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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9150


Senator JOYCE (QueenslandLeader of The Nationals in the Senate) (13:34): We are about to proceed right now with a piece of legislation, the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012, that really deals with a formal process that is in the current water plan, which has already been voted for. This legislation, in its most succinct form, brings about a streamlining of that process. If we were to invoke a formal Basin Plan amendment process, that could take months to complete. This legislation does not add to what would be achievable by that formal Basin Plan process but streamlines it through the insertion of proposed section 23A and 23B into the act. In summary, proposed section 23A provides that, under the Basin Plan, the MDBA may be able to propose an adjustment to the SDL for water resources of a particular water resource plan or a particular part of those water resources within a set amount. Proposed section 23B sets out the process by which that can be adjusted. In essence, it refers to a five per cent adjustment—which is five per cent up or down—of the total extraction limit. That is an amount similar to around 710 gigalitres of water. That is an extraordinary amount of water. To give you an idea of just how much water that is, it is more than the amount of water that the whole of South Australia uses and more than the amount of water that the whole of Queensland uses. It would not be too far off the amount that Queensland and South Australia use together. So we have to be extremely cautious about how this process works.

We must ensure that we do not bring about socioeconomic detriment through this process. If we do not pass this legislation, it does not mean that this process cannot happen; it will just happen in a more convoluted form. That is important for those who might not be dealing with this issue every day, so they do not think this is something new that is coming completely from left field.

We should not make any assumptions whatsoever as to the final conclusion about where the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will actually end up. We still have a special account bill to come forward and we still have the payments to be tabled. In trying to bring a myriad of parties together, from the irrigators to the environmentalists and from the coalition to the Labor Party, to come to a negotiated settlement—and the partisan catchcry of so many is that we are the so-called noalition, that we do not negotiate—we are trying to work in a form that brings about an outcome. And every person is giving up territory on that. The only people who seem terribly unhappy about that are the Australian Greens—because now apparently everybody is compromised because we are trying to work together.

We do not see this piece of legislation as the real crux of the issue. The real crux of the issue is of course the plan itself, and you cannot determine your final position until you see it—and it has not been tabled yet. And, of course, you cannot see it in isolation; you must also be aware of the intergovernmental agreement and the water recovery strategy that comes with it. That is yet to be seen, so a position on this should not be read in any way, shape or form as an endorsement, or otherwise, of the coalition's final position—but know full well that we are open to negotiation and have been trying to negotiate a position which, as much as it can, will be a position we can both live with.

We in the coalition are not fools. We understand that, were we not at the table, the Labor Party has the capacity to get things through the parliament without us; they have proven this, they have form, especially with the Wheat Export Authority bill. Therefore, the negotiations would not be between the Labor Party and the coalition—or, in this case, between Minister Burke and me. They would be between Minister Burke and, I imagine, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. So it is vitally important that we do what has been asked of us by our constituent communities, the 2.2 million people who actually live in the basin—that is, stay at the table and do our very best to come up with an outcome that mitigates the effect on their life.

To draw a picture of what we are trying to achieve, our focus is not necessarily irrigation farmers, as important as they are—and my community is surrounded by them. Our focus is the person who lives in a house in an irrigation town. That person has spent their life paying off a mortgage on a house and has lived with the belief that the economic rug—the sustenance of their community, which is the water that underpins it—will not be pulled out from under them. It is not fair to them; they are not a compensable party in this; if something goes wrong, they just lose. We cannot say to someone who lives in Turvey Court in St George that, although they paid $300,000 or $400,000 for their house, by reason of the mechanism of a decision of government we are now removing the water and their house is now worth $100,000 or $150,000. If you want to see that in its starkest form, in a place like Dirranbandi if the water is not there you can buy a house for between $10,000 and $15,000.

I do not know whether many people have experienced what it is like to do it tough, but I can assure you that when house prices get down to that level you are doing it pretty tough. When water is there, the value of the house goes up. We have people who are struggling and, in a meagre way, they might have been able to attach themselves to a house worth $150,000. If we do this wrong, if we pull the economic rug out from underneath them, they will be left with, in some instances, an asset they cannot sell. It is not right, it is not proper, for the Australian parliament to do that to people. So our focus is the person who lives in a house in the town, the person who has gone to that area to buy a motel and set it up, the person who owns a tyre business, the person who went there to buy a chemist shop, the person who went there to be a nurse or a doctor in that town. We must maintain the social fabric and we can only do that if we maintain the economic base.

On the recommendations of the Prime Minister, the minister and even Premier Weatherill, people have stated, because it is the obvious and just position, that neither this parliament nor any other parliament has an interest in undermining the economic integrity and thus the social fabric of these towns. So it is important in these pieces of legislation that we reinforce the recommendations made by the Prime Minister and the minister and the respective premiers that it be evident in the legislation that we will not bring about a socioeconomic detriment to these people by the actions of this parliament. It is possible to be strategic in how you return water to the river in such a way that it does not happen.

We have had instances of this being very badly managed in the past. I will give a quick expose on the two classic instances of that. One was the purchase of Toorale Station, near Bourke, for $23.75 million. A substantial section of the Bourke rating base was purchased unseen by the Australian government—no-one even set foot on it. Lo and behold, it does not even deliver water into the river. We had to decommission the tanks at the station—Toorale was built by Chaffey, so they were under the National Heritage Trust—and that cost $70 million. How on earth we ended up with that, we do not know. The other one was the purchase in globo of the water of the Kahlbetzer family at Twynham Pastoral Company. That pulled the economic rug out from underneath Collarenebri, a town in northern New South Wales. Without the water, there is no irrigation; without the irrigation, there is no cotton; without the cotton, they do not need a gin; without the cotton gin, they do not need the fitters and turners, the yardmen and the Indigenous community who relied on that as the cornerstone of their economic base. You just cannot do it.

In my area—I can throw a rock into the river from my front yard—30 per cent of the community is Indigenous and, if I go down the road, I would say that 40 to 50 per cent of Dirranbandi is Indigenous. These communities are vitally attached to the economic base associated with the river. There will be no fanfare whatsoever if we get this wrong.

The Australian people must understand that we must widen the moral paradigm of how we see water. So often the water debate is put up as a purely environmental debate, and that is wrong. 'Environment' is not an omnipotent term. It has no more strength than the words 'family', 'economy' or 'job'. To invoke the word 'environment' does not mean you win the argument. It is part and parcel of the debate, but it is not the knockout clause.

We must look at what actually happens with the water that we are supposedly 'putting back into the river'. People want to do that. The whole premise of the money that the coalition initially put on the table was for an environmental outcome to try to alleviate the environmental problems, which we all acknowledge were there, but we must also acknowledge the wider cost of that.

All of us in this chamber are irrigators. You might think you are not, but you are. It takes about 2,000 litres of water a day to support the food that each of us eats. It would take around 750,000 litres a year to sustain you. What that means in rough terms is that, regarding the water that comes out with the Living Murray agreement and now with the Basin Plan, we are basically removing the capacity to feed five million people. That means that somewhere in the world, at a time when things are tough, someone does not get fed.

We put out the Asian paper saying how we are going to be the food basket of South-East Asia. We have to be very careful that we do not start moving legislation which means that we cannot even be the food basket of our own country. If we remove the capacity of the south-east corner of Australia to feed five million people, that is a substantial issue. We must own the consequences. The time will come, with an expanding global population, when somebody in another part of the world goes hungry and dies because we are absorbing the food, even if we are importing it, that they would otherwise have utilised. We would have to absorb it because we reduced our own capacity to grow it.

This is the prime agricultural growing area. The reason it is there is that it has the benefaction of the climatic conditions which are so pertinent to the growing of food. Other areas might be pertinent to the growing of fibre or sugar, but this area is very pertinent to the growing of food. It is food in the form that you would have had already or you will have tonight—whether that is lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes or onions—or cotton. You might say, 'I don't like cotton.' If you are wearing a shirt, you do. These are all the attachments that happen in this part of the world.

The coalition was in negotiation with our counterparts from the Riverina, northern Victoria, western New South Wales, southern Queensland and South Australia—especially the irrigators of South Australia, and Senator Anne Ruston is a great representative of them. They have made their views well and truly known that we must walk so carefully to make sure that we do not bring about the economic demise of those people. For instance, in an arbitrary process, regarding the water in the current scope of the plan—they are still looking for about 249 gigs for buyback—if they bought that all from an area, it would be absolute devastation.

I will give another example of how there is an attachment between irrigation communities and a wider morality that is not only to the benefit of our capacity but is about our obligation to feed the world. The rice industry around the town of Deniliquin has the capacity to feed 30 million people a day at full production. For our nation, that is incredible in the global task. We can do that because of the climate conditions that are apparent, because of the infrastructure that is there and because of the water that is there. If we decide that the environmental requirements are greater than the food requirements, the staple carbohydrate that feeds people, then of course we remove capacity from production. It could happen if we get it wrong. The rice growing capacity of somewhere like Deniliquin would shut down.

What happens when we remove out of the global food task the capacity to feed 30 million people a day? Quite obviously, somewhere in the world—whether, as I have said before, it is southern Sudan, the Thai-Burma border or part of Africa—we remove the capacity for someone to be fed. If we keep doing that, people will starve to death. If we still want to consume rice, then we will just consume their rice. It is a very liquid global market. Who will die if they do that? It is generally children; the adults live and the children die. People say, 'Talking like that is too partisan.' Well, do we believe in global markets? Rice goes onto a global market. Do we believe that we will trade? We say that we will trade. Do we believe that people eat? Of course, they eat. Then we have to believe in the consequences of not managing our food task or our food obligation to the world.

Also, we must acknowledge that inside the basin live 2.2 million people. If the Murray-Darling Basin were a state it would be one of the middle-tier states in Australia—not quite in the middle, but getting close to it. So this is a substantial group of people. The biggest city in the Murray-Darling Basin is the one we are standing in right now: Canberra. So this plan has resonance even in this great city, our nation's capital. If you get it wrong, we will end up with ridiculous scenarios where water assets built for this town would be unable to be used for this town. We have had the construction of a new dam, even here—which, I might say, even the Greens voted for. There was a major cost blow-out in building it, but it was done. We were getting to a ridiculous position at one stage where they may not have been able to use their own water. Permanent water restrictions for Canberra—an absurdity. So we have to keep the logic in this debate.

In closing, we acknowledge the requirement that was placed on us to return water to the river. From irrigation farmers in St George to those in the South Australian Lower Lakes and everywhere in between, people have been part of this task. But we have always said that you should trust people at the lower level to have the best idea of the decisions, because in local communities they can tell you where you should take the water to have the least economic effect and the best environmental effect. When we start making those decisions without their input, we end up with all sorts of problems.

But this is stage 1. What we have here in this bill is stage 1 of a process to bring about an outcome. It is not an endorsement of a final outcome; it is part of a process towards that outcome. What I can say is that implicitly we are going forward with this. We will look for clauses to put in, and we will lobby for positions, to make sure we do not bring about social or economic detriment. Do not take this as any warrant whatsoever of our final position but do take it as a confirmation of our willingness to progress down a path, to try to negotiate towards an outcome.