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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 3508


Senator JOYCE (QueenslandLeader of The Nationals in the Senate) (21:06): I rise tonight to speak, in this debate on the National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012, on an issue to do with the National Water Commission. I concur with the remarks of Senator Birmingham and I also acknowledge the support and diligence given to this by Senator Farrell. I have to say—and I do not know whether this is a bipartisan view, but it is a statement of honesty—that at a time of privation that has obviously been brought upon us by the needs of more stringent financial requirements, we always have to be cautious in the extreme about the extension of bureaucracy without a sunset. The National Water Commission was brought in with a sunset clause and it is supposed to come to a conclusion. Were times more provident, so there was more money about, the extension of it would be something of not much consequence. But unfortunately these times mean we have to always start erring on the side of more diligence and away from the purely aspirational. I have to be honest and say there was quite some deliberation about this issue. I am sure that Senator Farrell has acted in a very honourable way. I have conferred with Senator Farrell and confirmed that this was an item of quite some discussion within the coalition. However, after deliberations we have fallen on the side of agreeing to the extension of the National Water Commission, but I think it is important that we put a shot across the bow because I know of people in the coalition—especially Senator Sinodinos, who maybe in the future will have a greater role to play in the financial affairs of our nation; he is on the ERC for the coalition so he has a role to play there—who are always looking for and trying to find savings where they can.

So we have had discussions on the National Water Commission and we will concur on their role continuing but they must, as Senator Birmingham has rightly said, be on their game—because this something where every dollar we spend on the commission is a dollar we cannot spend on health or pensioners or dental care or children or AIDS research or in so many other places. We cannot spend the money twice. So I hope that those within the National Water Commission understand the tenuous nature of the financial predicament that this nation has been put in and how we have to do everything within our power to try and make every dollar count. So what we are really doing now is approving the extension of funds. It was implicit that the commission would actually end on 30 June—not continue but end. However, these are the calls that are made. As to financial management, it is over to those on the other side to make sure that we bring this nation's finances back into account and that we start to reduce our debt, because we cannot go on extending our debt as we do not want to put our nation into a position where, with weeping and the gnashing of teeth, we are trying to work out how we get ourselves out of a dire financial predicament. You only get yourself out of a problem by never getting yourself into a problem. You avoid getting yourself into a problem by being prudent with the finances you are responsible for.

This bill continues the National Water Commission as an independent statutory body beyond its sunset date of 30 June 2012. The National Water Commission was established by the previous coalition government as part of the National Water Initiative agreement of 2004. The main reforms under the National Water Initiative include urban water and access to mining water, which is very prevalent especially with coal seam gas coming to the fore. I note with interest an APPEA report that talks about the direct taxation flow back to the Queensland government between the years 2015 and 2035 of $32 billion and I think the flow back to the federal coffers is in the vicinity of $243 billion. It is in that vicinity; I might have misquoted the figure, but it is about that. The expansion in the size of the Australian economy from coal seam gas alone is in excess of half a trillion dollars. The National Water Commission has a role to play because the by-products of the extraction of coal seam gas are water and also salt. This is a major environmental issue which I know Senator Birmingham is only too well aware of. How we manage that is, I imagine, a role that will also include the National Water Commission as an independent arbiter and a deliberator on the facts that are presented to them.

A review of the National Water Commission was conducted by Dr David Rosalky. It recommended that the National Water Commission continue in its role so that it can carry out these functions because water reform is occurring within 'a highly complex and evolving environment' and requires an independent and specialist institution. The government accepted the Rosalky review's recommendations. Under this bill, the National Water Commission has the responsibility of assessing progress against the National Water Initiative every three years and, in addition, under the Water Act 2007, the National Water Commission may review the Murray-Darling Basin Plan every five years. The National Water Commission also advises on whether plantations can apply for carbon farming credits, which they can do if a state or territory government manages water and interceptions consistent with the National Water Initiative. I acknowledge that in the discussions we had we did look at the prospect of the Productivity Commission doing it and also, under the processes of COAG, COAG having a look at this role. However, the National Water Commission continues, so this bill makes other less substantial changes. The bill closes the Australian Water Fund and the bill will reduce the number of National Water Commission commissioners from seven to five due to the National Water Commission's reduced functions. The National Water Commission plans to have 44 staff in the next financial year, reduced from 63 staff in 2011-12. The National Water Commission has a budget allocation of $34.3 million over the forward estimates.

The coalition will not oppose this bill as the coalition has been a long-term supporter of water reform. The coalition kick-started the water reform process with the establishment of the National Water Initiative in 2004. I would just like to take this opportunity to reflect on how successful the National Water Initiative was and how it remains a model for water reform today. Under the National Water Initiative, it was explicitly recognised that there is a trade-off between economic, social and environmental factors. We can never achieve all of these goals at the same time; we must weigh each up against the others and come to a balanced outcome—what is otherwise known as a triple-bottom-line approach. Achieving a triple-bottom-line outcome is difficult. You will always make some people unhappy, but it is the only way to achieve practical and sensible outcomes.

We must acknowledge that the decisions made about water are some of the most politically sensitive decisions in any nation at any time. If you want to see the source of so many disputes between nations and within nations, you can find no better subject to talk about than water. We can see the alternatives within the debacle that is the current Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The government presented a plan in 2010 which explicitly put the environment above other factors. We saw the result in the near riots there were in regional towns. The government now says that it has a plan that will optimise economic, social and environmental factors, but there are still grave concerns about whether it can achieve this under the plan. The Senate Standing Committees on Legal and Constitutional Affairs ruled that the act gives priority to the environment above economic and social factors. It was interesting in that report that the net was cast far and wide to get opinions on that issue—from the conservative side, Judith Sloan, to a former Labor Party contestant and candidate, Professor George Williams, and then we went overseas to Professor John Briscoe, from Harvard—and they all came to the same conclusion.

The National Water Initiative also allowed for the development of the Living Murray initiative, which delivered 500 gigalitres of water in a cooperative approach. It is things such as the Living Murray initiative which show what you can do when you get the job right—how you can actually deliver water back to the system when you are diligent and your process has some acumen about it, and when you start basically from a local level and work your way up. You can actually get through this, but you cannot try and deal with it the way we seem to be dealing with it at the moment, which is this macro level of descending from high and above and then expecting people just to swallow your decision. You must give precedence and give some weight to the views of local people and local communities, because you generally find, especially on water, that they know best, and they will work to a process that delivers for you because they know their district better than anybody else. I have found that the RWAMP agreements and WAMP agreements in my state are successful because they started at the local level and then incorporated the local level in the state plan. The state plan brought an outcome and the outcome delivered water back to the river.

The classic example is that in the local area they know which are the effective farms and which are the ineffective farms they can take out of production without causing massive economic dislocation to the area. They also know the sort of capital infrastructure which can provides savings but does not disturb the economic base of the area. Their knowledge is vastly in excess of any knowledge—without being trite about it—of a bureaucrat, who may have the greatest intentions but just does not have the local knowledge to understand exactly how things work on the ground.

The coalition have some concern that the National Water Commission has been stripped of responsibilities by this government to such an extent that we question whether there is a value in maintaining an ongoing body with the overhead costs that this entails. The National Water Commission is left with just two legislative roles: an assessment of progress under the National Water Initiative every three years and a review of the Water Act every five years. Notwithstanding its excellent record, these are reviews that could be performed by the COAG Reform Council or the Productivity Commission. Both of these bodies have had dealings with issues pertaining to water.

The government has also missed the opportunity to give the National Water Commission more responsibility. For example, it has recently agreed to allocate $150 million to improving groundwater research as it relates to the mining sector, in particular the coal seam gas sector. I think that it is absolutely prudent, and we are supporting further research into coal seam gas because we know that this is the issue de jour out there. We know that so many people in both regional Australia and urban Australia have shown great sympathy and understanding of issues pertaining to the coal seam gas disputes that are going on and that people want to make sure we get this right. They understand the economic imperative that we must have a cash flow that sustains our nation, pays our debts and keeps the social functions of our nation going forward, but we must do it in a way that does not destroy aquifers. Aquifers are common property. My town, St George, runs on an aquifer. No aquifer means no town water. No aquifer in western Queensland means no cattle industry.

We also must understand the primary rights of landholders. They have a right to security of water. We cannot be compromising that. And prime agricultural land is an adornment to the nation which should be held in perpetuity without any threat to it whatsoever, because that is how we feed ourselves and that is how we keep ourselves. That is not just an asset for us in the short term; it is an asset for the nation and it should never, ever be compromised. It is more important than the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Q1 tower on the Gold Coast because all those things can be rebuilt if we get it wrong. But you cannot rebuild prime agricultural land and you cannot rebuild an aquifer. If you get it wrong, you get it wrong and that is it; it is gone forever.

The final thing with coal seam gas is that you must get a fair return back to the landholder. It is absurd to think that an asset that is obtained from an individual's property, which historically the individual owned—hydrocarbonous materials were not vested with the state initially; they were vested in the hands of the individual. Oil, gas and coal were not the assets of the state; they were the assets of the individual. They were the assets of the landholder. In Queensland, that asset was taken from them in 1915, under the Petroleum Act, because of the First World War. The Kaiser has gone, the last time I looked, but the asset was never handed back to the landholder. In South Australia, in Senator Birmingham's state, I think it was in 1971 that they took it from the landholder there. In the territories, it was back in Menzies' time, in 1953, when they took it from the landholder. They only finished taking it from the landholder in New South Wales under the tutelage of the Hon. Neville Wran in 1981. At the stroke of a pen, individuals were divested of their assets and they were vested in the state without any payment whatsoever. On our side of the chamber, we believe the vesting of an individual asset for communal benefit without any payment or recompense is analogous with communism, not with conservatism. If we believe that something should be rightfully held by the community, then the community has a duty to pay the proper price for it. Otherwise you should stay away from it and you should not try to cover the theft with benevolent statements about why it is good to thieve from a person. If it is good to thieve from a person it is even more proper to pay them for it.

Notwithstanding its excellent records, there are reviews that could be performed by COAG, the Reform Council and the Productivity Commission. One is an investigation of the $150 million for improving groundwater research. The National Water Commission has also done some excellent work on water reform, but if it is to continue it needs to have a job to justify its funding. The coalition will continue to monitor and ensure that the money that is appropriated to the National Water Commission helps to encourage water reform. We want to make sure that we get this job right.

The coalition have been open in saying from the start that we are prepared to work with the government to come to a conclusion and we stay at the table for that purpose. The Greens, under Senator Hanson-Young, have openly said that they are throwing Teddy in the dirt and do not want anything more to do with it. We know how hard this subject is and we know that with goodwill, diligent work, luck and the understanding of the whole 2.1 million people who live in the basin we can come up with a plan for the Murray-Darling Basin that respects the social fabric, that maintains the economic base and allows it to grow—because it is important not only for the people in the basin, who, if they were a state, would be a middle tier state in our nation, but also for the nation itself. This is an asset of our nation that produces 40 per cent of our agricultural product and produces 60 per cent of our irrigation product. It has such assets as Deniliquin, which in its production of the staple carbohydrate rice feeds 30 million people a day. We can definitely say that our nation is responsible for some child in Southern Sudan having food in its mouth because our nation produces the food it consumes. If we were to remove that capacity then some person at some point of time in a future period of privation or when food production is scarce will certainly starve to death if we get this wrong. A child in Southern Sudan or someone on the Thai-Burma border will go without and definitely die if we get this wrong. We must look outside our current moral paradigm where we believe that it is encapsulated in the borders of our nation and realise that our decisions on the production of food affect people outside our borders. That is a responsible and mature way to look at these decisions, rather than the myopic way that appears in what is left of the Fairfax papers or in the Australian or on television. It is beyond that and we have a responsibility beyond that. We have to acknowledge that.

For the record, I acknowledge that I am not an irrigator. I live in an irrigation town, but I do not irrigate. I also acknowledge for the record that my family has property below irrigation projects and would dearly love there to be no irrigation because we would get more water. But that is the reality of the world and we have to live with it. This bill goes forward as a non-controversial bill, but I think it is only right that we say to those who are listening—and people in the NWC will be—that we are watching this space extremely closely and our expectation is that absolute diligence will be shown in the expenditure of the Australian taxpayer's money in this field.