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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9221

Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (18:27): I also rise to make some remarks on the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. To follow on from some comments that my colleague Senator Birmingham made earlier, I too feel like I have spent many hours in this chamber discussing the issue of water. It seems like for years now we have been backward and forward across this chamber on the various iterations of water issues, with the Water Act 2007 initially and then the variations along the way. I have certainly sat through many hours of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee looking at issues to do with the Murray-Darling Basin and many hours in the estimates process doing exactly the same thing. I concur with those who say a resolution is needed.

It certainly has not been easy; there are no two ways about that. There are so many varied views about the appropriate way forward for the management of the Murray-Darling Basin that it is an enormous task to try to come to some consensus resolution on the most appropriate way forward. As my colleague Senator Joyce said earlier—I certainly do not want to verbal him—there is no perfect solution; there has potentially been some ground to give on all sides. But the mistake should not be made that this bill is in any way, shape or form—as Senator Ruston said before me—about the Basin Plan. That is an entirely separate issue. Support for this bill in front of us today in no way indicates support for the Basin Plan, because we simply have not seen it yet. Until we see the detail, there is absolutely no way that we on this side of the chamber can commit to signing up to it. I think that is a fair and appropriate position for us to take at this stage.

Certainly this bill in front of us today needs to be looked at independently of the broader water issues. It needs to be noted—and I want people to be very clear on this fact—that the ability to amend the Basin Plan already exists in the current Water Act, in subdivision F, from section 45 onward. So this is not a new introduction. This is not some new surprise that has suddenly been brought into the chamber. The ability to amend the Basin Plan already exists.

Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30

Senator NASH: Before the dinner break I was pointing out that this piece of legislation is not the Basin Plan; it is separate to the Basin Plan. It is simply about adjustments to the sustainable diversion limit. Under the Water Act, potential already exists to amend the Basin Plan. As Senator Joyce was saying earlier today, this streamlines the process. There is a very convoluted process in subdivision F of the Water Act 2007 that enables amendment of the plan.

The government initially brought to us legislation that allowed the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to require changes to the sustainable diversion limit. Quite rightly, the coalition here and in the other place realised that that was not the appropriate mechanism through which to do that. There had to be an ability for oversight by the minister and the parliament. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority could not be left to determine something of this magnitude—whether or not there was an appropriate upward or downward movement to the sustainable diversion limit. I do commend the government for agreeing that that was an appropriate change, an appropriate amendment. I think there is a much greater level of comfort out in the water community that there will be oversight by the minister and by the parliament itself.

My view is that any upward adjustment within five per cent of the sustainable diversion limit should not be utilised through buybacks. Buybacks should be precluded in any upward adjustment of the sustainable diversion limit. There are other mechanisms, through infrastructure efficiencies, where that can be gained. I would hope that through this process, under the five per cent flexibility that occurs under this bill, we can rule out buybacks being used as a mechanism to increase the sustainable diversion limit. That five per cent is potentially around 710 gigalitres of extraction. There really needs to be surety in people's minds that that is not going to occur through buybacks.

At the end of the day, this whole process—not just this bill but the broader water issue of the Murray-Darling Basin—is about people. We have seen now over many years divergence of opinion, different views on different iterations of bills and different aspects of this debate around water. But at the end of the day it is about people, and we have to remember that. Of course everybody wants a better environment for the future and everybody wants to make sure that we have a sustainable basin for the future, but that cannot be at the expense of the future of people in communities in regional Australia. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.

I live out in the Central West. We do irrigate; we have a groundwater licence. Along with that, I have spent years and years as a senator in this place going out into communities and talking to the people that this legislation—the broader legislation also—is going to affect. I think we on this side of the chamber are in absolute agreement—and I hope those on the other side of the chamber are too, although I am not so sure about the Greens—that we must take into account the social and economic impacts of removing water from communities by whatever means. There is absolutely no doubt that people look favourably upon the infrastructure efficiency improvements that lead to a reduction in water usage. Environmental works and measures that lead to a reduction in water usage are seen as sensible moves forward.

The issue of buybacks is a different kettle of fish altogether. I understand completely that in some instances benefits have been gained for people in rural communities. But, by and large, as Senator Ruston indicated earlier in her remarks—I commend Senator Ruston on her contribution tonight—so often they are not willing sellers; they are desperate sellers. They have been forced into a situation where they have no choice but to sell water. That, in essence, is a debate for another day. Today is about the sustainable diversion limit adjustment bill we have before us.

There is no doubt that there is not a perfect outcome here. We would all like to wave a magic wand and have a perfect outcome, but life is not like that. Life is not black and white; life is grey. Around this chamber there are a whole lot of different views; indeed, out in our communities there are different views. As my good friend and colleague behind me, Senator McKenzie, would know, if you put 10 farmers in a room you will get 12 different opinions. So it is very difficult to collect the majority view and ensure that we make the best decisions we possibly can in this place when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin. We have to weigh things up and try to make the right decision for those people we represent.

As my leader, Senator Joyce, said today, if we were not discussing the Murray-Darling Basin with the government, the Greens certainly would be. I can tell everybody out there in the regional communities of the basin that, if the Greens get what they want on the Murray-Darling Basin, they are going to be in a far, far worse position than they would be under any kind of negotiated outcome that the coalition and the government may be able to reach. This debate is on the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012, but it is difficult to talk about the bill separately from the broader Murray-Darling Basin issue. So, while I have tried not to stray from talking about the bill, I have strayed and probably will continue to stray into talking about the Murray-Darling Basin issue.

It is really important that we in this place ensure that people understand that we do not underestimate the importance of social and economic impacts on basin communities. I know I have said that already, but I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is. While debate on the Murray-Darling Basin is so often about irrigators—and I know irrigators out in the regions and have great respect for them—this bill is also about everybody else in the regional communities of the basin, because the Basin Plan has flow-on effects on the very fabric of towns, businesses and families in basin communities. That is why on this side of the chamber—and I commend Senator Joyce for his leadership as shadow water minister—we are trying to get the best and most beneficial outcome for people out in those communities.

I note that Senator Hanson-Young has joined us in the chamber today. We try in this place to be mature and to look at issues in a balanced way in order to come up with the best outcomes we possibly can for people across the nation—and in particular, as far as the Nationals are concerned, for people in regional communities. Senator Hanson-Young has said recently, 'Barnaby Joyce is a danger to the river.' That is extraordinary. The Greens have every right to have their view on the Murray-Darling Basin and every right to put their view forward sensibly, but Senator Hanson-Young has said:

Barnaby Joyce is hoping to make a deal with the Government that would line the pockets of big irrigators…

I just wonder who on earth Senator Hanson-Young has been speaking to. She is talking about big irrigators. I can think of three; I can also think of about 3,000 small family-farm irrigators who are not big irrigators. They have their children at the local school. One of the parents in the family is probably a teacher. The other one probably works in a business in town somewhere for another family. They contribute to the local community. They are on their school P&C. They are part of the local chamber of commerce. They contribute every time there is a sausage sizzle at the local IGA. They are the people affected by the decisions we make in this chamber about the Murray-Darling Basin. Yet the Greens say, 'Barnaby Joyce is hoping to make a deal with the Government that would line the pockets of big irrigators,' and that shows how completely out of touch the Greens are with people in basin communities. They make that sort of media-grab comment instead of a sensible, rational contribution to the debate. It gets better. Senator Hanson-Young went on to say:

The Government has a decision to make; will it support Barnaby Joyce in his attempts to pork barrel the big irrigators upstream—

That sounds like something out of a bad novel—

or will it work with the Greens …

I like the next bit:

I will be meeting with Minister Burke over the coming days to negotiate a Plan that will support river communities …

Here is the thing: I will put five bucks on the table now to say that Senator Hanson-Young will not manage to meet with Minister Burke over the coming days to negotiate a plan. I wonder if she has asked Minister Burke if he is prepared to negotiate a plan with her. Let us sit here for a little while and wait and see. Maybe I am wrong. I am always happy to be wrong in this place, and maybe I will be wrong—maybe Senator Hanson-Young will negotiate a plan with Minister Burke that will support river communities by guaranteeing blah, blah, blah. But I suspect that she will not, because I think that the majority of people in this parliament want to get sensible outcomes for people in regional communities. Sensible outcomes are not achieved through throwaway lines; they are achieved by trying to do the right thing. At the end of the day, for us as Nationals, this bill is about making sure that people in regional communities have the best future they possibly can.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a really, really difficult issue. Mark Twain once said, 'Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over,' and I think he was probably right on the money. What is important in Queensland is not necessarily what is important in New South Wales, in Victoria or in South Australia. We could have a bland, blanket approach in any one of those states, and the other three would find it difficult or impossible to live with. The easy thing to do is to say, each and every one of us parochial in our own state, 'This is what we absolutely want to happen,' and stick by it, jump up and down and not deliver any kind of certainty or opportunity for the future of the basin. The hard thing to do is to try to find an outcome that we can all live with. We do not know—because we have not seen it yet—if the Basin Plan is going to deliver an outcome we can all live with. Our agreement with and support for the bill in front of us in no way indicates support for the Basin Plan, because we have not seen it yet.

As I said earlier, I commended the government for taking into account that for this adjustment bill for the sustainable diversion limits the oversight should be by the minister and the parliament, and the Murray-Darling Basin should not have the authority for the direction. I commend the government again for doing that.

What we need to see is a sensible plan from this government. There are a couple of things that I think are absolutely vital. One is the fact that, as the bottom line, we always have to include the social and economic impacts of any decisions we make around water in the Murray-Darling Basin in exactly the same way we do environmental impacts. We cannot discount that. Anything that is going to compromise the social and economic future of regional communities—that is going to impact the social and economic fabric of those communities—should not be supported. The other thing I know is that people in regional communities have had enough of the issue of buybacks. People need to be very aware that in any sustainable diversion limit around 1,500 gigalitres have already been bought back—that is not a new figure. We have a considerable amount that has already been bought back.

In my view, we should cap buybacks. We should not have unlimited buybacks in the future. I absolutely believe that the government should consider very, very closely a cap on that buyback mechanism so that there can be some certainty in those regional communities. As Senator Ruston said so eloquently earlier, 'Why on earth have we ended up in this situation where no funding has been spent on the infrastructure efficiencies or on the works and measures which should have been done and with which people right across the board agree?' Where there can be improvements to save water, we should be making them without the impacts that buybacks have on the communities. Just look at Twynam, which was so badly mishandled by this Labor government. We on this side of the chamber will try to find the best outcome for people in regional communities right across the basin. The coalition—and the Nationals in particular—will not stand by or make any decision that will have a negative impact on the social and economic futures of regional communities. That is what we stand by.