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Thursday, 2 June 2011
Page: 5720

Mr WINDSOR (New England) (10:37): On behalf of the Standing Committee on Regional Australia I present the committee's report entitled Of drought and flooding rains: inquiry into the impact of the Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee. I ask leave of the House to make a short statement in connection with the report.

Leave granted.

Mr WINDSOR: This inquiry was established following the release of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's Guide to the proposed Basin Plan in October last year. All members of the committee, and they are all here today, representing all political persuasions within the parliament, have worked cooperatively in pursuit of a common purpose: to find a different way to achieve a sustainable and prosperous future for basin communities and the environment. The findings of this report show that there are win-win solutions to a lot of the problems in the basin and that there is a better way through. It will still mean some change, but not great pain as indicated in the guide.

The Murray-Darling Basin is one of the most productive regions of Australia, with a rich diversity of communities, landscapes and environment. However, growth in the diversion of water in the second half of last century means we need to find a better balance between the productive use of water resources and the environment, but this must be done in a way that includes the Basin communities and helps them have certainty and confidence about their future.

This report presents a way to achieve these objectives with a win-win outcome for communities and the environment. This pathway includes improvement in the way the Basin Plan is developed, better ways to recover water for the environment and offset the proposed reductions, support to build strong and prosperous communities in the basin as they adjust to a future with less water, more transparency and accountability around the government's water reform processes, and improvement in monitoring, compliance and enforcement of basin water resource use.

The guide was intended to merely give an insight into the authority's thinking as it developed the proposed Basin Plan. It included proposed sustainable levels of diversion that would require significant reductions to current diversions to ensure the basin's environmental health. Unfortunately, the way it chose to develop and communicate this document was appalling. The authority shut the door on the basin communities, the state and territory governments and scientists. But without their involvement it is unreasonable to go out into the community only days after releasing such complex proposals.

In both the guide and the following information sessions, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority failed to communicate how the Basin Plan would be implemented, the role of the states or the ability for the reductions to be offset by the government's water purchase and irrigation efficiency savings. Understandably, basin communities reacted with anger and disbelief at the scale of the reductions and how they were to be treated. They were left with the impression that someone was going to turn up at their door and actually take away the water that they were legitimately given as entitlements from various governments. Understandably, basin communities saw it as an attack on their livelihoods and their communities.

Through this inquiry the committee has had the privilege of visiting regions throughout the basin and speaking with many of its residents. We heard the frustration, uncertainty and anxiety caused by the guide. In contrast to the animosity towards the authority, the people we met throughout the basin made the committee feel very welcome. The committee heard a general agreement wherever it went that more water needs to return to the environment and an acknowledgement that, without healthy rivers, we cannot have long-term and healthy communities.

The key recommendations arising from this inquiry are intended to provide a pathway towards the changes most agree are needed—a pathway that we hope will have the support of basin communities. The report recommendations cover (1) improving the way the authority proceeds in the next stages of the basin planning process, (2) stopping all non-strategic water buyback immediately, (3) establishing a national water fund to invest in water-saving projects, environmental works and measures, strategic purchase of water entitlements and research to improve irrigation efficiency, (4) creating a government owned corporation, a joint venture with state and territory governments, to manage the national water fund similar to the way the successful Water for Rivers company operates and (5) creating a stand-alone Commonwealth environmental water holder.

From the very south to the top of the basin, the committee heard of water savings that could be found through environmental works and measures and on-farm efficiency works. The report identifies some of these measures and recommends that they be explored prior to consideration of any reduction in productive water allocation.

While much of the responsibility for the fear and anxiety caused by the guide rests with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the failure to communicate the need for a basin plan is also the responsibility of the six governments responsible for water sharing within the basin. Past government agreements on water reform have all been motivated by a mutual desire to provide for the long-term health and prosperity of the basin. A more cooperative approach is needed if we are to achieve these outcomes. This will require all governments involved to set aside their differences and parochial tendencies and work together to help these communities adapt and thrive in the face of change. The committee found that, even after decades of continual change, communities across the basin are still willing to cooperate in this next round of reforms. However, trust in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been seriously eroded. We owe it to these people, to their willingness to put right the ramifications of decisions made by state and Commonwealth governments in the past, to find a way forward that helps build a more productive and sustainable future for the basin.

Finally, I thank my committee colleagues, who are here today: the member for Braddon; the member for Capricornia; the member for Riverina, who attended every meeting—and this committee had a lot of meetings, so I thank him for his diligence—the member for McMillan; the member for Murray; the member for Wannon; and the member for Dobell. I thank them personally for the way they have approached the inquiry's task. In January, when most people were taking their break, we had something like a fortnight on the road, yet most of the committee were able to attend and get stuck into meeting people.

I also thank the four supplementary members who joined the committee for the purpose of this inquiry—the members for Barker, Bendigo, Farrer and Makin—for their valuable input. I take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the thorough and professional support of the committee secretariat, namely—and they are in the chamber today—Glen Worthington, Siobhan Leyne, Raymond Knight, Daniel Miletic and Chris Golding. I recognise them all, and I am sure the committee does as well, but I would like to thank Chris in particular for his technical work. His input based on his understanding of the very complex arrangements within various states and of past water legislation has been invaluable. But I thank all of the committee for the work they have done. I would also like to thank the many people and organisations who welcomed us into their communities, appeared as witnesses and took the time to prepare submissions.

I note that, due to the importance of the issues addressed in this inquiry and the need to deliver the findings in a timely manner, printed copies of this report are not immediately available to members and the general public. These are likely to be available sometime next week.

In conclusion, I once again thank all the members personally for their input. This is not an easy situation to deal with for anybody in any of the six parliaments or for a lot of the communities that we have spent time in. But I think the way members of the committee, despite their political differences, addressed the community meetings and the report itself demonstrates to me that this parliament actually does want to do something about what was, in some cases, previous mismanagement and, in particular, about the way in which some of the issues raised in the guide really did shock people in communities in the basin. There is a way through this which can achieve similar outcomes without the pain and anguish that many people in these communities feared. I am pleased that both the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities are here today and I thank them. I would urge them to look very seriously at the process that this committee has developed before going straight to entitlement cuts as a way through this issue. I commend the report to the House.