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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
10/09/2008
Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of the South Australian Farmers Federation. Do either of you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Martin —I am also a member of SAFF’s Natural Resources Committee.

CHAIR —Thank you. Before we go to questions, do either of you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Martin —I would, if I may, please. I would like to start by giving our chairman Sharon Starick’s apology. She is interstate on Murray-Darling business. SAFF has been consistent in its approach to this issue. We are disappointed that it has taken so long and needed a lack of water for the message to get home about how important this is.

We have been critical of government, about how it has been slow to react and act. It took a long time to acknowledge there was a drought on, a couple of years to think that it would need more than restrictions to water usage to have any impact and then recognise that what is facing the river is not a short-term issue, it is a national calamity that needs to be dealt with.

We have been consistent in talking about this. Our approach has been that it needs much more than bandaid measures. This is about: what does government want out of this? The issue we are talking about is not some accident of climate or climate change but a policy that has led to complete overallocation of the river system for a number of years. All we have now is a drought which has exacerbated a situation that was always happening.

The second issue that is really important to us is about government’s priority. It seems at the minute that there is an obsession with climate change and emissions trading. The reality is that, important as carbon containment is, there will be no impact on South Australian farmers, Victorian or New South Wales farmers for 50-plus years. We believe that the government needs to make it a national priority to do something about this because the situation cannot go back to what it was. It is going to need a fundamental change of how we reallocate resources and how we restructure whole communities and industries along the river.

There are a range of short-term issues that need to be addressed, one of which is about integrated management on the river. We believe that the river needs to be managed in a basin structure. It needs to have the tributaries managed as well. This is far broader than states and it needs to be about integration. This is about trying to bring water south, to look after the Lower Lakes and the Coorong. We have a program in South Australia, along with the federal government, that has funded reflows projects, which is to bring water north from the South-East, from Bool Lagoon and those catchments to the Coorong.

As well as that, we have a national forestry policy which wants to plant plantation forests all over the catchments. I come from the South-East and it is a major issue there. If we look at Bool Lagoon where this reflows water is to come from, the whole of that catchment has been planted with blue gums, so the reality is that the $13 million that is to be invested in the reflows project is probably more about hope than actually providing a deal of water for the Coorong. The really short-term issue, of course, is how we deal with the farmers up the river tomorrow.

SAFF has a general constituency that includes all types of farmers. We have a policy which is about sustainable management, the environment and productivity, so these are quite difficult issues for us. We represent all sides, so the views we present are not necessarily popular with all our members. That is practically impossible, probably like your jobs. It is also about how we provide assistance for the people who live on the river at the minute, up and down the sides and around the lakes. We believe that there has to be accelerated purchase of water to support the environment because environmental water seems to be a misunderstood thing. If we do not have a healthy river, we do not have good water to irrigate with. All these things go hand in hand. They are absolutely essential.

We are also saying that, in managing these risks, it is about putting a moratorium on new farm dams, on plantation forestry, controlling how people access overflows and protection of those unregulated flows. There are a range of unregulated flows. This is not just about South Australia. Our approach is about basin management, because we have good relationships with interstate farmers. It is not about ‘anti-rice’ or ‘anti-somebody’. It is about: how do we make this work for everybody?

I would conclude by saying that part of our activity at SAFF is working with Indigenous groups. There is a huge area of access for Indigenous water and how this impacts on the Indigenous community. I am surprised, when I look at this, that they are not better represented. Thank you.

CHAIR —Dr Long, do you wish to add any comment?

Dr Long —No.

CHAIR —Mr Martin, I have one quick question before going to Senator Hurley. We heard from the National Farmers Federation Water Taskforce yesterday in Canberra upon the question of what is their view, and I lead to what is the South Australian Farmers Federation view, on compulsory acquisition?

Mr Martin —When you say compulsory acquisition, over the whole of the—

CHAIR —Yes, over the whole basin.

Mr Martin —All access of water. It depends on equity in compensation for people and it has to be a good outcome. It has to be more than feel-good.

CHAIR —If that is not a conversation that you are currently having with your members, I fully understand, but the New South Wales Irrigators Council said to us yesterday that they had spoken to their members and, although I cannot remember the number, there were a large number of irrigators. The number who would put their properties up for sale was minuscule: about 15 per cent compared to 85 per cent who did not want to go down that path. Would those figures be the same in South Australia?

Mr Martin —I spoke earlier about representing the views, but it is about getting good outcomes. No farmer wants to be sold up or compulsorily acquired. The reality is, and it has happened in the South-East, that industries fail and one way or another people are given an opportunity to get out of industries with some dignity. It happened in the South-East with the MIS schemes which we bitterly opposed, but there were good outcomes from them.

CHAIR —Sorry, I was talking about selling their allocations.

Senator HURLEY —Does SAFF have a policy on climate change and the response of South Australian farmers to climate change?

Mr Martin —Yes. Like everybody, we are flexible and this is an ongoing thing you see on most of our documents.

Senator HURLEY —What is the policy?

Mr Martin —There is a draft. We acknowledge there is climate change and there needs to be thought for it but it is about intergenerational equity climate change. South Australia—as did the other states, but particularly South Australia—always dealt with climate variability. River level storages were this low in 1913, 1943 and a number of other times. It is about how we manage and allocate, as much as anything.

Senator HURLEY —So what is the SAFF policy on climate change?

Mr Martin —It is about starting at the top: proper investment in R&D and technology, best practice, how we look at what industries we structure for the future and if they have a future. It is about being pragmatic about this.

Senator HURLEY —Is there any policy on how those industries around the Coorong and Lower Lakes structure and restructure in response to climate change?

Mr Martin —This is developing what the options are, because the reality is that there are a whole range of ongoing options for the lakes, as you have heard in far more detail. Part of my other life is on NRM management in this state. We have looked at weirs. We look at all of these things, and the options, and there are a range of options. That restructure will depend on that.

Senator HURLEY —What does SAFF see as the best option?

Mr Martin —There are a number of options. Are you asking about getting water into the lakes or just for farmers restructuring?

Senator HURLEY —Just from the point of view of those farmers who do operate around the lakes, what does SAFF see as the best option for them?

Mr Martin —They have to be flexible about this. There are some harsh realities. There may not be water in the future, so they are the options they have dealt with at the minute. In the South-East, where I come from, there are issues with the aquifer. There will not be water for some people in the future.

So irrigation options unfortunately disappear. Equity in properties disappears. It is a fact of life. It is about how you help these people restructure. You can go to different districts. As has been mentioned, there is an inflow of people to the South-East, to our diminishing water supply.

Senator FARRELL —If the South Australian government was to purchase water on the temporary water market and send it to the Lower Lakes, which is one of the options, can you give us any indication of what the view of the irrigators further up the scheme might be?

Mr Martin —As I said, we have been really consistent about these things. We consistently say—and we listen to our own constituents here—that other people in other jurisdictions have their water property rights, and all these water property rights have to in some measure be respected. You just cannot take water away from somebody and take it downstream.

One of the issues, of course, has been procrastination. It was put to me the other day that 130 gigs is available up at Cubbie Station. By the time you get it down to the lakes here, there might be eight gigs left. That is the technical process at this stage. The reality that 120 gigs would be lost is because the whole thing was allowed to dry out. If we had thought of this two years ago, the outcome would be different, of course.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You would never have got water from Cubbie past the Queensland border.

Mr Martin —No, I understand that.

Senator SIEWERT —I do not think you were here earlier when John Williams was here. He was talking about a more national approach and really advocating—in my words anyway, because I asked him a question about whether he thinks that this should happen now—that the Commonwealth needs to be more proactive and powers need to go to the Commonwealth in terms of management of the Murray-Darling Basin. What is your opinion on that? Do you think the Commonwealth should be assuming power through the various means that they can under the Constitution or are you quite happy with the state based arrangement that we have now?

Mr Martin —As it is developing, we have difficulties with these state based relationships. If you look at the process that the Great Artesian Basin went through to get some sort of national approach to it to save it, it took in the vicinity of 80 years. The reality is that it only happened because it is a different system, pressurised so the pressure loss at the bottom caused an impact at the top, which was in Queensland, so people started talking and saw the need to do something.

We have always been happy with state based, but unless something actually happens that gives a positive outcome—that really makes a difference—you would have to look at a federal approach to it. But the federal government has to be quite clear about what it wants out of this. As I said earlier, this is not about climate change and an accident; this is about definite policies. In some reading, I was looking at the Aral Sea and how a definite policy in Russia has killed the fourth-biggest lake in the world for irrigation purposes. It was a definite policy—nothing about climate change—to just take the water for something else. So we have to be really clear about what we want for this basin.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —You mentioned in passing the MIS. Do you have any knowledge about MISs that still hold water licences in South Australia? What impact do you think that has on the overall sharing of water use, both for South Australian farmers and also for being able to find and allocate water that we desperately need to put into the lakes before the heat of summer?

Mr Martin —I am more conversant with the impacts of MISs, and it is not about subsidising industries, it is about how we subsidise industries. SAFF has always been of the view that MISs were a very poor way of subsidising industries. We got particularly bad outcomes in the South-East, which is about plantation forestry and giving great amounts of water allocation to those forests in a de facto way. There is the issue of almond plantations, and that issue of MISs, and it seems to us a great distortion of market principles in the current circumstances in going down this track.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —We heard yesterday that the opposition to the way the MISs have worked is that it is not a level playing field for people, and that is what I am hearing from you as well. Do you have any figures or understanding as to what water licences are held under those schemes in South Australia at the moment?

Mr Martin —No, I do not have those figures with me, I am sorry.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —That is not something that you have access to?

Mr Martin —It is something we could access for you, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —If you could take that on notice, that would great. We heard earlier today from people who lived in the local area, and there has been a feeling that there has been a lack of community consultation with the different decisions that have been made to try and deal with the crisis that we are seeing. How much consultation has your organisation been involved in, both from a state and a federal government perspective, and how much have you been able to involve your members in that consultation process?

Mr Martin —Ours is a longer term consultation. On these issues, we have been dealing with our constituents, if I start with forestry in the South-East, for 10 years, talking to groups. We are talking to them today and we will be talking to them tomorrow. In the Riverland we have talked to people over these issues of their allocations and the impacts for the last five years, since the drought started, because it was quite obvious when the drought started. The impact on croppers and stock owners is immediate. The impact on water resources is the next year and the next year, ongoing.

We talk to government on a reasonably good basis. We were lucky in this state. Up until Monday we had very good relationships—and we still have—with the WALABI but we had close relationships with Rob Freeman and, through the South Australian government, COAG in that process.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Do you think that the concerns that communities in the Lower Lakes and the Coorong region have about being consulted are unfounded?

Mr Martin —From everybody’s point of view, that is different. The reality is that, if it is about doing something to help them that is really tangible, of course people can say, ‘We haven’t been dealt with property or consulted well enough.’ The reality is that organisations like ours have been talking to government about it, and the implications of this, for two or three years.

Senator XENOPHON —You may want to take this on notice, but what is SAFF’s view in relation to the issue of exceptional circumstances, grants and exit packages and do you see a distinction between a broadacre farmer wanting to get out or to restructure and an irrigator? Does SAFF have a policy distinction between the two? Do you think that the grants could be restructured both in terms of exit and exceptional circumstances?

Mr Martin —I would like to answer that on notice, because it requires more detail.

Senator XENOPHON —Sure.

Mr Martin —The reality is that they are different but they are actually intertwined, because there is market demand—that was mentioned early, about going north—and all sorts of impacts on how the different areas relate to each other.

CHAIR —As Senator Xenophon said, if you could take that on notice and provide it to the committee, it could be very helpful.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The Gilbert River irrigation area, out from Cairns, was pegged out in 1957 and it is virtually undeveloped. There is plenty of space up there. I do not want to talk about entitlement. I want to talk about allocation and this year and this committee’s task right now. There is a guaranteed allocation to South Australia. The South Australian government has the capacity to invoke emergency powers. Do you think they should invoke those powers and reallocate South Australia’s allocation?

Mr Martin —To whom?

Senator HEFFERNAN —We are here about the lakes. Everyone is trying to pass the buck.

Mr Martin —I understand that and you need to look at the Adelaide usage, which is only small compared to the irrigation usage. We are the first people to say that, in looking at South Australia’s usage. It is also about the practical outcomes of what you can actually do with the lakes. But it is also not just a South Australian problem. I alluded before to the Great Artesian Basin. These are national issues to which there has to be some national approach. So it is a combination of all these things.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But do you think they should invoke the emergency power? They could do it tomorrow morning.

Mr Martin —If it is the right amount of water and there is some potential to help, possibly, yes. But the reality is that it is about a whole structured approach to it.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We have not had any allocation on the Lachlan River for four years, up where I come from, but you have got a guaranteed allocation and emergency powers.

Mr Martin —But that is also an issue for the state government about how it actually deals with that. That is not passing the buck. It is about how to look at the future usage of Adelaide and also—

Senator HEFFERNAN —You have made a wonderful presentation, I have to say. For an old hippie, you have done damn good!

Senator NASH —Mr Martin, I was very interested in your remarks before when you were talking about how you represented all types of farmers and how difficult it was to come to a view or a policy position on all of this. How on earth, given what I would imagine must be quite a disparity of views among your members, did you reach your policy position on this, if you like, and how disaffected were those people who might have a different view?

Mr Martin —Our key is that we have a policy about sustainable management. The reality is, if things are managed sustainably, it is in your long-term interest to have these outcomes. I hate too emotive terms, but if you basically rape and pillage and drain everything, it does not matter what you want to do, whether you are environmental or productivity, it is a bad outcome.

So we carefully go through with our membership, and it is challenging. I must say it is very challenging. It is about getting good policies that actually answer their questions, because most often people are asking the wrong questions. It is about what outcome they want. If they want a productive farm then they have to think about these other things.

Senator NASH —Again, not knowing South Australia, are there many of your members or farmers further north that are, to be blunt, annoyed with the fact that the focus is going on the Coorong and the lakes?

Mr Martin —I guess not. I actually chaired our resources committee for six years and you talk about dingo management, GAB water. You work from the top of the state down to the bottom. The reality is that everybody wants good outcomes for their production and they want good outcomes for their biodiversity. Somehow we are supposed to find answers and get good government. I have to say, if we look at our strategies for native veg management, for water management, it is the most peaceful and well managed South Australia has ever been.

Senator FISHER —Gentlemen, Senator Heffernan asked you about invoking some sort of emergency services legislation. I understand that Premier Rann has just told South Australian parliament that the South Australian government has decided that it will refer its powers to the federal government in respect of water. We have not had the opportunity to ask Professor Williams about that earlier on today, given the timing of the announcement, but if that is indeed accurate information, what would your views be about what might be achieved through that? What do you think of that? Is it going to change things and, if so, how?

Mr Martin —I actually got 30 seconds notice on that. This is really in their dealings with other states as well, because one of the things—we have been pushed very hard politically and pushed hard in our own relationships with other states—is that there has to be some reciprocal agreement and arrangement. You do not go into things in a naive way, but if the Premier has decided this is a good outcome, I guess we support it.

Senator FISHER —At the moment he is on his own.

Mr Martin —However, he is reasonably influential and we live in some hope that it will set some precedent, I guess.

Senator FISHER —He is President of the National Party after all.

CHAIR —Does that have anything to do with the line of questioning, Senator Fisher?

Senator HEFFERNAN —But it is, in a backhanded way, passing what could be the immediate buck, because the referral to the federal government, we were told this morning, could extend itself all the way into the High Court.

Yet there is the capacity as a state, if you have got the courage of your conviction, to do it tomorrow morning here. You do not have to go to the High Court.

Mr Martin —Yes. I acknowledge what you are saying. There are a range of options there and outcomes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The dingo strategy.

Senator FISHER —Indeed. If other states follow suit, it would make a lot of sense.

Mr Martin —That is right. And if they do not, we have sold ourselves short.

Senator FARRELL —I wanted to clarify your position on the compulsory acquisition of water. Do I understand that you are opposed to the compulsory acquisition of water?

Mr Martin —I would like to answer that on notice, because it really depends on the terms. I have a little difficulty with a broad compulsory acquisition.

Senator FARRELL —Sure. Take it on notice.

Senator SIEWERT —In response to what you have just said, could you say on what terms maybe you would consider it? I appreciate your answer, but could you maybe outline on what terms you would consider it as well.

Mr Martin —I am happy to give that in that answer.

Senator SIEWERT —Thank you.

Mr Martin —We get asked this question in other jurisdictions. With all our water management, people are losing water. You are not getting more water in any jurisdiction at the minute. It is all less. So it is all about these questions.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —This may also be related to those questions: does SAFF have an opinion on the length of time that water buybacks are taking and therefore the length of time that government is impacting the water market?

Mr Martin —We would like to see things speeded up. Everything that can be done to help that along absolutely has our support. There is some mention about it in our detailed water policy paper. There are copies for people.

Senator HUTCHINS —You will probably need to take this question on notice, Mr Martin, as well: what would be the federation’s view if the—tell me if you have answered this—Australian government or the South Australian government were to purchase water on the temporary market to send to the Lower Lakes? What do you think would be the likely reaction of irrigators in the Riverland? Would you like to take that on notice?

Mr Martin —Yes, I will take that on notice. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Martin. Thank you very much, Mr Long.

Proceedings suspended from 3.13 pm to 3.33 pm