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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9206

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (17:19): One of the most dangerous myths flying around is that something is better than nothing. That is what we have heard from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and that is what we keep hearing from Minister Burke. But something is better than nothing if, indeed, it is not locking in failure.

The worst outcome would be a plan that locks in failure and that puts the final nail in the coffin for the Murray-Darling Basin system—the final nail in the coffin for the river, allowing it to continue into environmental collapse. That is why we need to ensure that we get this right.

The bill before us, the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012, would allow for the adjustment mechanism—to allow five per cent up, five per cent down—despite the fact that we need to return a minimum amount of water back to the river in order to give it a fighting chance.

This piece of legislation will have a significant impact on the Basin Plan and on how it actually achieves the outcome and how that exorbitant $11 billion will be spent.

The government's bill amends the Water Act to allow the long-term average sustainable diversion limit to be adjusted up and down by five per cent, basin wide and averaged out. That could be a gain or a loss, depending on what it is that the political will in this place will allow.

It could be a gain or a loss of 710 gigalitres. That means risking nearly a quarter of the whole volume of water that is meant to be returned to the river system. Let us remember that, in the first place, we are starting from a very low point. We are told by the minister that when the Basin Plan is finally tabled it will return only 2,750 gigalitres to the river. And if we were to allow a five per cent reduction, then we would be looking at returning only a piddling 2,100 gigalitres for the environment. If we are to save the river from environmental collapse, then by any stretch of the imagination that is not enough.

The best available science, which has been advocated and spoken about passionately, from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, CSIRO, 60 of Australia's leading water scientists, environmental groups and many people in my home state of South Australia, including farmers and irrigators, know that this is simply not enough in order to save the river into the future. They say 2,750 gigalitres is not enough, so clearly 2,100 gigalitres goes nowhere near what we need to reform the system. They even say that 3,200 gigalitres is really not enough—but it could be at least a good start if it were a guaranteed minimum. We know that the best available science says that at least 4,000 gigalitres is what is needed if we are to give the river a fighting chance and allow it to get through those dryer times. Returning enough water is not just an environmental necessity; returning enough water to deliver true reform is the only responsible position because it is about the very existence of a sustainable river system that keeps our industries and our basin community alive and well—as well, of course, as protecting those unique species that are currently at risk throughout the basin.

The adjustment mechanism will be benchmarked to environmental outcomes that will be pegged to a sustainable diversion limit that is set by the Basin Plan—and that is only at 2,750 gigalitres. If we allow this bill to pass in its current form, the only water guaranteed to be returned by this parliament to the river system is 2,100 gigalitres. That is not enough to save the system; it is not enough to give the river a fighting chance, particularly in the dryer years. The 2,750 gigalitres currently proposed by the authority and the minister would achieve only 57 per cent of what we are meant to be trying to do—57 per cent of the authority's own environmental targets for the health of the river would be met. If we allow this legislation to pass, it would reduce the water to be returned to the river to 2,100 gigalitres. We are going to get nowhere near that target when, even at 2,750 gigalitres, only 75 per cent of those targets are achieved. It is a starting point that fails. It will condemn the Coorong and the Lower Lakes and many of the flood plains around the basin to a certain death, particularly in the next drought.

Let us not forget all of that and that we are actually spending $11 billion of taxpayer money—$11 billion which is meant to be saving the system is condemning it to certain death. That is why I will be moving an amendment this afternoon or this evening—whenever we get to that particular part of the debate—to ensure that there is no cap on the five per cent adjustment when it comes to returning more water to the river. This bill in its current form allows less water to be returned to the river and sets a cap on how much we can achieve. As we get better at being able to use more water more wisely and at understanding that the needs of the environment are becoming more and more dire, rather than saying that we should be able to return more water to the river, this bill, as it is currently set out, says no, you cannot; it puts a cap on our level of achievement.

As our knowledge of climate change grows, and groundwater extraction increases and the climate dries, we know that we need to be finding more flexible ways to return more water to the river. That is what science tells us and, if we are going to make the river survive, that is what we have to do.

I will also be moving an amendment that removes the ability of the adjustment mechanism to reduce the amount of water available for the environment. It is not genuine for anybody in this place, particularly the minister, to stand up and say that this plan will deliver 2,750 gigalitres if this bill passes in its current form—because that can be reduced to returning only 2,100 gigalitres. We know that the eastern states, particularly Victoria and New South Wales, will be quite happy with returning only that amount of water—but it is not going to be enough to save the river.

The Greens will also be moving amendments to the bill that is currently before the House of Representatives which would allow for the payment of the extra 450 gigalitres—the 450-up bill, as it is being referred to around this place. This bill was announced with a big fanfare by the Prime Minister when she visited the Murray Mouth only weeks ago. Of course, that extra 450 gigalitres is not guaranteed in the current legislation that is before the House of Representatives. We need to make sure we can amend that to make sure that it is; otherwise, all we see before us are two pieces of legislation that continue to pork-barrel more Australian taxpayer money to the big irrigators upstream—billions upon billions of dollars—without any guarantee that real water is going to be returned to the river. That will fail not just the public's view and desire and understanding that this reform is meant to be saving the river; it will fail the river itself, and it will certainly fail the aspirations of my home state of South Australia.

We need to make sure that we have a floor—and that is what this bill should be doing: putting in place an absolute minimum so that, if we are going to spend $11 billion of taxpayer money, we know for certain that this amount of water at the very least is going to be returned. We want nothing less, because we know that returning even less water will condemn the lower stretches of the river, the southern end of the system, to a slow death.

Despite the fact that we have this piece of legislation before us, and despite the requirements of the Water Act itself, there has never actually been modelling or a public release of the best approximate figure for water recovery that will satisfy the 112 hydraulic targets across the basin. We will never know what the right figure is. The best available science tells us is that it is at least 4,000 gigalitres. The minister, the Prime Minister and the Premier of South Australia say at least 3,200 gigalitres is needed. It can be done and it should be done. Let us make sure that is an absolute minimum and lock it in. To do that, this bill would need to be amended in the manner in which the Greens will be moving.

The Greens have a long-held position to stand by the best available science, and that has meant at least 4,000 gigalitres. We have said to the government very clearly that we would be willing to accept 3,200 gigalitres as a step forward, but we have to lock it in and we have to make sure it is an absolute minimum that we cannot waver from. To do that we must ensure we remove the ability to relegate down five per cent, as currently outlined in this bill. I will also be moving amendments to ensure that, when the adjustment is proposed by the authority in 2016, it must also release basin-wide integrated modelling for the impacts on all of the targets that have been set out so that no-one who lives in the communities throughout the basin will be left in the dark again.

The other very weak part of all this is the allowance in the plan to increase the groundwater extractions. Throughout this year we have heard many scientists raise this as a major concern: the fact that there will be an allowed increase in the amount of water that can be taken out of the ground—an increase of 1,700 gigalitres. That is extra water being given away, virtually for free. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists have raised significant concerns about this increase. The government, the authority and the government agencies cannot even tell us what that interconnection between the groundwater and the surface water is going to be.

The Greens will be moving amendments to this legislation to make sure that, before any increase in groundwater extraction occurs, we know exactly what the impact is going to be on the surface water and to communities downstream. We should not be giving away more water, repeating the mistakes of the past by allowing overallocations to the groundwater system simply because we do not have the information to help us make the right decision. Let's get the review, let's get the science, and then we can determine whether increasing groundwater extractions is indeed the correct thing to do. The Greens amendments will fix this.

Our amendments will return to the precautionary principle: let's know what we are doing first before we move in and start ripping out more water. In an age of climate change we need to make sure that we are taking on board through these reviews the most up-to-date information about climate data. The Greens amendments will make sure this happens. The increased knowledge about climate change must be factored into how the plan can be adjusted. It is absolutely crucial at a time when we are fighting to reform the Murray-Darling Basin system that we do not do it in the vacuum of what is available now. This is meant to be a plan for the future. Once this plan is passed, it will be in place until 2030. The climate is going to be very different by 2030 and we need to make sure that we have the ability through the adjustment mechanism to adapt as need be.

In my closing remarks I want to emphasise how important it is for this piece of legislation to be amended to make sure that the plan is the right one to save the river, not just for the rest of the country but, indeed, for the end of the system in my home state in South Australia.