a political fix which is convenient to most politicians in this parliament to get them past the next election. I am going to be seriously off the page in my contribution.

As Craig Knowles said during the hearings to which Senator Xenophon referred, 'Bill, this is the best political deal we could get'—nothing to do with the best scientific deal that we should have. Just to remind the chamber—and I am sure that my committee, Senator Nash and my good buddy on my left are sick of hearing about it—but if the science is 40 per cent right by 2050, this is all a waste of time. The Murray-Darling Basin is 6.2 per cent of Australia's run-off—23,400 gigalitres—and 38 per cent of that run-off comes from two per cent of the landscape in the Snowy Mountains of north-east Victoria. If the science is 40 per cent right—and the science is telling us that in the southern Murray-Darling Basin there could be a two degree increase in temperature over the next 50 years, which could result in a 15 per cent decline in rainfall and we are already planning for that at Junee, and I am sure they are over at Young, Senator Nash—that will result in up to a 35 per cent decline in run-off, and that also means that we could be down to eight or nine days snow a year. That science could be 100 per cent right or 100 per cent wrong, but if it is 40 per cent right then there will be zero allocations to general purpose water in the southern Murray-Darling Basin in most years. Putting that in figures, that is a prediction of a loss of run-off of between 3,500 and 11,000 gigalitres, so we do have a bit of a problem.

I absolutely agree with the proposition that we have got to become more efficient with our water use. I have just discussed with some people, including Mary, that this bill is really to encourage people to become more efficient. Australia's most efficient irrigation is in Carnarvon. In 2006-07, the year I was chairman of the Northern Development Taskforce—which sadly has been gotten rid of—Carnarvon produced $69 million of income with 8,500 megalitres water. In the same year, the Ord produced the same income—plus a couple of million dollars—with 40 times that amount of water. So, they were 40 times less efficient than the science, which is Israeli-Spanish technology and I will not burden the gallery or chamber with the detail. The water in the Ord—and we will get to that eventually because it is a disgrace that there are no incentives, there is no market for water and there is no encouragement to be more efficient—is 40 times less efficient than Carnarvon, and Carnarvon is 20 times more efficient than the average across the Murray-Darling Basin, even though there are pockets—and some of those in South Australia—which are just as efficient. If you had used the 8½ thousand megalitres that year that produced $69 million worth of income in Carnarvon from things like lunch pack bananas, tomatoes, table grapes and capsicums—all counter-cyclical seasonally—in the Murray-Darling Basin to produce cotton, instead of getting $69 million you would have got yourself about $3 million. Here we are saying we are going to give money for more efficiency.

The buybacks so far in the Murray-Darling Basin have been haphazard at best, politically convenient at worst. I would instance the sale of the Toorale water which was an afterthought by the New South Wales government to try and fund the sale of the proposition that they were going to buy a national park and sell off the water. In that sale there were area licences, because the river was not on the page and they should have been cancelled, not acquired. Anyhow, they bought water in the Darling River system which has provided no real outcomes because, as soon as they bought those licences—allegedly to put more water back into the low-end of the system—they woke up more equivalent sleeper licences up the river than they bought down the river. Tandou water, which was supplementary water—supplementary water should never have been allowed to be tradable—was off allocation water originally. The Victorian government started the rot by allowing it to be come a tradable instrument and, sure enough, in their desperation to fix the water buyback book, the various politicians—dumb and wooden headed—agreed to buyback Tandou supplementary water licences of 236 gigalitres, which was 11 gigalitres net where the Darling meets the Murray. As chief executive of Tandou said at the time, 'We've won the lottery, Bill.' He is a South African, a good bloke. 'We have sold the water and we will buy it back on the spot market because the supplementary water is only available when there is too much water in the system anyhow.'

I will not go through the Cubbie thing. I understand now that there is a proposition that has not hit the headlines yet for the new owners of Cubbie to sell some of the water. I am unaware whether it is going to be out of their 50-odd gig extraction licence or whether they are going to try and con people by trying to sell some of the extraction licence, which I think should not be tradable because it is specific to the overland flow in that particular region and how you transfer it and shepherd it through would cost more money than buying the water back. So that is what you call cooking the book politically. But that does not get away from the fact that we should encourage our farmers to be more efficient with their water use. I suppose it is fair to say that someone with this bill behind them could give a guarantee to Australia's taxpayers that they would not, shall I say, camouflage the buybacks.

I realise that this bill does not refer to the earlier money but I cannot let this go by without mentioning the serious fraud that is about to be perpetrated on Australia's taxpayers by the Nimmie-Caira buyback, which is something like 380 gigs, 380,000 megs gross, 160,000 or 170,000 net, from a flood plain on which there has never been an environmental plan, exactly the same as the largest flood plain in the Murray-Darling Basin, the lower Culgoa, Condamine-Balonne. I wish these guys well if they get away with it because it would be better than winning Lotto. I suspect they are going to get away with it because all the politicians involved, some of whom have got no idea what they are doing, can see the opportunity to cook the buyback book for New South Wales where they can buy back water without affecting production other than in this region. This water is allegedly supplementary flow mixed with floodwater at times and the outer reaches of the Nimmie-Caira only get it in an occasional year, but they are going to get two and a quarter times the value of the water by agreement, an agreement that was set before the water licences were issued. The reason it is two and a quarter times the value is because they have also got to buy the land and they have got to buy the windmills and fences in the water buyback. That is what I call camouflaging what you are doing. I hope we do better than that. I can only say that I think it is a fraud and I wish them all well. The local shires are up in arms about it.

When the river floods it is supplementary water allegedly. Sure, the Maude Weir et cetera are involved because the river system will not handle it between Maude and Balranald. When you get four inches of rain in the Goulburn River or somewhere, in Victoria originally that became a supplementary flow off allocation. You got a phone call to say, 'Go for your life'. That has now become licensed water. Under what we are proposing now, if you get four inches of rain above Gundagai somewhere there will be supplementary flow and eventually that gets down the system. If you get another four inches the next night it becomes a flood flow. Try and distinguish the floodwater from supplementary water when it gets to the Maude Weir—you are better than me if you can. Anyhow, when the river does flood I can guarantee you one thing: the water you have bought back to save the environment somewhere else in the system is going to go down the Nimmie-Caira flood plain. When Robert Hill was the minister and tried to buy back the wetlands of the lower Lachlan, he quickly discovered, as I warned him he would, that it would cost more to remediate the land than the land was worth. If you take the water off the Nimmie-Caira flood plain somehow artificially, what you will end up with is a poverty bush desert. If you are going to shepherd the water through there somehow, it will cost a bloody fortune and what you will be left with, because there is no environmental planning around this decision, is a lignum flood plain that is a desert.

But because everyone wants to get past the next election they impose these propositions on the hardworking people in the department to give them a reason that makes sense for them publicly to do it. Given that we never really think about what the future holds and whether we should have a plan to make sure that, whatever the actuarial assumption in the science is, at 10 per cent we have got a plan, at 20 per cent we have got a plan and at 50 per cent and 100 per cent we have got a plan, I rather suspect that we do not have that sort of a plan. This is living day to day decision-making. If you go back to 1920 you will see there was a serious argument in the South Australian parliament about the Lower Lakes. Before we tried to regulate the system and think we are smarter than Mother Nature, the Murray system used to go dry; the Murray-Darling used to stop and the lakes would fill up with sea water. And there would be a hell of a bust and they would get flushed out. But somehow we think we are smarter than Mother Nature and we think that we can outdo her, but I do not think we can. I think that this, sadly, is an attempt to outdo Mother Nature. All the river systems in the Murray-Darling are completely overallocated. Don't ask me what brain-dead person decided to make supplementary water tradable, which started the rot, and the compensation behind undoing the rot no government could afford. We have even got the problem now in the likes of the Goulburn River where you have got mercury levels coming out of the tailings of the mines five or six times the safety level for mercury presence in water, but no-one is doing anything about that either, I do not think.

I am afraid that I am in no-man's-land on this. I am concerned that Mother Nature, who is the referee, is more powerful than any political party or parliament. Rather than accept that fact, politicians are trying to find a political solution. I do not blame, them because the people in the various towns—whether it is down in Griffith, Coleambally or somewhere else—deserve a fair go.

As I said before, farming is a great place to raise a family, but it is a bugger of a place to make a quid because it is a journey into the unknown. It is the highest risk business. You do not know whether it is going to rain or not et cetera, but we have come a long way, and there has been a lot of hard work put in. When Coleambally was first pegged out, they were trying to grow rice on sand country—at least we have gotten rid of the sand country. There has been a lot of good work going on at Coleambally for efficiency. But the thing that we forget is that the more efficient we make the water—this is about efficiency in irrigation; this alleged money is an encouragement for farmers to be more efficient like Carnarvon, and I applaud that—the more pressure you put on the aquifer, because part of the inefficiency is recharging the aquifer. As we are probably aware, every pump between Wagga and Narrandera that is a pivot pump in ground water is actually pumping river water. The town water supply for Junee, West Wyalong and Temora is 86 per cent river water, but we do not consider it river water; we say it is bore water. So it is politically convenient not to recognise that.

The more efficient we become above ground with overland water, the more pressure you put on the aquifer. We have not completed the science in the connectivity between the aquifers and the rivers, yet in the earlier plan we took a certain amount of water and allocated extra ground water, not knowing the connection. No one has been able to explain to me the connection—which there is—between the Namoi aquifer and the Great Artesian Basin. We do not really even understand the recharge of the Great Artesian Basin. I am not too sure where this bill is going to end up, but I have to say that it is time that politicians of all persuasions thought about where Australia is going to be in 50 years time and not at the next election or the one after.

As my poor, long-suffering colleagues in the rural committee in the Senate have heard many times, we have an outlook in which, after we drive all of the efficiency, we can say to the next generation of farmers, 'Well, you'd better find something else to do.' Why haven't we had the courage to do what we did after World War II: set up the thinking of a soldiers' settlement, as it were, in northern Australia? Why didn't we find it necessary—it was gutless—to allow hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of infrastructure at the Ord, which has 80,000 hectares of capacity if you get rid of the bloody lead mine and 10,000 gigs in the dam and give it away to someone else? Joe? Why didn't we say to the next generation of farmers, 'We'll put in some money and we'll send you up there'? The Western Australian government has gotten rid of the GM ban. GM crops in Western Australia until the dying days of the last government and the beginning of this government was the same as growing marijuana: it was illegal. So why don't we say, instead of, 'You've all got to jump off the gap in the south,' 'Here's a great opportunity to fit somewhere else'? Sixty-five per cent of Australia's runoff is in three catchments in the north; what we are talking about here is 6.2 per cent of Australia's runoff, which is estimated at a minimum to decline by 3,500 megs by 2050. This is stopgap stuff, and it is about time we had some politicians with vision. People say in the north: 'It's too hot, Bill; it's too far away from the market. The best place to be on a hot bloody day is in the tractor—the air-conditioning in the tractor is better than the house.' Too far away? That is because you are facing in the wrong direction. Two thirds of the world's population is closer to Darwin—in Asia—than Sydney. The prediction is that by 2050 50 per cent of the world's population will be poor for water, a billion people unable to feed themselves, two-thirds of the world's population living in Asia, Asia losing 30 per cent of its agricultural productive capacity, the food task doubling, 1.6 billion people on the planet possibly displaced. Why don't we get off our backsides and develop what Mother Nature has given us instead of fighting over what she is taking away? It is time we woke up, time we had a bit of courage. If we can do it after World War bloody One and Two, why can't we do it now? What's wrong with this mob? You are locking up Cape York Peninsula, for God's sake.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Boyce ): Senator Heffernan, please be temperate in your remarks.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Yeah, righto. Fourteen thousand people live off the coast in Cape York Peninsula. Bangladesh is half the size of Cape York Peninsula and it has 160 million people who will be displaced by 2050. Thank you very much. (Time expired)