Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
13/11/2008
Water Amendment Bill 2008

CHAIR —I welcome Dr Buchan from the Australian Conservation Foundation. Do you have anything to say about the capacity in which you appear today?

Dr Buchan —I am a healthy rivers campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Dr Buchan —Yes, thank you. Thank you very much, once again, for the invitation and opportunity to be here. First off, I would like to say that we very much welcome the Water Amendment Bill. We are looking forward to seeing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority fully brought into being and, of course, their responsibility in developing the Basin Plan. Importantly, as part of that there are the sustainable diversion limits, of course, and the environmental watering plan. Of course, we have various concerns about the Water Act and the Water Amendment Bill, as I have articulated in the paper; you will ask questions as you want. I really think, spurred on by Ms Mattila, that the most important thing that I can say today is that the sooner the amendment bill is passed and these reforms come into being the better.

Largely, the reason why the basin is in the state that it is in, and the environment is in the state that it is in, and the communities around there are in the state that they are in, is that we have spent decades delaying and failing to put into effect the kinds of reforms that we need, to put our irrigation industries onto a sustainable footing so that they can continue to be productive into the future, and, of course, to make sure that our natural environment—in particular, its capacity to support our natural resource systems, which underpin our irrigated agriculture and other forms of agriculture as well—remains viable into the future.

As well as that, I think that, importantly, in order to achieve that, to expedite the implementation of the act and the Water for the Future program we should be accelerating the rollout of the Commonwealth programs—all of the buyback, the infrastructure investment and the structural adjustment programs; these are all important parts of the reform process. There is no justification for delaying the rollout of any of them. I think that there are great opportunities to not maintain those as individual, separate, siloed projects anymore but to integrate the investment of those different funding streams. And there are great opportunities to be looking from an irrigation district upwards—giving communities some of the information and the tools they need so that they can start planning their irrigation districts and work out what they want them to look like in the future. So, kind of moving away from the ad hoc implementation of those programs, to looking at an irrigation district and asking: what do they want this area to be like over a 50-year, 70-year, or 100-year time frame, taking into consideration the impacts that climate change and so on will have, and giving them some of the information and tools they need to be involved in the decision-making and the planning process.

I think our main concerns are articulated in the paper, which I know you have, so I might leave it at that and just go to questions.

CHAIR —Thank you, Dr Buchan. I know that Senator Farrell has got somewhere else to go at 4.30 pm, so we will go straight to Senator Farrell.

Senator FARRELL —Thank you for coming along, Dr Buchan. I just wonder whether you have any view about the tactics of the Liberal and National parties in Victoria, who have been trying to block the intergovernmental agreement between the federal government and the state government in the state parliament.

Dr Buchan —My understanding is that they have blocked the legislation. I would not want to comment on the politics of that. But I did say, in my opening statement, that, warts and all—and there are plenty of warts in the amendment bill and the act and the Water for the Future plan, in my view, but, nevertheless, the most important outcome this year would be to press ahead with implementing those changes. So the sooner the amendment bill is passed and the referral of powers takes place and we can start to give effect to Australia’s commitment under international obligations like the Ramsar convention and so on the better, because the more quickly we can start to roll out the reform agenda the better it will be for the natural environment, and for the irrigation communities and other communities that rely on a healthy Murray-Darling Basin.

Senator FARRELL —So does it follow from that answer that you would be opposed to any further amendments to the legislation that would require another meeting to review what—

Dr Buchan —There are plenty of changes which I think would benefit the implementation of the Water for the Future program and result in better outcomes. But, really, I think that anything which resulted in considerable delays in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority being properly formulated, in the basin plan being pulled together, in the environmental watering plan and sustainable diversion limits being developed, would be all bad news for the basin, both for the natural environment and for irrigators and other communities that rely on the basin.

Senator FARRELL —Yes, but if it does require renegotiation—and therefore, presumably, reasonably significant delays—are you not in favour of us attempting to seek to amend the legislation?

Dr Buchan —There are a number of points which I have made in my paper. Take the definition of ‘critical human needs’, which I think is very confusing, very ambiguous and incredibly broad. In the discussion of, ‘What are critical human needs?’, it is right and proper that critical human needs should be seen as a priority. But whatever was wrong with health, drinking water and sanitation? They are critical human needs. The way I read the amendment bill, ‘critical human needs’ could cover anything—and, in fact, they have covered things from abattoirs to golf courses. So things like that ought to be amended to make sure that ‘critical human needs’ are critical human needs, or criteria put around that so that we do not end up with golf courses—which may well be a significant contributor to the socio-economic fabric of an area—falling under the definition of ‘critical human needs’. That is not what a critical human need is.

Senator FARRELL —I suppose the point I am making, though, is that if you want to get this legislation up and running quickly without having to go back and renegotiate the whole box and dice, which of course is the potential, do you favour us proceeding?

Dr Buchan —The situation we are in now with the act, the amendment bill and the Water for the Future program is so much better than the situation we were in a couple of years ago. Really, whilst nothing will ever be perfect and there is plenty of room for improvement—and we would like to see that and we have been consistent in many of the suggestions that we have made since January 2006, when the previous Prime Minister put forward the first iteration of this plan—the worst thing we can do is delay, delay and delay, more and more and more, because that is why we are in the situation that we are in. There is no reason to delay any further in rolling out the reform program.

Senator FARRELL —Thank you.

CHAIR —Your words are very sobering. We had a submission and witnesses from Plug the Pipe yesterday and I think one of the key phrases there was, ‘We really have to keep petty politics out of this and get above the politics.’ I do honestly say that it is a sobering comment that was in your opening statement.

Senator XENOPHON —You have said that these are steps forward in terms of the bill and the basin plan. Do you have a comment about the need for the minister to have the power to implement an interim basin plan so that on an interim basis, pending the finalisation of the plan in 2011, if there are any urgent measures that need to be taken the minister can do so? That is the first thing—perhaps if I bundle them all together.

The other thing is that there are some issues that are not part of the intergovernmental agreement. So, if there were an amendment to the Water Act and it did not impinge on the intergovernmental agreement, it would not have to go back to the states. One of those issues is the north-south pipeline. Do you have a view about, for instance, either measures that prohibit that water going to Melbourne or, alternatively, a measure whereby the authority would be required to undertake an urgent audit of the environmental impact in terms of whether the water is there to go to Melbourne on a sustainable basis?

Dr Buchan —Firstly, on the question on whether there is a good reason to have an interim plan, I think the reason—I am reiterating this—is that this is a desperate situation across the basin and we cannot proceed too quickly in implementing the type of reforms that we need. In the previous Senate inquiry, which I also presented at, the Wentworth group put forward their proposals for an interim plan. Their view on that is that the story is not complete but we know enough already to understand in broad parameters the extent of change which is needed and the direction we need to go in. So I do not agree with Ms Mattila’s comments that we should stop the buyback program, delay this and delay that until we have proper socioeconomic understandings of what things like the buyback program will need.

The fact that we have delayed reform for so long is why communities like those around the Lower Lakes and the Coorong are in an absolutely desperate socioeconomic circumstance. They are victims of an unhealthy environment. They are victims of overextraction and overuse upstream. So yes, I think that, given that it will take quite some time to get the basin plan right, to get the environmental water plans right and to get the sustainable diversion limits right, there is a good call in the meantime to have an interim basin plan, because we do have a reasonable understanding of what we need to do and where we need to go.

The second point was in relation to the north-south pipeline. Again, I am not across the situation in the US in particular around the Imperial Irrigation District and the Salton Sea which resulted from that. But I do understand that Los Angeles bought a whole lot of water out of the Imperial Irrigation District and moved it is part of an interbasin transfer to Los Angeles with bad outcomes for that irrigation district. That did not sound too dissimilar from what we are talking about in relation to the north-south pipeline. You have the Murray-Darling Basin, which is on its knees, and there is a suggestion that they will move 75 gigs of water annually from the Goulburn district to Melbourne when Melbourne pumps about 400 gigs of water out to sea every year as wastewater. It is ridiculous. The basin is on its knees. Why would anyone propose moving water from a basin which is on its knees, away from communities and the environment which are stuffed, and send it to Melbourne, which can look after itself?

Senator NASH —Well said.

Senator XENOPHON —The final question was—

CHAIR —We do not often see you lost for words, Senator Xenophon, but that interjection achieved it. So carry on please, Dr Buchan.

Dr Buchan —I have just remembered the end part of your question. I think the transfer of 75 gigs of water from a basin which is really struggling to Melbourne, which should be well capable of looking after itself, is fundamentally flawed and wrong at a conceptual level. What is even worse is that I do not think that any of the numbers or the modelling or so on which has been used to underpin public investment in that sort of infrastructure has been done. I believe that the Plug the Pipeline gentlemen sitting behind me know a lot more about that than me. I am sure they would be very happy to show you what they understand to be some of the fundamental flaws in the modelling behind that.

Senator XENOPHON —Further to that, do you see a role for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to undertake scrutiny of those figures—an audit of the project, if you like—to see if it is sustainable, as has been asserted by the Victorian government?

Dr Buchan —It may well fall to the authority or to the Commonwealth government or to an independent auditing body. Perhaps it is something that the National Water Commission might become involved in. I do not have a strong view. I have not thought about who might be the most appropriate body to undertake an audit, but I understand that the Victorian Auditor-General expressed some very grave concerns about some of the modelling data and information underpinning that project. I am sure that any independent and credible auditing body could be made responsible for doing that.

Senator XENOPHON —Thank you.

Senator NASH —I will just follow on from that. Regarding the premise that the water will come to Melbourne from savings made in the basin, given the dire straits of the basin and all of the work that is being done to make sure the basin is sustainable, isn’t it completely stupid that, even if there are savings made within the basin, they do not stay in the basin?

Dr Buchan —I have no further comment on that. That is absolutely right, though. Savings clearly ought to be made, and they should stay within the basin and be distributed, one way or another, between the environment and the communities which live there. In a system which is grossly overallocated, the main aim at the moment is to distribute savings, if they have come from public money, to the environment to address that situation of overallocation. Of course, that is a secondary argument to the one which you just made. Any savings made in the basin should stay within the basin.

Senator NASH —Thank you. I have other questions but I will come back to them because they are not on this topic.

Senator HEFFERNAN —One of the flaws of this lazy plan that is the pipe is that the catchment that they are taking water out of is in the same rain shadow as Melbourne. If it is going to be wet in the catchment, it is going to be wet in Melbourne. If it is dry in Melbourne, it is going to be dry in the catchment. They are not taking it from a different rain shadow. Isn’t that stupid?

Dr Buchan —Yes, I think it is. I have heard that argument before, once again it is interesting, and it adds to the ludicrousness of the whole arrangement. As Senator Nash says, if savings are made in a basin which is really struggling to maintain its values whether those values are of the natural environment, irrigation or the towns and so on that rely on water, savings in the basin should stay in the basin.

Senator SIEWERT —I want to follow up on some of the comments that you have made in your submission as they relate to your comments about wanting to go ahead with getting the legislation through and I can appreciate that. You have made a number of comments about the independence of the authority. It came up yesterday when Professor Young responded to a question from Senator Heffernan around independence and the right of veto of the states. That is one of the issues you have raised and there are the critical human needs which Senator Xenophon touched on. You actually say in your submission:

This entire section requires further discussion and thought before the Amendment Bill 2008 is passed.

I am trying to drill down further into when you are saying you think the bill needs to go through. Do you think that these amendments do need to be dealt with as long as they are dealt with in an expedient manner?

Dr Buchan —If they could be dealt with in an expedient manner. In my discussions with the irrigator groups that I am familiar with or individuals within those that I rub shoulders with on a day-to-day basis no-one else thinks that the critical human needs section is okay. They are likewise concerned that the current definitions in there could cover anything and, in fact, do cover everything from abattoirs to golf courses and so on. I think there is reasonable agreement within major stakeholders about areas where consensus could be reached quickly and that could be amended quickly.

I do have some quite grave concerns about the ability of the newly constituted governance arrangements of the ministerial council, the Basin Officials Committee and so on to be able to really improve outcomes in terms of decision making. I think that the reforms should have gone much further. To try and resolve that to the satisfaction of the likes of Professor Young and the Australian Conservation Foundation would cause delay and therefore we would rather see the bill go through warts and all.

Senator SIEWERT —Do you mean with respect to the independence area?

Dr Buchan —I think that the situation we have is greatly improved from the previous situation. There is a Murray-Darling Basin Authority which is skills based and while it is not free from ministerial influence or direction it is substantially more free from that than the existing governance arrangements. Will the new arrangements be better than they currently are? I think there is no question about that. Could they be made even better? Yes, but not if it means delaying for another two years. The point that I make in the paper is that there is the experience of John Scanlon who was a lawyer and remains a lawyer—nothing wrong with that.

Senator XENOPHON —You do need the odd one when you are in trouble, I have to agree to that!

Dr Buchan —He of course has the benefit of two different terms on the Murray-Darling Basin Commission as a commissioner. Once was in his role as the head of the South Australian Department of Water, Land and Biodiversity Conservation and his second term was as an independent commissioner. Across those two terms he watched what he thought was poor decision making, parochial interest, state based interest and so on and saw how that resulted in lowest common denominator decision making, and how processes which required unanimous voting at the ministerial council level and the commission level resulted in poor decisions and poor progress which was therefore largely responsible for a failure to make good progress across the basin. So he put a lot of time and effort into thinking about the ideal governance arrangements that we should be putting in place for the likes of the Murray-Darling Basin as it stands. They seem to have been largely ignored by the drafters and the developers of the Water Act and the amendment bill. I think that is a great pity. Nevertheless, the situation that we will inherit with the passage of the amendment bill is still considerably better than we have had for the last 15 years.

Senator SIEWERT —I think you have just been given a copy of the amendments from Professor Young.

Dr Buchan —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —One of the amendments he was suggesting is that we make the authority responsible for implementing the objects of the act.

Dr Buchan —Yes. I think I made that point in mine as well, that it is not really clear in the objects of the act that, for example, the authority has a responsibility to make sure that we restore rivers to health and look after our wetlands and that kind of thing. Given that the referral of powers is predicated on Australia better meeting its commitments to international obligations—specifically, the Ramsar convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, and related things such as the Japanese and Chinese migratory bird agreements—to not have the objects of the act really clearly state, ‘This is to look after the feeding and breeding ground of migratory birds,’ is a bit of an omission. And I agree with all of Professor Young’s comments.

Senator SIEWERT —His was basically giving a similar message to yours: ‘We need to get on with this; we have had enough delay’—

Dr Buchan —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —but there were four key amendments. Rather than taking up the committee’s time now, could you provide some feedback on each one of those?

Dr Buchan —I agree with all of them. I have read it; he sent it to me yesterday.

Senator SIEWERT —Okay. So you think they are amendments we should be prioritising?

Dr Buchan —If those amendments could be made and the bill gets passed quickly without any further delay then, yes, I agree with all of the amendments he suggests.

Senator SIEWERT —Thank you. We were exploring the issue around the north-south pipeline, the Sugarloaf pipeline—whatever we happen to be calling it at the moment.

Senator NASH —It could be just ‘the pipeline’.

Senator SIEWERT —I think I am on record as saying ‘the stupid pipeline’.

Dr Buchan —You are not the only one.

Senator NASH —I think we all would be.

Senator SIEWERT —The issue of critical human need came up yesterday when we were talking to the authority, and I have put a number of questions on notice to them because we had so many divisions in the Senate we kept getting interrupted. It is our understanding now that because the water for the pipeline is coming off the Goulburn, which is a tributary, and the conveyancing rules only apply to the Murray, the critical human needs factor does not kick in for the water there would be taken out for the pipeline. Is that your understanding of the bill?

Dr Buchan —That is my understanding, but I do not think there is any great need to understand that beyond Senator Nash’s comment that it is just a crazy idea to move that water from an area which is struggling in itself to Melbourne.

Senator SIEWERT —Yes. And therefore, as we understand it, they would be relying on the allocation that is made in general to the scheme that they are buying the water from. To my mind that means that when we are at very low water levels there will be no water to put in the pipeline.

Dr Buchan —That is correct; that is my understanding.

Senator SIEWERT —So Victoria is building a very expensive pipeline that likely could have no water in it for significant periods of time.

Dr Buchan —Yes. That is one of the reasons I suggested some of the modelling and the figures and the numbers which have been used to underpin the viability of that pipeline and moving water may well not stand up to a rigorous audit or analysis.

Senator SIEWERT —Yes. My final question relates to a question that I also put to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority yesterday—and I will put to the department today—about enforcement of protection of environmental flows. They are responsible for managing environmental flows and protection of those environmental flows from theft and version. I am wondering what your opinion is of the enforcement powers they have currently to ensure that environmental flows are not stolen and not diverted, which there is pretty ample evidence is occurring at the moment.

Dr Buchan —I think there is great room for improvement across the whole basin. I think there has been a significant improvement in that, not least because there used to be an understanding by many irrigators and diverters that if they just took water they were taking it off the government. In fact, they are not taking it off the government; they are taking it off other irrigators and off the environment and so on. If you want me to come back to you with more specific comments on the enforcement provisions I would be happy to do that.

But there are other issues as well, which came out in the previous inquiry, that do not necessarily relate to theft or inappropriate diversion but do in fact relate to allowable diversion under the water-sharing plans and could themselves be a great risk to the environmental flow which may be acquired by a government in upstream regions. For example, if the Commonwealth acquires water in Queensland we need to make sure that, whilst it passes through New South Wales, it does not under the water-sharing plans become available for extraction by irrigators. There are a number of areas that need to be tidied up there to make sure that we look after the integrity of environmental water and keep it going to the sea as it passes through the system, independent of any risk of theft or inappropriate diversion.

Senator SIEWERT —So are those amendments tightening Queensland, New South Wales and Commonwealth laws?

Dr Buchan —I am not even sure if there needs to be changes to the law as such. They are part of the water-sharing plans which need discussion. My understanding is that there is a considerable amount of goodwill involved at the moment in discussions between Queensland and New South Wales and the Commonwealth to make sure that in situations like that I have just said, for example, resulting from the purchase of Toorale, you do not end up with perverse outcomes—for example, water bought in Queensland or northern New South Wales being removed further downstream and, therefore, being a waste of taxpayers’ money. My understanding is that all the agencies involved in that understand what the problem is and there are good faith negotiations going on to try to resolve that.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We may as well stay on the Queensland border. Given the vagaries of the science of the future and the predictions that there may be increased flow in the northern part of the Murray-Darling Basin and a serious reduction in the critical southern part, do you have a view on the likes of the Lower Balonne? There is a proposition under the resource operations plan to proceed with the issuing of licences right now against the background of uncertainty and the obvious overallocation of the system, the destruction of the flood plain and all the rest of it. Does the Australian Conservation Foundation have a view on that? The biggest licence in the Lower Balonne proposed under the draft ROP is 469,000 megalitres, and curiously the chairman of the process is on the legal document for the benefit of many millions of dollars. Everyone just wants to turn a blind eye to that. But that is just a side issue.

Shouldn’t they wait and just grandfather the present arrangements in the Lower Balonne? For a start presently the minister in Queensland does have the emergency power to prevent overland capture, there is that power to let the water go down the river. Shouldn’t they just leave things as they are, which will not affect the operations on those farms if they get an event in the Culgoa or the Condamine-Balonne, until they do the work to determine what is sustainable extraction both from the river and possibly from the overland flow, given that they have completely destroyed the largest flood plain in Australia and squeezed the Ramsar site in the Narran Lake? What does the Australian Conservation Foundation advise this committee and the government to do about that, given that the valuation for that one particular licence, which is proposed under the advice of the ROP to issue it and then possibly buy it back, is $175 million?

Dr Buchan —I think the situation there is absolutely fraught. One of the reasons I would like to see the current amendment bill go through as soon as possible is so we can proceed to put the authority into place and that they can develop the Basin Plan with a proper understanding of environmental water requirements and sustainable diversion limits across all the different reaches of all the different basins and sub-basins.

Once that takes effect we will understand the need to which change is required in the lower Balonne as well as all other areas. There are two choices that we have in that area. One is to not institute the ROP, which I understand is your favoured position, and there are good grounds for doing that but that may well result in a delay in any further change taking place there, or to institute the ROP and then buy back the water at a huge cost to the taxpayer, which is arguably unjustified on the grounds that why should the taxpayer buy something which did not sell or give away in the first place. But instituting the ROP will level the playing field and will create a property right which can then be repurchased. Is that where you are going?

Senator HEFFERNAN —I understand that. But under what is proposed, and if they do institute the ROP to commence the process, nothing happens until 2014 anyhow.

Dr Buchan —Change can happen before 2014 because where there are property rights in water which can be purchased then that will commence the process of reallocating water from irrigators to the environment in advance of being able to work within the context of the water-sharing plans.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But the water we are talking about at the present time is unlicensed, unregulated, unmetered and is virtually free. This is the overland flow. Bear in mind there is no differentiation or quarantining of what is an extraction pump to what is an overland capture in the storages—it is all mumbo-jumbo. They sent 250,000 meg slugs down to try and fix it up over the border which disappeared and were unaccounted for. If they just left it as it is until they sorted out what is a sustainable extraction from the system then they would be in the same position under their legal rights as issuing the licences, which we would then have to buy back. Why would we issue the licences when we know they are unsustainable? Why not just leave things as they are until we sort it out?

Dr Buchan —That is certainly one way to do it. My understanding about one of the reasons why the irrigators in that area want to push through the ROP is because, otherwise, the banks will foreclose on all of those businesses. There may be a legal basis to wait, as you suggest, but my understanding is that—

Senator HEFFERNAN —With respect, if we do nothing in the present time and do not issue the licences—and I understand what you just said—they would still have access to the water. The reason they are at grave risk with the banks is not because they have not got the licences; it is because they have not had the water. It is nothing to do with the licence.

Dr Buchan —I understood it was both. If it is not, I will come back to you with a considered thought on the detail of that.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Peter Beattie wanted to go through that sort of a motion a few years ago. I just find it extraordinary that there is this huge conflict of interest in advice to the government by people who have everything to gain and plenty to lose against the advice they are providing. I do not know of anywhere else in Australia where someone who is the chairman of a process giving advice both on the issuing of a licence and the compensation to follow for the buyback, who has no eligibility under the formula for the overland flow licences, can be included in the biggest licence ever issued in Australia and everyone looks the other way and says, ‘Oh, no, we’ll avoid thinking about that.’ I reckon it is fraud.

Dr Buchan —I think a lot of what has happened in that part of the country is a mystery to everyone, whether or not they live in that part of the country. What I understand is that change is needed and that whatever rights and wrongs have happened there they have been decisions of governments and of public officers. Therefore, if the public has to pay to fix the problem and the most expeditious way of doing that is to implement the ROP and then buy back the licences, whilst that may be very expensive, if it is the most expeditious way to go and the fault is with public officers then it is public money that has to fix it.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I hear what you are saying, but at Bourke, for instance, that mob have gone belly up because they put in an enterprise that was high-priority irrigation with a low-priority licence arrangement. The excuse that is used by the people who are trying to travail this problem with the financial benefit is: ‘We were allowed to do the works,’ which they were—no-one broke the law. Then, oops, the government said, ‘Shit, we’d better authorise these works,’ which they did, so that the water is authorised and not licensed. But isn’t it ‘buyer beware’—

Dr Buchan —Yes, in that case I agree with you.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can I tell you that exactly the same thing is happening on the Douglas Daly now, with the peanut company that has transferred its operation up there. They have been issued authorisations to extract water, but not licences because they have not done the work. If that goes belly up too and they have to get only half the licence that is sustainable from the catchment or the aquifer up there, why should the taxpayers put up with this crap here? Why wouldn’t you just do a fair dinkum study? They have this pretend CSIRO study of the catchment based on guesstimation of future flows, not on the impact on the environment or the ruination of the flood plain and all the rest of it, just some guesswork, and they have not even done any science on the Warrego.

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, I am not taking away anything from the years you chaired this committee, quite honourably most times, but can I suggest that, rather than lecture Dr Buchan, you put a series questions, one at a time, and give Dr Buchan a chance to answer. All the colourful conversation we have all heard before—but, God bless you, you are passionate.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Why isn’t someone listening?

CHAIR —Give Dr Buchan a chance.

Dr Buchan —I think one of the messages from that is that there is a lack of clarity around the property right involved in water. In the National Water Initiative, which is our blueprint for water reform, one of the key objectives was to establish property rights which are well understood by everyone: the owner of the right, a purchaser of the right, the bank when they want to put a mortgage against it, all those kinds of things. My understanding is that many of those problems could be resolved by tightening up the property right around water entitlements which is certainly one contribution to those difficult issues.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But in this particular instance the work they did was ‘buyer beware’—and that is fair enough—with an authorisation. Why shouldn’t we do a fair dinkum study of the sustainable level at which to issue the licences and then issue the licences—which they did not pay for; they were a gift—at a sustainable level. Then we will not have to buy the damn things back.

Dr Buchan —You are the politician, Senator Heffernan.

CHAIR —He was for 12 years in the previous government, too.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I argued this case and I have been arguing it for ages. In some of the early Queensland work on this area there was corruption. But everyone else, all the politicians involved with this, from that day to this, are gutless.

Dr Buchan —Where there are significant natural areas and wetlands around there, it is important that change takes place in order to protect those and also the downstream users of the water. It is a big basin with lots of different problems in different areas and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Turn a blind eye! Thanks.

CHAIR —Doctor Heffernan. I am so sorry—Dr Buchan. I need to be taken out and pistol whipped.

Dr Buchan —Does that make me Senator Buchan?

CHAIR —I am so sorry; he has been called a lot of things on this committee!

Senator HEFFERNAN —You would make a bloody good senator.

Dr Buchan —Do you want to swap?

CHAIR —Actually, Dr Buchan, you would not, because your answers are very short and sharp and to the point, so you would make a lousy senator. You have to work on dribbling for the first 10 minutes and then get it out! On that, with the greatest respect to my colleagues around the table, Senator Nash has some questions.

Senator NASH —Can I just take you back to something you said in your opening remarks. I think you said the buyback program should be accelerated. I recently spent a week driving from one end of the basin to the other through all the communities, and there was no doubt that one of the clearest messages was that they were very concerned that there had not been enough work done on potential impacts on those communities in taking the water out. As you quite rightly said, there is going to be a report on that socioeconomic impact stuff, but that is not until the middle of next year. I guess my concern is that, with the buyback program as it is, if you accelerate it you might be exacerbating a situation that might already be difficult, in that we do not really know the impacts of the buyback scheme. It may well be that the buyback is appropriate, but we have absolutely no idea of what the impacts are going to be in a whole range of areas. I just have some concern that, if you accelerate it, you exacerbate that problem. Can you give me a sense of how you see any impacts being measured if it is accelerated—and if, indeed, that might make the situation potentially worse?

Dr Buchan —I have been having discussions with irrigation corporations, water services committees and irrigation districts, and one of their concerns is that an ad hoc approach to water purchase across the basin could have that Swiss cheese effect—leaving stranded infrastructure and so on.

Senator NASH —It is ad hoc at the moment because there is no real science behind where the buyback is coming from.

Dr Buchan —One of our concerns is that the investment in infrastructure improvement could end up creating gold plated infrastructure where—

Senator NASH —There is no water.

Dr Buchan —we will end up with gold plated stranded assets in the future.

Senator NASH —Absolutely.

Dr Buchan —So they are both genuine and realistic concerns. But those communities across the basin have had enough time now to really start thinking about what is the best option for them in a 50- to 100-year time frame looking at the impacts that climate change is likely to have on them. The resounding message is that the best outcomes will come not from keeping the buyback separate from infrastructure improvement and structural adjustment but from integrating those different funding streams into a single program and looking at the process of change from the irrigation district level upwards. An example of that would be the Torrumbarry irrigation district, which has got its community together, looked at the long-term impact of climate change and other risks to its area, taken a realistic view of what really good areas will remain viable for irrigated agriculture into the future and what areas will not be viable for irrigated agriculture into the future and asked what the best use for that land is. Is it conversion to dryland cropping? Is it conversion to grazing? Is it for some other purpose, for example carbon credits or some sort of ecosystem services investment. That district has really tried to work out from that understanding what the types of land and water reforms are which are necessary to put them on a sustainable trajectory.

One of the biggest improvements could be made to the basin not by the Commonwealth government maintaining the silos over its different funding programs but by bringing them together and starting to ask those irrigation communities to have a good hard look at what they think their futures ought to be. That is not only because it is a 50- to 100-year time frame that we are looking at but also because those communities are ready for change. We are not where we were two years ago, when communities were saying: ‘There is nothing wrong with us; we will be fine. The environment doesn’t need any more water, and we want it all for irrigation.’ There has been a quantum shift in the attitude of most of those communities, who know that change is required and want to be involved in the process.

Senator SIEWERT —How do you think the government can best support the communities now in moving on?

Dr Buchan —Without wanting to be involved in the politics of any of this, I know that tomorrow there is a ministerial council meeting and that a number of those different communities and us and other advisory groups to the ministerial council meeting will be looking to the ministerial council to end that meeting by inviting irrigation districts and communities to make tenders to them with a program of reforms at a district level.

Senator NASH —Sensible.

Dr Buchan —So putting out the tender not just for groups of irrigators to sell their collective water entitlements, and that is what the Commonwealth is currently offering—

Senator SIEWERT —Did you say ‘not just doing that’?

Dr Buchan —Yes. There is currently a program where the Commonwealth government has asked groups of irrigators to come together with their collective entitlements to sell the lot. We can go much further or take a different approach, which involves land and water and looks at the kind of change which is needed across a district, not just selling water entitlements but really asking the question ‘What is the future for this area and how best can we get there?’ and therefore not just integrating the buyback of water entitlements but targeting areas that will be viable into the future, to improve their infrastructure so that irrigation areas are as good as they can be. Where they will not be viable for irrigated agriculture in the future, they should be specifically targeted for the buyback of water and for structural adjustment to go through the decommissioning process or the adjustment to a land use form which is appropriate for the future.

Senator SIEWERT —Did you say the government has invited that broader package or the communities are going to be saying to them, ‘That’s what we want’?

Dr Buchan —There are a number of communities out there which are looking for the Commonwealth to invite tenders from them for a broad range of land and water reforms which would involve the buyback of water entitlements but would also involve investment in infrastructure, structural adjustment, decommissioning and land and water reform more generally.

Senator SIEWERT —So what they are saying is, ‘This is how you should help us’?

Dr Buchan —Yes.

CHAIR —We have gone over time. Senator Nash had the call. Senator Nash, do you want to wrap up, because Senator Fisher has told me that she has questions on notice that will take no longer than 30 seconds to ask?

Senator NASH —I am happy to yield to my colleague. I thank Dr Buchan.

CHAIR —In that case, because we are on a tight timetable today, Senator Fisher, you have 30 seconds to put a few questions on notice.

Senator FISHER —Thank you. I did not commit to 30 seconds, but I will do my best.

CHAIR —I will remind you when 30 seconds are up!

Senator FISHER —Dr Buchan, I have been listening to your evidence. I heard you talk about critical human needs. That is what I would like to ask you about on notice. In your answer, please indicate if the following are wrong. You welcome the definition; however, you think it is lacking clarity and certainty because, of the major stakeholders with whom you have met—for example, irrigators—none of them are able to say the definition is good. You support amendments being made to the bill, provided that they can be made expediently. Disagree subsequently on notice, if you do, with any of those statements. Given that the ‘critical human needs’ definition is supposed to inform the authority in developing the plan, do you think the current definition provides the authority with sufficient clarity and certainty for it to interpret ‘critical human needs’ for the purposes of the plan in an expedient fashion?

Dr Buchan —My understanding of the way it currently reads is that it is very broad, very ambiguous and lacks clarity.

CHAIR —Those questions are to be taken on notice. If you want to answer with a yes or no, feel free; otherwise, we will need you to take them on notice.

Dr Buchan —It depends on the amendments which are made, but currently that definition would include things like abattoirs and golf courses. ‘Critical human needs’ to me means drinking water, health and sanitation. That is what critical human needs are and that is what the definition should come back to.

CHAIR —You did make that very clear in your opening statement and earlier in the piece.

Senator FISHER —My final question on notice—

CHAIR —You are stretching our friendship here, Senator Fisher!

Senator FISHER —I thought it was stretched! This is my final question: Dr Buchan, can you also supply on notice your interpretation of the meaning of the terms ‘highest priority’ and ‘first priority’, as used in the bill?

Dr Buchan —Yes, I can.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

 [5.04 pm]