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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9225


Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (19:47): I happily rise after the Deputy Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Senator Fiona Nash, to speak on the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. The bill allows long-term average sustainable diversion limits to be adjusted within the Murray-Darling Basin Plan without having to invoke the formal Basin Plan adjustment process. It is important for a variety of reasons, primarily for flexibility. The bill will also establish a process of ministerial oversight for the sustainable diversion limit adjustments. It will make the limits disallowable legislative instruments so that parliament can have input and hence, through the parliament, the people. It also requires public consultation ahead of any proposed changes, ensuring community input.

I am fully supportive of a balanced Murray-Darling Basin Plan—one that seeks to provide for a healthy river without decimating local communities and industries—but I will not support a bad plan. I believe this bill improves the current Water Act by providing an alternative amendment mechanism. It is odd for us to be here tonight considering legislation that allows for changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the final version of which is as yet unreleased. It acknowledges that there is so much that is unknown in this whole process. That is something that has been reiterated to us over the last few years.

The Senate Environment and Communications Committee, of which I am a member, has conducted an inquiry into this bill over preceding weeks. I would like to take this opportunity to thank particularly Senators Birmingham, Ruston and Joyce for participating in that inquiry and for their leadership. We held hearings in Adelaide and in Canberra and heard from 30 stakeholders—environmental groups, irrigators and even a couple of state governments. Many were concerned about the rapid consultation process and the lack of transparency in relation to the final Basin Plan. They had been asked to comment on a bill which establishes a mechanism that will affect them—up or down, either way—without having seen the final plan. But the time frame for consultation was particularly short. Consultation for this Labor government, however, is too often an afterthought. Ms Schulte from the New South Wales Irrigators Council summed it up best when she said:

For a peak body representing thousands of irrigators and water access licence holders in New South Wales, the time frame is insufficient to adequately consult with our constituency on all aspects of the proposed bills. In the absence of a finalised basin plan, as a legislative background for these bills it remains extremely difficult for us to evaluate in full the proposed amendments and provide detailed comments to the committee.

The inquiry process is a bit of a farce if our core contributors and those peak bodies which are bringing to the Senate process community concerns cannot actually perform their function because of the constraints the government has put on them through the consultation process.

Similarly, the Senate's Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee, of which Senator Nash is a keen participant, in a recent interim report also stated that:

As a result the Parliament is again being asked to legislate on a matter with insufficient information.

It is legislation in the dark. The information that is lacking includes environmental watering plans and a full understanding of the plan's socioeconomic impacts on many, many regional communities throughout the basin—including those represented by Senator Hanson-Young, Senator Joyce, Senator Boswell, Senator Nash, Senator Payne and Senator Williams, who are all in the chamber tonight.

This is in perfect keeping with the haphazard way the government has gone about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan process from the start. At a million square kilometres, the sheer enormity of the physical space we are talking about is 14 per cent of our nation's land mass, whilst being home to only 10 per cent of our population. Hence we get some sort of understanding, I guess, of the political power this group of people—despite their enormous contribution to our nation socially and economically—can wield. It is understandable that so many are concerned about its future. Many more rely on the basin for food and fibre—not only here in our nation, but internationally.

What constitutes a healthy river is a complex matter that is contested amongst stakeholders. One of the areas of concern raised over and over again in this debate is what defines a healthy river. Is healthy no more dams and, with climate change upon us, years and years of constant searing droughts with absolutely no water followed by rampant flooding for years and years, as my home state of Victoria and Senator Nash's New South Wales can understand after the last couple of years? This whole process has been about drawing a line—how we draw the line; where we draw the line. It is complex, and we heard evidence to that effect throughout the inquiry.

We also heard evidence about achieving an outcome, not an amount of water—not 2,100, not 2,750, not 3,200, not 4,000, not 7,000. It is not about a number; it is about an outcome and about understanding that rivers are ecological systems and that we need targeted localised approaches to ensure the river remains healthy rather than simply pouring more water in over the total system—and when we have a healthy river we have healthy communities. The government's historic approach of non-strategic buybacks has caused social and economic detriment to basin communities, particularly in my home state of Victoria and particularly in the Goulburn Valley.

Additionally, these communities have basin reform fatigue. I attended public consultations into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in Swan Hill, Mildura and Shepparton over two years ago—that was under the former chair—and listened to the views of country people who were passionate about the basin and had an interest in its survival. It is a vested interest—and we make no bones about that, Senator Hanson-Young—in the health of the river because it affects the interests of their businesses and their families and because it is tied up with their history. There are those who seem to be of the view that if you are not supportive of the figures being bandied about by environmentalist lobby groups—the 4,000-plus figures—then you are not someone who cares about the river or the environment. I find that offensive, and so do my communities. This assumption is blatantly untrue. It is akin to assuming that because farmers use the land they therefore abuse the land—but why would it be in their interests to destroy the very thing that brings them their wealth and their sense of identity? Country people have sustainability at their heart because they live and work off the land; they do not work against it. It just shows how little the Greens and until recently Labor have understood those who live and work on the land. Their electorates are not centred around the Murray-Darling Basin—they have no skin in this game. The Greens were nowhere—Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Waters were not in Adelaide, and they were nowhere to be seen in Canberra when it came to discussing the issues surrounding the bill. To his credit, Senator Cameron was there; the Labor Party was there. The Liberal Party was there. The Nationals were there. The Greens, big on the media release and Twitter, were not there when it counted to discover the facts and prosecute their argument in the face of the very constituents their decisions will affect.

Section 23 of the bill establishes the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism. The bill allows environmental works and measures to be acknowledged as water returning to the environment of the Murray Darling Basin. Prior to this amendment only water with existing entitlements—that is, mostly irrigators' entitlements—could be contributed to the targets of the Basin Plan. The disastrous release of the previous version of the Basin Plan etched into the minds of most Australians iconic images of angry irrigators burning copies of the plan. That was in February 2011 and resulted from the water minister and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority releasing a plan that lazily relied on the water buyback that was destroying the very fabric of rural communities by removing huge amounts of its lifeblood—water.

Evidence to the Senate committee indicated that environmental groups would like that to continue. To those who are listening, I recommend our dissenting report and additional comments. Already we have seen over 1,031 gigalitres secured through buybacks, yet just 284 gigalitres has been secured or is under contract through the infrastructure program. That is taking water out of communities. This reminds me of another Labor leader from Victoria who in his last term of government committed billions to now failed water projects. They failed because of a lack of planning. Julia Gillard trained in John Brumby's office, so Victorians are not surprised.

The government has spent more than $100 million on this process to date, not to mention the substantial costs to state governments and private individuals and organisations in both time and money as a result of their providing feedback, conducting modelling and consulting on this process of arriving at a plan. The focus has most certainly not been on the triple bottom line, which is why the amendment to be put forward by Senator Joyce on behalf of the opposition is so important. It will put the intent that the minister outlined in his second reading speech—to move away from water buybacks and towards a focus on no social and economic detriment—specifically into the legislation. It will ensure a consideration of what environmental, economic and social outcomes will mean for the basin's local communities. The adjustable mechanism is something stakeholders have been calling for for a long time, because flexibility is important. Mr Richard Anderson of the Victorian Farmers Federation Water Council outlined to the Senate's Environment and Communications Committee that it took six months of strenuous argument to convince the chair of the authority that the adjustment mechanism we are legislating for tonight was even necessary, highlighting again the importance of localism in policy development.

The five per cent up or down in section 23A(4) can have significant impacts—roughly 700 gigalitres might not sound like a lot of water, but it is equal to the entire South Australian quota. With water, seemingly small changes can have big impacts. When you are talking about taking out the key element in the productive capacity of a region, it matters. If farmers and state governments have invested in infrastructure that has meant more water has become available for the system and hence for the environment, it is only right that this be used to minimise the amount that is taken out of productive use.

Flexibility through the adjustment mechanism is important for several reasons in addition to that: the climate is variable, and we have spoken about flooding and droughts; and science and farming practice change over time, and may even result in us being able to achieve greater efficiencies either in the way we farm, in what we farm or in how we deliver water. The Australian Conservation Foundation acknowledged that they do 'not think we have reached the end of our ingenuity in how to operate the river infrastructure for irrigation purposes and potentially use less water', and I could not agree with the Australian Conservation Foundation more and I wholly support them in pursuing that. Flexibility is most important though so that, in relation to works that have already been undertaken, efficiency gains by irrigators and their communities can be accounted for appropriately. Section 23(b) of the bill establishes arrangements for public consultation ahead of any decisions on sustainable diversion adjustments. This is really welcome, but I am not overly confident about the consultation process.

In coming to the Senate I have travelled from Mildura to Albury and met with all the local governments right along the Victorian side of the Murray—the Mildura, Swan Hill, Gannawarra, Loddon, Campaspe, Moira, Indigo and Wodonga shires—and also of course with the Murray River Groups of Councils organising body. Consultation on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been key work for these councils for over two years, so it has been tireless advocacy by them—not to mention by the irrigator groups. Community groups, health providers, farmers' organisations and sporting clubs have all voiced their concerns for the future of their community and noted the importance of irrigated agriculture not only to their past prosperity but to their future viability. Collectively these communities have spent years preparing for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. They have been holding their breath while they have been waiting for the government to finalise the plan and provide them with some certainty for the future.

My colleague in the other place the member for Parkes, Mr Mark Coulton, said in his speech on this bill that his electorate has 'reform fatigue'. I can attest to this from the Victorian experience. Reform fatigue in basin communities is widespread. The constant delays have not been conducive to strong, productive communities along the river. They have told me that they need certainty for investment—an entirely reasonable request—so they can start to plan their futures and ensure the economic sustainability of their towns. The Murray Valley Winegrowers Inc. Chief Executive, Mr McKenzie, highlighted the effect this uncertainty is having on their ability to assess the plan. He said:

"From our perspective, we have always held that it would be better to do the work first rather than push on with a target which, with respect, is a political target, not a target to deliver a plan which the whole community in the basin can sign off on. That said, we are fatigued and we need certainty."

Yes, certainty for futures that have every opportunity to be bright. At the moment, the Murray-Darling Basin provides nearly 40 per cent of the nation's gross agricultural product—and in the Asian century it is key to our government's white paper issues. But access to adequate water is essential to take advantage of the market opportunities arising out of the rise of the Asian middle class. We need to allow them to develop their livelihoods and balance environmental interests while not restricting ourselves through artificial barriers and arbitrary numbers.

Finally, the same section of the bill allows for ministerial oversight of any suggested changes to the sustainable diversion limits, with the minister having discretion around accepting the authority's advice, which will then be tabled in parliament and will become a disallowable legislative instrument. I congratulate the government for working with the coalition on these very sensible amendments which actually reflect the desire of basin communities. I do understand that that does provides the opportunity for ongoing potential politicisation of the debate, but it is important for communities and for those in charge of the budgets overseeing the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to have an input into that.

It is essential that our parliament and the minister have oversight of and input into the management of our most precious resource in this country—our water. One of the issues that were raised in the inquiry process was lack of trust in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Prior to this amendment being moved, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was going to be the one in charge of setting things and amending them. I think it is fair enough to say that the people in our communities, our stakeholders, do not trust the Murray Darling Basin Authority. They have been asked by the authority to provide input over a long period of time. They have been asked for feedback. They have been asked to attend consultation processes. They have been consulted in small groups, large groups and individually. Yet they feel as though none of their contributions has actually changed any of the authority's views or shaped in any way the final plan. The Australian Dairy Industry Council went to the heart of this, saying in their submission to our committee that their view was:

… given the Murray Darling Basin Authority's history of seeking, possibly even considering, but then take little notice of advice from the States,—

who constitutionally are responsible for water—

stakeholders and community.

They also said:

It is unacceptable that Parliament should amend the Water Act to facilitate an unknown adjustment mechanism on a 'trust us' basis.

And, the National Farmers Federation, in evidence from their CEO, Mr Matt Linnegar, said:

… it is the view of many agricultural stakeholders that the Murray Darling Basin Authority is incapable of listening and hearing community concerns… I think we have made it very abundantly clear that there is a significant lack of trust in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I do not think that should be a surprise to anyone.

So, while recognising this lack of trust, I welcome the government's commitment on 30 October 2012 to change this bill to allow for appropriate and ongoing stakeholder consultation and to enable the minister to consider the recommendations made by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and to decide on suitable actions.

In conclusion, the addition of ministerial oversight has made a welcome change, as has the change to a disallowable instrument and the inclusion of some public consultation before proposed sustainable diversion limit changes can be made. It is disappointing to be debating this bill without the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan before us. I look forward to the minister's tabling of the final version of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and hope that our communities can soon get some certainty about their future. I hope the plan delivers for the environment without unduly affecting the economic and social fabric of regional Australia. I encourage the Greens and the government to take the opportunity to embrace the triple-bottom-line approach and support the opposition's amendment, which will be moved later by Senator Joyce on our behalf, reflecting a commitment to the ongoing economic, social and environmental wellbeing of our basin.