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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9238

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (20:41): In my first speech in this place, just over four years ago, I spoke about the great Murray-Darling River system. I said that the irrigators need help and the environment needs protecting and that this issue should not be about state against state, region against region or irrigator against environmentalist. With one river system there should be one set of rules to run the rivers in the national interest. Governments should not give in to temptation to play divide and rule as the river dies—and it was dying back then because we were in the grip of a severe drought. It was Mark Twain who likened the River Murray to America's great river, the Mississippi, but commentators said:

Were Twain to see the Murray River today it is unlikely he would repeat the comparison, for the Murray and its sibling the Darling are dying, strangled by a combination of political apathy, cowardice and stupidity.

Fortunately, a lot has changed since then. We have had some good rains in the system from the top to the bottom. That much-needed rain has ensured that salinity has been flushed out of the system. I agree with Professor Mike Young, one of this country's great experts on water, who says that great river systems die from the mouth up and that is why it is important for the entire river system, from Queensland into New South Wales, Victoria, the ACT and South Australia, that the river system is kept healthy. That is why it should not be a contest between one group or another. It must be first and foremost in the national interest. To have a healthy river system means that the communities that rely on the river for food production can prosper.

Tonight we have the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. This bill will amend the Water Act to allow the long-term average sustainable diversion limit laid down in the basin plan to be adjusted without having to go through the formal basin plan process, and that makes good sense. Under the bill, in order to adjust the SDL, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority must prepare a notice to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. The authority must also prepare a relevant amendment to the basin plan that reflects the proposed adjustments. After this information is provided to the minister, he or she can make a discretionary decision on whether or not to adopt the amendment proposed by the authority.

As I understand it the bill also provides that such amendments to the basin plan are disallowable instruments. This was not always the case. However, I welcome the recent amendment to this bill in the House of Representatives that will allow for parliamentary scrutiny over such changes. Such scrutiny is essential; such scrutiny is appropriate.

A number of conditions will be opposed on adjustments to the SDL. Firstly, the authority must seek advice from the Basin Officials Committee, which comprises officials from all the basin states and a Commonwealth representative before proposing any adjustment to the SDL. The authority must invite public submissions on any proposed adjustment, and the SDL must of course still reflect an environmentally sustainable level of take as suggested under section 23 of the Water Act. Critically, the adjustment to the total basin SDL must be no more than five per cent either way.

The inclusion of an SDL adjustment mechanism as laid out in this bill has been sought by all basin governments. I think we can all agree that getting state governments to agree on anything when it comes to protecting this vital resource is very rare, but in this particular case it is a good thing.

Furthermore, recent amendments to the bill requiring public consultation provide an extra level of transparency and scrutiny that has often been overlooked or completely botched throughout this entire process. I say 'completely botched' in this context: I recall very well attending a public meeting in Renmark in the Riverland of South Australia back in October 2010 when the guide to the draft Basin Plan was released. I remember a venue bursting at the seams and a PA system that was not working. So many people attended that it had to be split into two rooms. It was an absolute nightmare. The authority ended up holding two sessions at the same time but in different rooms, with the chair and other representatives running backwards and forwards between them. I am not sure how it helped all those stuck out in the street, who could not participate or be part of the meeting. It was completely unsatisfactory. When I told the then chair that I could have given him a much better deal at the Greek hall down the road maybe he was not so amused. But in the end, the subsequent meeting a few months later was held in the Greek hall down the road in Renmark. It could take all the people interested in that meeting, and it was a much better-run meeting.

While I support the broad objectives of this bill at this stage, I also flag my intention to propose a number of amendments to it because they are crucial for issues of equity and fairness in the way that this plan will work. I again go back to the first round of community consultation sessions when the guide to the basin plan was released. Irrigators in the Riverland, many of whom had capped their water diversions in the late 1960s and invested in irrigation efficiency measures, out of their own pockets to a large degree, were understandably furious. Nowhere in the guide to the plan had they been recognised for their past efficiencies. It had not been recognised that because they were so efficient they had less to give back to the environment. And it had not been recognised that because they were so efficient it was virtually impossible for them to be part of the $5.8 billion infrastructure fund that was established by the Howard government and then continued by the Rudd and Gillard governments. So there was a real issue there of equity and fairness. It is almost as though a student who does their homework early and hands it in gets penalised for doing their work on time and for doing it well because they did it before anyone else.

The guide to the plan dropped on many like a tonne of bricks. Wide-ranging figures were presented without any justification or meaningful prior consultation, yet answers from the authority were not then forthcoming. There were a few figures in the guide that justified their concerns.

At a Mildura hearing of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee into the management of the Murray-Darling Basin system in April this year, chaired by Senator Bill Heffernan, Chris Byrne, the executive officer of the Riverland Winegrape Growers Association said this:

When the guide was released, it reinforced our belief that what we thought about ourselves was correct. Page 95 of the guide makes it quite clear that the average gross value of irrigated agricultural production in our region was a staggering $9,176 per hectare. That compares with what I would rate as a fairly ordinary $3,295 per hectare as the basin average. It reinforced our belief that, yes, we are already a very water use efficient region.

The whole process has rubbed salt in the wounds of many irrigators, who had also applied for water efficiency grants—most notably the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure program—but who were deemed too efficient to qualify, as I have indicated.

The criteria of such programs have been geared largely towards open channel systems—and I understand that—but that does not help those with modern pipeline delivery systems such as those in the Riverland. The most recent works done occurred back in 2002. It has been 10 years since the last lot of infrastructure improvements in the Riverland, which basically meant state-of-the-art irrigation infrastructure systems in place. Worse still, those who have been able to access the funding for water efficiency upgrades also got to keep half the water they saved compared with those under the $5.8 billion plan fund. In a sense, that skews the market against many in South Australia.

Subsequent versions of the plan did not address the key issue of equity either. At no time has there been a level playing field. As Gavin McMahon, chair of the Central Irrigation Trust in South Australia, argued at the hearing in Mildura:

… have all the water recovery processes been thoroughly investigated everywhere up and down the river? Have we looked at all stretches of the river to see exactly what savings can be made across the whole system? Are they taken into account in the process, and how are they taken into account in the process?

I think we can safely say that, no, they have not.

We did hear some very good evidence, including from Mike McKenzie, both recently in Adelaide and back in Mildura in April. He suggested that for grape growers in the Sunraysia area there are ways to improve with local knowledge of water-saving measures. That involves local knowledge from farmers, from communities and from environmentalists, working together. That is something we need to take heed of; that there are smart ways to save water where we can listen to the local knowledge.

I agree with experts such as Professor Mike Young, who makes the point that the best way to get those water-saving measures and the best way to maximise the benefit to the environment and to communities is to listen to local knowledge; not to have it managed by bureaucrats in Canberra, but to actually have some real local input from farmers, from environmentalists and from communities working together. I will be proposing amendments to this legislation to ensure that when the authority proposes changes to the SDL it must consider the efficiency of that area prior to 2007 when the Water Act was introduced. The authority must also consider the efficiency of the area when creating the SDLs.

I have at times been criticised by my colleagues from the eastern states for putting parochial interests above the national interest. I think it is fair to say that it is an argument I do not want to get started on here today, but I believe that I have worked cooperatively with all my colleagues and whatever differences I have had with, for instance, Senator Barnaby Joyce in relation to this, I believe he has approached this issue in good faith, that he understands the issues of equity, as do my colleagues from the government in relation to this, and as do, of course, my colleagues on the crossbenches, the Australian Greens and the DLP.

The amendments I am proposing do not preference the Riverland. They do not even preference South Australia. They do preference, in a sense, the national interest to ensure that there is some equity and a level playing field when determining this. They make sure that those who have been historically most efficient with their use of this vital resource, or those who have little left to return to the environment without placing undue social and economic stress on that area, are not disproportionately affected by any adjustment to the SDL, no matter how small.

These amendments also mean a better outcome for the basin, because they will encourage the authority to make SDL cuts where there is fat to trim, and so the overall efficiency of the basin will be improved. This argument is not about geography. It is about equity, and about giving acknowledgement where it is due. We just need a plan that is fair, and I believe these amendments will go some way to achieving that. If the government and the opposition are not inclined to support these amendments, I ask them genuinely and in good faith to explain what alternative mechanism there will be to ensure some equity, because irrigators and environmentalists I have asked questions of in the numerous Senate committees I have been part of in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin all agree that prior good behaviour ought to be the subject of some acknowledgement in any plan.

We cannot go back and right the wrongs that have occurred since Federation, but we can act now to ensure that those downstream are not disadvantaged by the implementation of the plan. We can act now to ensure the environment is protected for our future generations and for the communities that rely on the river for their livelihood and that the millions of Australians that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin for their food are also protected. Early adopters must be able to access money for research and development and the authority must consider a buyback approach that does not distort the water and commodity markets. I concede that the federal parliament would not be in such a bind if state governments had not put their own interests first and continued to suck more water from the system than it could handle, and also the way the system itself was managed. But for me, it is about doing what is fair for irrigators and right for the environment. This does not have to be about state versus state, region versus region or irrigator versus environmentalist.

I was elected to this place as an Independent on a commitment to fight for the River Murray. I have not forgotten those in the Riverland in South Australia who gave up their time to put me in this place. I have not forgotten those in the Lower Lakes in the lower reaches of the Murray who, too, gave up their time and who have supported me. Now more than ever, those communities need us as parliamentarians to stand up for them. Our irrigators need help and our environment needs protecting. We need a plan that is fair and that is why I will be proposing amendments to this bill. I think that it is fair to say we are reaching a historic juncture where we can say that the river system will at least have a plan and, as imperfect as it is, it will still be a plan that will make a difference for the river system, for communities and, ultimately, for the environment, because without a healthy environment we cannot have a healthy river, and without a healthy river those communities cannot prosper as they should.