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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 713


Senator MADIGAN (Victoria) (20:09): I rise to speak tonight about a matter of national importance. It impacts our ability to feed ourselves. It goes to the heart of our rural and regional communities, not to mention our capital cities. It does not discriminate. It affects all Australians in one way or another. But you will not see much reporting on this in the major national media and you will not hear this matter discussed around kitchen tables in our metropolitan cities. Currently, this issue is under the radar in this place and the other. Done and dusted, most people would say. Nothing to see here. In the words of the new Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, the government is committed to delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full by 2019.

Last week, I travelled more than 3,000 kilometres and over a third of that by car. I stopped at Albury-Wodonga, Deniliquin, Barham, Koondrook, Robinvale, Mildura and Yea, which is north of Melbourne. I attended four meetings, two of them open to the public. These were well-attended and passionate get-togethers. Locals who run businesses, farmers who grow food and residents stopped what they were doing to attend. They wanted their say; they wanted to be heard. I attended meetings with irrigators and food growers, citrus and table grape growers and nut and rice producers. I toured farms and a rice production facility. I spoke directly with several hundred people throughout the week. I return here tonight with some clear and unambiguous messages about our water resources. I return with messages about the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on our fellow Australians. I return with a singular mission. I will speak of all these things later.

The basin covers 14 per cent of Australia's landmass. More than two million people live in Murray-Darling Basin across the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The basin contains an estimated 72 per cent of Australia's total area of irrigated crops and pastures. It is one of the most important food and fibre regions in this country. According to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the region contains 40 per cent of Australia's farms. The value of its irrigated output is nearly $7 billion. Cotton, fruit, grapes, vegetables, rice and pasture for meat and dairy production are the main types of irrigated agriculture activities in the basin.

In 2012-13, this accounted for over 50 per cent of Australia's irrigated produce. From this area comes nearly 100 per cent of Australia's rice, 96 per cent of Australia's cotton, 75 per cent of Australia's grapes, 59 per cent of Australia's hay, 54 per cent of Australia's fruit, 52 per cent of Australia's production from sheep and livestock and 45 per cent of Australia's dairy. One message is clear: the basin is vitally important to Australia. What happens there matters to each and every one of us.

I return to this place after my all-too-fleeting visit. My first message is this: the rage that burned across the region five years ago when the MDBA released its first draft water buyback policy has not died down. It continues. People are exhausted in the basin. They feel betrayed. Many of them are up and leaving, defeated by a bureaucracy they see as politically hijacked; a bureaucracy that is not independent, despite its claims; a bureaucracy that is committed to reconfiguring Australia's food bowl in order to plan for a one-in-a-100-year drought scenario; a bureaucracy that has insufficient experience in the complexity of water systems, which some would say had previously been effectively managed by the states; a bureaucracy that is failing in its stated aims to help the environment and failing to monitor or assess its own performance in this area; a bureaucracy that is failing in its science and failing as a government body in its duty of care and commitment to social and economic outcomes; and a bureaucracy that is failing in its duty to accurately communicate concerns, submissions and input from Australians to their government.

Not only is it failing in this area but it is deliberately obfuscating messages to suit its own ends. I am talking about the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. This organisation employs more than 300 staff with an annual revenue from government coffers of $47.8 million. People in the basin are tired, they are depressed, and some of them are leaving. But, above all, they are angry at what is being done in the name of the environment by this unaccountable administration.

I visited a magnificent family farm at Deniliquin, and after 13 years of hard work putting aside land for the environment, not forced by government but of their own volition, the owners have sold and are leaving. At another property, in the one family since the 1870s, similar questions are being asked—how sustainable is it; is there a future, how long can we last? People on properties like these have survived floods, they have survived fluctuating commodity prices and they have survived an always changing agricultural environment. They have survived the changing climate; they have survived family and other traumas. But they are questioning whether they can survive the so-called Murray-Darling Basin Plan. They are fed up with talking to politicians who give them blah, blah, blah in return. They are fed up inputting to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority at so-called community consultation sessions. They say it is like talking to a bloody vacuum.

Southern Riverina Irrigators represents 1,600 food growers. They showed me their own notes from a meeting with the MDBA last September. Then they showed me what had appeared on the MDBA's own website on the same meeting. The two accounts were vastly different. The MDBA's version was a list of discussion topics including the importance of clear communication, the importance of using local knowledge, water trading prices, issues around management of the Lower Lakes and environmental watering. SRI, on the other hand, had articulated 25 concerns—complaints and suggestions that never made it any further than the meeting room, it seems. These included: can we do better with the environmental water we already have as opposed to further decimating our communities; we deserve proper engagement that recognises and acts on our concerns and issues—not tokenism; people are right on the brink; and cultural water—if we are to consider Indigenous stakeholders then we must also consider the other communities that have grown up with that water. The list goes on.

Right across the Murray Darling Basin, a considerable number of Australians feel betrayed by successive governments of all persuasions. They feel tricked by an unaccountable bureaucracy hell-bent, they say, on an unmeasurable environmental imperative. In fact, the people on the ground, the people I speak to, tell me the so-called basin plan is having the opposite effect. It is harming our environment. People expressed concern about the foundation science used by MDBA in developing the plan. They say any claimed environmental benefits are not properly measured or assessed. They say the plan's environmental, social and economic benefits are skewed. People come last. They question the so-called independence of the MDBA and the link between the plan with the long-term plan for the Coorong, Lower Lakes and the Murray mouth. Many say the Lower Lakes were always estuarine and it does not make sense to maintain them at historically high levels. They say using freshwater as a key mechanism to scour out the Murray channel to the Southern Ocean is a travesty. It is misguided, they say. It is poor science. It is a bloody waste of a hell of a lot of water that could be productively used elsewhere.

Let us for a moment talk about money. The Murray Darling Basin Plan is widely reported to be a $12 billion project—that is twelve thousand million dollars. Ten billion dollars was allocated under the Water for the Future Program announced by former Prime Minister John Howard. Another $1.77 billion was announced by Julia Gillard, another former Prime Minister, in the Lower Lakes just before she departed public life. This was on top of previous expenditure such as $700 million for the Living Murray program; $57.7 million for the Perricoota-Koondrook Living Murray forest program, which I understand subsequently blew out to approximately $100 million; and $80 million on river redgum and woodland conversions—conversion of state forests, including Millewa forest and other forest areas, to National Park.

Just how much has been spent in recent years on the environment in the basin? I don't know, but it is obviously billions. It is interesting, indeed fascinating, what you hear when you hit the road and talk to real people. Last week a water trader told me his company had made the deal of the century. He said he had sold floodwater to the previous government for $34 million. That is right, floodwater—water the government would never actually recoup. He said it was the best deal he had ever made. It was reported in The Sydney MorningHerald, and I read from that report:

In late 2008 the Rudd and Rees governments announced they were buying $34 million worth of water licences from Tandou to secure more water for the environment.

However, it emerged that Tandou had hung onto its higher-yielding licences and sold the two governments ''supplementary'' licences, which only allow water harvesting after intermittent flood events.

The report continues:

This week Tandou's chief executive, Guy Kingwill, confirmed to the Herald that the company had not got a drop of water from its supplementary licences since 2002-03.

That is right. The government of the time bought $34 million worth of water on which it would probably never collect. Welcome to the brave new world of water management in Australia: big bucks and smoke screens and the Australian taxpayer forking out enormous sums of money for ill-defined, or zero, returns. One farmer told me there were 25-odd different types of water or water licences, but I have been unable to confirm this figure since my return. Whatever the truth, the whole Murray-Darling Basin Plan water situation is highly complex and certainly open to obfuscation and exploitation. People in the Murray-Darling Basin are incredulous at the wanton spending of money for no apparent social, economic or environmental benefit. They say the claimed environmental benefits are unmeasured, they say the social and economic costs are enormous and far-reaching and they say our farming sector is being destroyed. They tell me the so-called plan is not addressing a triple bottom line.

Wakool Shire is located in south-western Riverina between the two mighty rivers of the Murray and the Murrumbidgee. The local council was so concerned by the devastation caused by the so-called plan last year that it commissioned an economic impact statement. The statement paints a very clear picture. There is a direct link between water and the viability of any basin community. Farmers are leaving Wakool. Between 2001 and 2011 the population declined by 814 people or 17 per cent. This reflects a combination of changes in the farming sector, the impacts of drought on farm operations, a contraction of the timber industry and, more recently, some impacts of the first phase of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The statement also says that the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan could see the Wakool local government area lose 38 per cent of its water. This would see shire agricultural production decline by $25.8 million and job losses, direct and indirect, totalling 223. There would be a loss of regional wages of $11.2 million and reduced consumer spending in the Wakool local government area of $8.8 million. As a small irrigation economy, the shire has called for active consultation with its industry on any water reduction targets as well as a program to provide support to assist farm improvements and economic diversification. A summary of the Wakool report says that the impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan could actually be greater. If water sales are from scattered properties—the Swiss cheese effect—the costs will be higher for the remaining fewer irrigators left to fund infrastructure maintenance. This is a complex issue. I have been visiting the Murray-Darling Basin since I was a kid, and every day I learn something new, and that learning curve increases when I travel to the area and talk to real people.

In the remaining time I have, I make these few final points: (1) the structure of the MDBA is flawed—I am told the organisation is political and not independent; (2) the real impact of the removal of water from productive use is underrated and understated by the MDBA; (3) the so-called plan only applies to regions in the basin above Lock 1 in South Australia while the supposed significant environmental benefit of the plan is below Lock 1—the Coorong, Lower Lakes and the Murray—and even that benefit is widely questioned; (4) in 2002, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council commissioned the Living Murray project. The Scientific Reference Panel said that a 1,500 gigalitre cap combined with structural, operational and water quality management could deliver a healthy working river. We must adhere to this cap.

There is not enough time tonight to cover all of these issues. I have not even begun to mention the deliberate man-made flooding and the so-called constraints management strategy. We all know the devastation of a flood from nature, but we have people who deliberately want to flood people and flood land. Communities across the basin have told me the plan must be paused for at least five years. Communities across the basin have called for a Senate inquiry into the plan. They tell me the economic and social costs will far exceed the $12 billion-plus price spent already. This week the Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, said, 'Good government starts today,' and I sincerely hope he means it. He said, 'I have listened, I have learned, I have acted.' Prime Minister, I implore you to listen to the people of the Murray-Darling Basin. Let the facts speak for themselves, then act.

The PRESIDENT: I remind honourable senators that legislation committees will meet to consider estimates, commencing on Monday, 23 February 2015 at 9 am. Program details will be published on the Senate website.

Senate adjourned at 20:28