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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 10138


Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (17:49): I move:

That the Basin Plan 2012, made under Part 2 of the Water Act 2007, be disallowed.

I rise today to speak in favour of this motion. It is with a heavy heart that I do, because I would have preferred that we could be celebrating the passage of a plan that would have set the river up for a living future—set the river up over the next 20 years to be a system that is healthy and can sustain itself and, of course, the communities and the ecosystems that rely on it. Unfortunately, the plan as tabled by the minister earlier this week does not do this. I know the minister talks about the fact that it does, but when you look at these things the devil is always in the detail, and the devil in the detail in this plan is that we do not have the water being returned that the best available science says we need if we are to set the river up and give it a fighting chance. This plan is meant to be the blueprint for how the river system will be managed for the next 20 years, yet this plan does not even include the impacts of climate change or how to deal with the system in an increasingly drying environment.

We know that the coalition and the government have agreed to endorse this plan and pass it through this place today. This plan has had the support of the coalition to pass through this place, because it is not a plan that will save the river; it is a plan that appeases those who did not want to give back as much water as they have been greedily taking. It is not a plan that is set up to support the long-term interests of the environment. It is a plan not based on the best available science. It tries to balance interests rather than the long-term health and resilience of the basin overall.

This process has been all political, not scientific; and, unfortunately, that is backed up by the very fact that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has not even done the modelling for its long-term forecast of the impact that this plan is going to have. The modelling that has been done has been limited and has no comparison. There is no modelling of the impact of the massive increase in groundwater extraction, which is allowed for under this plan. I know the coalition have now decided they do not like figures; that was Tony Burke, the minister, 12 months ago. The coalition have now adopted this and do not want to talk about the figures. Unfortunately, the figures do not add up to the rhetoric of the outcomes that this plan is meant to achieve.

The whole point of this plan is to set the river up for a healthy future, to get back the water that has been overallocated for generations. I stand here as a representative of my home state of South Australia. We know that, when there is less water in the system, when the drought years come, it is South Australia at the end of the system that always cops it the hardest. That is because we are at the end of the river. When there is less runoff, when there is less water in the system, the upstream states continue to take, take, take and leave basically nothing for South Australia down the end. That means, of course, that our precious environment—our Coorong, the Storm Boy country, our Lower Lakes—and the irrigators in the Riverland have to scrape by with the little amount of water that is left.

Let's not forget that South Australia takes only seven per cent of the overall water within the basin. When the drought is on, it is even less. During the millennium drought, which South Australians remember wholeheartedly and which was not that long ago, we were not even getting that seven per cent flowing across the border. We had far less than that.

As I have said, this plan as tabled today and debated this afternoon is, unfortunately, not the plan that will save the Murray-Darling Basin system. It will not give river communities, particularly in South Australia, security into the future, because it is not based on what we need to do in order to save the system. A friend of mine put it to me like this: if you have any infection and you are seriously sick and you are prescribed by the doctor a course of antibiotics yet are only given a few of those antibiotic tablets and not the whole packet, you are not going to knock that bug off. Everyone knows you need to take the entire course to get your health back on track. That is how antibiotics work. In this instance we have the minister and many others acknowledging that this system is not healthy and that we have to build resilience back into the system because it has been so crippled after decades of overallocation. We really need to realign what the environment is entitled to to keep itself going, to give itself some resilience, to keep the ecosystems alive, particularly in those harsher and drier years. And yet we are not giving the river and the environment the opportunity to do that, because we are not prepared to give it its full course of antibiotics. We are not allowing it even the best fighting chance to get its health back on track.

The best available science says we need 4,000 gigalitres. We have not been given that under this plan. We then saw modelling released by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and backed up by Minister Burke. He flew with the Prime Minister all the way down to the Murray mouth in South Australia and said, 'Hey presto, we know now that 3,200 gigalitres will be somewhat what the river needs if we are even to try to give it a sense of being able to get healthy again and to keep it healthy.' The Greens would have been more than happy and supportive of working with the government to guarantee that minimum amount of 3,200 gigalitres, which would have kept our river red gums alive; which would have flushed out that two million tonnes of salt each year to keep the water healthy and to ensure that the water quality is good enough for domestic use, for stock use, for Adelaide to keep drinking from; which would have ensured that we could protect the iconic Coorong and Lower Lakes. But this is where the devil is in the detail. This plan does not even give us that minimum amount of 3,200 gigalitres, and that is of course why people like Senator Barnaby Joyce, who is sitting in here this afternoon, are I am sure going to stand up and tell people all about how they got a good deal for their constituents and the irrigators upstream—because they have. This plan is for the irrigators. This plan is not about protecting the environment. There are no guarantees in this plan for the water the river needs, particularly to keep South Australia going when the dry years hit. That is not the water that is guaranteed under this plan. When you add in the massive extractions of groundwater—1,700 gigalitres—that has a big impact on how much water is genuinely being returned to the river system.

The coalition do not want to talk about figures. Barnaby Joyce does not want to talk about figures.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Boyce ): Please refer to members by their correct titles.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I apologise. The coalition senators in this place do not want to focus on the figures, and neither does the minister. It is because they do not add up. This plan is a plan to deliver less water for the environment than science says is needed. It is delivering less water for the environment than even the environment minister says is needed if we are to give the river any chance of survival.

We know that $11 billion is going to be spent on this plan, and that is why we must get it right. The motion today is about sending the plan back to the minister and saying, 'We need to get this right because, if we're going to spend $11 billion dollars, we'd better make sure it will return the amount of water to the river that will give the environment a fighting chance, that will ensure we can maintain our majestic river red gums, that will ensure we can give Adelaide healthy drinking water, that will ensure our Coorong can survive the next drought.' $11 billion—what an opportunity to implement true reform. What a fantastic challenge that we all have in this place to make sure that we can overcome the mistakes of generations past when the river was compromised over and over again for vested interests. This plan was an opportunity to get this right, but unfortunately what is before us today is not that. It is a plan that cuts the environment short and appeases those who are upstream and who never wanted this process in the first place. Senator Barnaby Joyce is going to stand up here at any moment and say: 'This is the best deal irrigators were ever going to get.' It is a bonanza for upstream irrigators because they are about to pocket $11 billion and they do not even have to give back to the river or to South Australia the water that the river really needs. The $11 billion should be setting us up for a healthy future.

The plan is a blueprint for how this system will be managed over the next 20 years, and what is on the table today locks in failure. It spends $11 billion of taxpayers' money and locks in failure. It will cost $11 billion and only achieve 57 per cent of the key targets that the plan says and the Water Act requires the plan to achieve. This is $11 billion, yet we are only going to get half of what we are meant to. We know what that means for South Australia: it means big losses in years to come because this plan does not even take into consideration climate change. It does not take into consideration the long-term effects of increased groundwater extraction. It is not a plan that has been written for the drought years—and the minister has said this himself. This plan is based on average flows. We know that when there are less than average flows things really start to bite for the environment; it is when things really start to bite for my home state of South Australia, which is located at the bottom of the system.

The Greens have moved a motion to send this plan back to the minister so that we can get it right. The minister said himself that we need 3,200 gigalitres, yet that is not what is in this plan. So let us put that in. Let us make sure that we have a minimum of 3,200 gigalitres. If that is what science says is needed, if that is what the minister believes is needed and if that is what Jay Weatherill, the Premier of South Australia, says is needed, let us do it. The Greens would be more than willing and happy to deliver a minimum of 3,200 gigalitres, because that is what even the minister says is required. But, unfortunately, that is not what is in this plan. This plan has 2,750 gigalitres. It fails half of the key environmental targets that it needs to keep the river system alive. On the table today is $11 billion, only half the job done and locked in failure for the next 20 years.

Unfortunately, it seems as though we lost the courage to manage this process when the sky opened, the rains started coming and the millennium drought broke two years ago. Two years ago, people were crying out for proper reform. Let us never go back to a situation where there were kilometres and kilometres of dry river bed, where the water was so high in saline content that it was too salty to even irrigate pasture, let alone to feed stock or to use in the houses of those communities who rely on it. Two years ago, before the millennium drought broke, people wanted urgent action and proper national reform, and they wanted a system that was fair—a system that would manage the water in the basin fairly. That courage seems to be all but forgotten today, because what we have in front of us is not a courageous plan. It is an appeasement on the part of the Labor Party to those upstream and to the coalition to allow them to continue their business as usual. There is talk of an extra 450 gigalitres that maybe some day, if they could—ooh, let's see—be added on by 2024. There are no guarantees about that. It is not in the plan; it is not locked in. The legislation before the other place does not say that it has to be delivered, even though $1.7 billion will be spent long before any water is seen.

The courage to actually do the right thing by the environment and to stop compromising the very real needs of the river have been all but forgotten by this minister, who is desperate to cut a deal with the coalition and to appease those upstream. Let us not forget that Senator Barnaby Joyce, at the height of the millennium drought, said to South Australians when they could not even drink the water in the Murray because it was so salty, when they could not even get their pumps and their pipes past the kilometres and kilometres of mud: 'Chin up. Move upstream if you don't like it.' That is what Barnaby Joyce thinks about South Australia's predicament when there is less water in the system. That is what Senator Barnaby Joyce thinks about South Australia's opportunity for a fair go when it comes to sharing the waters of the rivers.

The Greens will continue to work to get locked in that minimum of 3,200 gigalitres. I stand here today urging the government to do the right thing, to find the courage to fix this. You do not have to cuddle up to Tony Abbott and Senator Joyce just to get this passed.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I am sorry, but once again, Senator Hanson-Young, please use the correct titles of the members. You mentioned the Leader of the Opposition and did not use his honorific.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I guess it depends on your definition.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Hanson-Young, you refer to members of the House of Representatives as Mr or Ms et cetera.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: The government do not have to be cuddling up to Mr Abbott and Senator Joyce just to appease the upstream states. If they are truly into reforming the system—saving our river and doing what is right by the environment, setting us up for a future we can rely on for the next 20 years—then they should be putting in place a plan that will save the river for the future, based on the best available science, backed up by the modelling, including the realistic impacts of climate change, not carrying on with the Nationals' approach of head in the sand and ignore, ignore, ignore, that everything will be all right, somebody else will look after it. That is the response of the Nationals to anything in relation to the environment in years to come. It is unfortunate because they are cutting their own communities short by doing it.

What an opportunity to get reform right is $11 billion to ensure that we start rebalancing and paying back to the river the water that has been ripped away from it for so long. As I said at the outset, I stand here with a heavy heart that we have not been able to convince the government to do the right thing by the river, the right thing for South Australia and to stand by their commitment to proper reform. What is in this plan is a dud. It does not protect the river system for the future, it does not set us up for resilience and it is going to waste $11 billion in the meantime. It needs to go back and it needs to be fixed. The Greens will continue to fight for that to happen.