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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 10147


Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (18:33): I rise tonight to support my colleague's move to try to secure an improvement in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. People listening might be excused for thinking, after the contribution we have just heard from Senator Joyce, that the Senate was engaged in street theatre. I think that people in the National Party would be quite disappointed to think that in an opportunity to debate the merits or otherwise of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, all we had was a rant and an attack and no real engagement with the merits or otherwise of the plan.

Contrary to the view that somehow the Greens do not have to live with the decisions that we make, it is in fact because we have to live with the decisions that this parliament makes that we think very carefully about the positions we take and the consequences of those decisions for everyone who comes after us, and not just this generation but future generations.

I go to the first point: why are we having a Murray-Darling Basin Plan? It is an attempt to save the river. Australians love the Murray-Darling. They love the river system and they have been distraught in recent years to see that the mouth of the Murray is not open and that there are high levels of salinity in the Lower Lakes. Right down the river system communities have been under enormous pressure as a result of the river failing. It has been failing because of the drought, and the drought occurred in part because of climate change.

And we now have a Leader of the National Party who is refusing to acknowledge that climate change is real and urgent. We are seeing reports coming out daily that it is far worse than anyone anticipated and now we have a Murray-Darling Basin Plan which fails to take account in any shape or form of the climate predictions that we are going to live with in Australia. How can you save a river system if you do not anticipate the changes in the climate and the impacts of those changes on the river system? How can you genuinely say that you are interested in the livelihood or wellbeing of people who live in a river basin if you are not taking into account the health of the river that will sustain them into the future? That is the point here.

The figure of 7,600 gigalitres came from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and from the Wentworth Group. Both of them came out and said that if you want to restore the river to its optimum level of health, that is the amount of water that needs to be in the river system. It was not some extreme group of people who said that; it was the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Wentworth Group. They actually take a science based approach. That is something the National Party does not take. Senator Joyce has made it quite clear that he does not believe in climate change and he does not believe in carbon pricing to reduce emissions. He obviously does not think it is appropriate that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan anticipates the needs of the river in a climate scenario. The amount of water that this plan has in it—2,750 gigalitres—is actually only for so-called average years. It does not take into account the needs of the river system in anything other than average years. I suggest that there is no such thing as average years any more in a world that is rapidly responding and having to adapt to the climate crisis.

Senator Feeney would suggest that the Greens are politically posturing. His extraordinary example of that is that the Greens voted against the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Indeed, we did. We did it because we knew we would have to live with the consequences. If it had gone through and Senator Feeney had his wish, Australia would now have a five per cent reduction target and the carbon price in Australia would be $1.25, the equivalent of one euro, with no institutional capacity to change the target. What a complete nonsense that would be. We would have no Clean Energy Finance Corporation, no Renewable Energy Agency, no Biodiversity Fund, no Carbon Farming Initiative and so on and so forth. I think Senator Feeney should reflect on the fact that all he is doing is highlighting the complete embarrassment that this country would have had for carbon pricing if the stupidity that was engaged in at that time had been allowed to stand. Equally, in relation to living with the decisions you make—and I draw this to the attention of both Senators Feeney and Joyce—there are the decisions you made on asylum seekers as well. You raced in here and lectured the Greens about standing here saying, 'We can't compromise on fundamentals. We actually have to look at what might really save lives.' Now we are living with the consequences of that stupidity.

I come back to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in terms of living with the consequences. What is the point of spending $11 billion if you fail to save the river; if you fail to put enough water back into the river to maintain the ecosystem? Four thousand gigalitres has been mentioned because that is what the Wentworth Group said was the absolute minimum that would be needed to give the river system a chance. The Greens asked the minister to model that 4,000 gigalitres, and that ought to have been done in the interests of science, but the minister did not do it. Now we have 2,750 gigalitres and a promise of 450 gigalitres. Much has been said about 3,200 gigalitres. It is a wish and a promise at this stage. There is no promise that there will be a minimum of 3,200 gigalitres. In fact, that could well end up being a maximum that is never achieved.

This is not evidence based policy. This is policy where you have brought in a political fix. The reason I say that is that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan does not come into effect until 2019. The money flows but the water does not get restored to the river system until 2019, by which time Minister Burke, Senator Joyce and Senator Feeney will be long gone from here and will not be living with the consequences of their actions. The money will be spent but I can assure you that the senators who are here in 2019 will be trying to fix the plan that has failed because the consequences of climate change will be something they are living with. You can rest assured that there will not be average years between now and 2019. There will be another drought—there always is in Australia—and it will be more extreme than previous droughts because of the intensity factor of climate change.

Senators will be in here saying: 'How is it possible that $11 billion was spent but the river was not saved?' The excuse will be then, as it always is: 'If only we had known in 2012 what we know now, we would never have agreed to a plan that did not provide for restoring the river.' Every single one of us in here knows right now that this is inadequate in terms of the science. It is not science and evidence based policy; it is a policy which says that this is the political fix that will deliver the money in the short term and by the time the river actually gets to have the water everyone will be long gone and it will be revisited.

Minister Burke knows as well as I do that the 450 extra gigalitres will not be there until 2024. Senator Feeney was saying: 'We cannot delay this any longer. Who would want to delay the water coming into the system?' Well it is not coming into the system until 2019 initially and the extra 450 gigalitres, if indeed that 450 gigalitres gets into the system, will not be until 2024. So, yes, we do have time to get this right. We should be getting it right now. I really think it shows that neither the coalition nor the government believes that climate change is real or urgent if they can all laud a plan which delivers to the river far less than the scientists say is the minimum that is necessary and you are prepared to tick off on a plan which does not anticipate or take into account climate ramifications in Australia.

You think you are doing the people who live in the river system a favour by ticking off such a plan, but you are not. All you are doing is condemning them to an extremely uncertain future because, as much as they would like to think if we spend this $11 billion now their future is assured, it is not assured, because you cannot have an economy without a healthy environment to underpin it.

Without the environment there is no economy, and it is no more so than with a river system. That is why we need to get this right from the start. That is why we need an absolute minimum of what the science says is necessary to give the river a fighting chance—and with the river having a fighting chance come the communities who live along that river system. That is why we need to stop this in its tracks and improve the plan so that we get an evidence based outcome, rather than have the government and the coalition browning down the plan and abandoning the science in favour of a political fix.