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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 Ms Helen Griffiths. Do you have any comment to make on the capacity in which you appear today?

Ms Griffiths —Yes. I am representing a river community in the lower river. I am a member of the progress association and I am here to represent that community.

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

Ms Griffiths —Yes. I have come here today not to address the past. I think that the past speaks for itself. We know that there are problems, we know that the system is not working, and we know largely what has caused the problems. So I would like to speak for the present and for the future. If it is at all possible for water to be found, in whatever quantity it can be found, to put some water in the Lower Lakes and the Coorong, I would beg for that to happen to prevent any further damage.

Then to the future: six governments in this river basin seemingly cannot manage it. There is constant concern, constant anxiety, about the future for this river basin. It really needs to be managed by a single authority. It is probably the most important thing that can be said about the future of this river basin. I would agree with Mr Jones that in future there must be an allocation of water for the environment. Without an allocation of water for the environment, we do not have a healthy river and we will not ever have healthy communities.

The authority which is needed to manage this system must be truly independent. It not only must be independent; it must have the power to enforce the decisions it makes. It cannot be overridden by states, by the ministerial council. It must only be answerable to one minister and we would expect that that minister could not override its decisions without taking it to parliament. We cannot go on. We know how this system has deteriorated. We know why. In the future we really have to get it right, and we have to get it right fairly soon.

There is a constant anxiety, there is a social cost, there is an economic cost, there is an environmental cost for what has been allowed to happen, but there is another cost which is equally important and that is the cost in terms of the political system, our system of government. The resentment on this river system for what has been allowed to happen is absolutely palpable; the anxiety, the anger, the resentment. This does not serve our political system well and it has to be addressed. It is one of the most important issues. The future management has to be based on science, not on pandering to political groups—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Hear, hear!

Ms Griffiths —and sectional interests. That is probably the most important thing I can say and that is essentially what I wanted to say. Thank you.

Senator HEFFERNAN —God bless you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Ms Griffiths.

Senator FARRELL —Whereabouts do you live?

Ms Griffiths —Mannum.

Senator FARRELL —We have heard lots of evidence in the last few days about how bad the situation is, not just in the Lower Lakes but right along the entire Murray-Darling Basin. Can you tell us whether you think there is an appreciation by the people in your community of the problems further upstream?

Ms Griffiths —Generally, yes, there is. We know that we cannot think and act in an isolated way. It is distressing for people to see the damage that has happened at the Lower Lakes and the Coorong but we know that the system has a problem as a whole. We know that. We are not demanding, ‘Just fix our bit.’ It has to be a better system overall.

Senator FARRELL —Do you have any solutions for either the short term or the longer term in trying to solve some of the problems of the Lower Lakes?

Ms Griffiths —I do not presume to have the solutions. I think we probably pay enough experts to come up with the solutions. It would appear obvious to me that while there is a scarcity of water it has to be prioritised and allocated quite tightly down the line. It has to be managed completely differently.

Senator FARRELL —In terms of providing water to the lakes versus water to the irrigators in the Riverland, how would you make that decision about who got the water and who did not?

Ms Griffiths —I would ask for water for the lakes if it could possibly be sourced. I am not saying that irrigators should not have the water. Permanent plantings need water.

Senator FARRELL —If you had to make some decisions, how would you make those decisions?

Ms Griffiths —Since I am not in a position to, it is probably not realistic for me to say that you should do this or that.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The first thing you want to be is fully informed.

Ms Griffiths —That is right, and I am not and I do not pretend to be. I am just really aware of the problems and the need to address them, particularly into the future.

Senator FARRELL —But you have come along to give us some evidence and we have to make the decision about what we will do. I guess I am saying to you: how would you make the decision?

Ms Griffiths —I would leave it to experts to make.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I think it is an unfair question. This lady has come along to give evidence.

CHAIR —I do not think it is unfair, Senator Heffernan. It is not a snooker question, Ms Griffiths. We are interested in hearing from everyone.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We do not want to ambush anyone.

CHAIR —Where Senator Farrell was trying to go is: we know there are problems throughout the whole basin.

Ms Griffiths —Yes.

CHAIR —What we are trying to establish is: where does the water come from? The sad part is that it is just not there, so you are not being set up for a fall.

Ms Griffiths —No, I would not expect to be.

CHAIR —We really are looking. Your community may have some suggestions that we have not heard. That is where Senator Farrell was coming from.

Ms Griffiths —Our community just wants water but they are realistic about it. If it is not there, they know they cannot have it. But we do want experts. We would like science based decisions made rather than political decisions.

CHAIR —So would we, Ms Griffiths. The trouble we are struggling with—sorry, Senator Farrell—is that the experts have completely conflicting differences of opinion as well. Carry on, Senator Farrell.

Senator FARRELL —That is the end of the questions I have, thank you.

CHAIR —Are there any other questions of Ms Griffiths?

Senator XENOPHON —In relation to your local community in Mannum, what actual effects have there been in the river? What has the progress association observed in terms of the impact on that part of the river, with what has been happening in the last few years.

Ms Griffiths —A drop in water level.

Senator XENOPHON —By how much?

Ms Griffiths —At the moment, one metre. The vast difference in the birdlife: it has largely gone but we also know that, if we give some water back, it will come back. We know that they have gone somewhere else. The birds are not breeding. In terms of business, businesses are saying that they are affected by between 20 per cent and 50 per cent.

Senator XENOPHON —What sorts of businesses?

Ms Griffiths —Both water based and town based businesses.

Senator XENOPHON —Such as, what, riverboats?

Ms Griffiths —Yes, houseboats, riverboats, marinas, slips. That is river stuff. They are all affected quite badly, some of them more than others. The town itself is like other towns. There is less money in the town; there is less money spent. But it is not just that. There is the general perception in the media that there is no water, so then people do not come to the river. The effects are quite severe. We do realise that much of that is drought related, but it is also about media perceptions and how it is portrayed. It is maybe worse than it needed to have been. But we know now that the drought has been going on so long that a lot of this effect is drought.

Senator HUTCHINS —You are mentioning how, if something does not happen, it is going to affect your community. But if part of the proposal from some is to release water further up, that is going to affect those communities further up, who also have employees and businesses and lifestyles they would like to maintain. In one way or another your answer is to affect them for what might be a temporary reprieve for the lakes.

Ms Griffiths —No. I am not here to represent any sectional interest.

Senator HUTCHINS —I am not saying you are.

Ms Griffiths —And I am not here to say that we need water any more than anyone else.

Senator HUTCHINS —But essentially you are a sectional interest.

Ms Griffiths —Not at all. I am merely here to express the concerns of community not for themselves but for the river.

Senator HUTCHINS —Or for the lakes.

Ms Griffiths —That is essentially what I have come here for.

Senator HUTCHINS —Or the lakes.

Ms Griffiths —And the lakes; the system.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do you think generally the community is aware of where the future may take us in terms of declining rainfall?

Ms Griffiths —No, I do not think they are.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am sure you are right. Do you think there ought to be some sort of greater public awareness program of the science of the planet and what it all means to the community, so that you can have a plan, so that you are not going to be jumping off a cliff in 10 years time—as it were; not physically? If they were publicly educated, would they understand that if the science is right, we may have to reconfigure and absolutely resettle the way we have settled rural and regional Australia?

Ms Griffiths —Some people would understand that. An information campaign would certainly help. Many people do not understand the enormity of the problem, and they do think locally—not everybody, but many people think locally rather than—

CHAIR —Just on that, may I just add this: Ms Griffiths, have you heard of—I might need some help here!—the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Consultative Committee Advisory Council? Have you heard of them?

Ms Griffiths —Yes.

CHAIR —Have they been up to Mannum?

Ms Griffiths —Not that I am aware of. They may have been.

CHAIR —This came out loud and clear yesterday: that once communities are informed of how serious the problem is throughout the whole basin, they get behind the team.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The difficulty is that there is fresh water on the planet permanently tied up in snow and ice and everyone is a sceptic. I do not care what is causing it, but that is actually melting and going into the sea. The ice packs are melting, which was a permanent reservoir of fresh water. It occurs to me that the average person probably thinks, ‘It snowed in the Snowy Mountains and there will be water.’ Last year it did, but it evaporated, and it might happen again this year; more than likely. So we need that sort of education for people to prepare for the future. There is bustlingly good opportunity in northern Australia. Part of the light at the end of the tunnel surely has to be to come to reality with what is going to happen here in the future and have a plan.

Ms Griffiths —Quite possibly, but are you suggesting that you take water from the northern part of Australia or that we allow the water to move north?

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, you have got to take the well to the water. Kinhill did a study for the South Australian government four or five years ago on that exact thing and they determined in that study that it would cost 2½ times the price of desal to bring water down, which means if you were using it for farming you would most definitely have to be growing marijuana to make it pay.

Ms Griffiths —Yes. My immediate reaction is that if you do that then you are damaging a system that you are taking it from, probably. That was my immediate sense.

Senator NASH —Thanks, Ms Griffiths, for coming along today. It is really important for this committee to get that direct feedback from people that are affected in the community. We end up hearing from a lot of experts and a lot of people’s opinions about scientific evidence, but it is great to hear from somebody who is living through it. Not being from South Australia, how big is your town? Can you give me a sense of that?

Ms Griffiths —A population of a little over 2,000 but with quite a large feeder area around.

Senator NASH —A large catchment area. In regional Australia for a long time now, because of the drought and a number of things, the issue of depression out in the regions has been something that has been a very high priority. I suppose I am asking a horribly obvious question, but how is the state of mind in your town faring at the moment, collectively, if you like, as a result of the drought and potentially where we are going?

Ms Griffiths —‘Anxious’ is probably the best word. Some people who are more directly affected, obviously, have greater concerns.

Senator NASH —What do you think the general feeling would be if—and I stress ‘if’; it is just a hypothetical—it turns out that there is not actually enough water in the system to bring down for the lakes and the Coorong and another option has to be found? What do you think the response to that would be?

Ms Griffiths —I think people are rational and intelligent and if it is put to them and shown that it cannot be done, rationally—‘This is where the water is. This is how much there is. This is how we are going to prioritise it’—people will accept it. But they need to be informed.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Thank you, Ms Griffiths, for coming along today. I want to reiterate what Senator Nash has said: it is really important that we hear from people directly affected in the communities. In fact, if politicians had listened to the communities a bit more and a bit earlier on, perhaps we would not have been facing the crisis we are currently. Can you tell us a little bit about your organisation? Is it the Mannum Progress Association?

Ms Griffiths —Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —And perhaps the types of things that you have done in the community and if you have worked with other similar associations along the other stretches of the river. If we can get past this idea of robbing Peter to pay Paul, if we have got communities talking and informing each other and sharing their stories, it is going to make it much easier, when the minister makes a decision about what we can do for them, to actually feel like they have been heard collectively and all know that they are on the same page. Are those the types of things that you are involved in currently?

Ms Griffiths —No. We normally run Christmas pageants, fairs, markets et cetera. There is obviously a general concern for the community, but this overrides normal concerns that you have got. Hence the progress association have been absolutely behind me in speaking up for what is happening.

Senator FISHER —Coming well out of your comfort zone. Hear, hear!

Ms Griffiths —We are rather.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Has there been any opportunity to talk with other communities further upstream?

Ms Griffiths —We have discussed it with some others, yes. They all have the same concerns.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Is this something that you think government departments could help to facilitate, whether local, state or federal?

Ms Griffiths —Probably.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —I guess I am coming back to this point: you are saying people should have the information and be able to understand the complexity of what is going on across the entire basin, and there are going to have to be some hard decisions made. We know that. There is no simple solution. But the point is we need to be taking action now because otherwise it is going to be too late. We have heard earlier today that, if we do not secure the fresh water that we need by Christmas, we may as well say goodbye to the lakes and, further down the track, goodbye to the Coorong. In order to be able to make a decision, and for the communities to hear that, we need to ensure that everyone is on the same page. How do you think that can be facilitated better?

Ms Griffiths —How do you communicate ideas? Generally you use the media. The media do not always represent things as you might say them or as we might say them. How you deal with the media to get them to represent what you are trying to tell people, I do not know.

Senator HEFFERNAN —One other thing to ponder is not only public information and public education, but there is no process to deal with this.

Ms Griffiths —No.

Senator HEFFERNAN —There is absolutely no process. No-one knows what the process would be—how you would redefine all this and fix it—that was not a lawyer’s feast in litigation. It is a bloody nightmare.

Ms Griffiths —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We have heard all this stuff today and we have not even started to talk about what is the process.

Ms Griffiths —No. But I will stress that people will accept if they understand.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, you are right. Public education. They have got to get it and then have ownership of it.

Ms Griffiths —You have to let people know what you are thinking, let them know exactly the results of this inquiry, what the recommendations are, and explain them. Let people know. If people understand the system then they will accept the problems.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You would agree that psychologically—it does it for me anyway—every time you hear the last post, it does something. You think, ‘Hell.’ It is sort of a last post time, isn’t it?

Ms Griffiths —I hope not.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, but in terms of focusing people on the national interest and some personal sacrifices, it is time.

Senator FISHER —It should not be so.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I know, but it is.

Senator FISHER —Ms Griffiths, you have said, ‘If people know then they will understand.’ You are right. This is far too important for politics, but we have politicians in charge and they need to hear your views. Do you think that your people understand what our politicians mean when they talk about critical human needs and does your community have critical human needs?

Ms Griffiths —Yes, of course we do. We do. Critical human needs. What are they? Enough water to run your household on without wasting it, for people to survive.

Senator FISHER —Maybe.

Ms Griffiths —If necessary, tighter and tighter. Give people so many litres. I do not know. But, yes, we can all survive probably on less than we do now.

Senator FISHER —Your organisation might do worse than considering, at the very least, writing a letter to the federal minister asking to be consulted.

Ms Griffiths —Thank you.

Senator FISHER —It is an option you might consider; at least saying you would like to have your views heard and perhaps expressing your view that, if the people that you represent were to understand what is being talked about, then you might accept it. But we hear you saying that if it is not explained to you then it is going to be very difficult to accept.

Ms Griffiths —It is very difficult to accept and there is definitely resentment at the political process. It comes out in times of difficulty. People expect our representatives to act in our interest and we do not believe that that has always been the case. This river system would not be in the state that it is in—overallocated and mismanaged—if the interests of the people had been taken into account by the people making the decisions, who were put there to act in our interest.

CHAIR —That is right, Ms Griffiths. It is not just in the last couple of months.

Ms Griffiths —No.

CHAIR —It has been going on for years and years and years.

Ms Griffiths —It has been going on for years.

Senator HUTCHINS —That is when Senator Sterle mentioned that the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council had held two public meetings, one in Moama and one in Murray Bridge. I do not know how long the council has been operating but, according to my notes from yesterday, I think it came out from some of the meetings that, ‘Water should not be diverted from the river to urban centres such as Melbourne and Adelaide and should only be available to the river communities.’ I think that was one of the sentiments expressed at these meetings. What would be your view on that?

Ms Griffiths —That it is unrealistic.

Senator HUTCHINS —My notes said that. So you think that is unrealistic?

Ms Griffiths —Yes. There would be a huge process, wouldn’t there, to take Adelaide off the river before you could even consider—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —It is not an immediate solution to the crisis we are facing today.

Ms Griffiths —Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —To be honest, I do not think anyone was suggesting that was the solution to the crisis.

Senator HUTCHINS —No.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —But it was something in the longer term.

Senator HUTCHINS —It was mentioned in these meetings, I think. It was mentioned that they were some of the views that came out in the public meeting.

Ms Griffiths —If they could be taken off the river, that would be great, but it is not going to happen shortly, is it?

Senator HUTCHINS —No.

Senator SIEWERT —Ms Griffiths, I want to go back to that comment that you just made about decisions being made that were not in the interests of the people. The state we are in now has developed, basically, over the last 100 years. I suppose I have been working on the hypothesis that what has been happening is that politicians have been making decisions that they think are in the interests of the people and ignoring the interests of the environment and the river; in other words, they have been overallocating because they think that farmers—and I am not just pitching this at farmers—want more water. I am not arguing that they were wrong, by any stretch of the imagination, but I do not think that it is as simple as ‘not in the interests of the people’. I think that they think that they have been acting in the interests of the people, without actually cutting the environment in. Have you thought of that angle?

Ms Griffiths —Yes. The environment has not been given the priority it should. If we want healthy communities, we have got to have a healthy river. That is commonsense. The sense is that politicians do pander to lobby groups and sectional interests, sometimes to the exclusion of the greater community, to the detriment of the greater community.

Senator SIEWERT —Which is a refinement of what you said before, and you are right. Which groups would you say have been pandered to?

CHAIR —Don’t hold back, Ms Griffiths! Feel free. Senator Siewert has given you the opening.

Ms Griffiths —No, I cannot say. The perception is that irrigation groups, whatever, they are all entitled to water, but that maybe some allocations have been too much for the area the water is being taken from.

Senator HEFFERNAN —There is no doubt about that.

Ms Griffiths —How does that come about? Maybe it comes about because of pressure.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Lack of knowledge.

Ms Griffiths —Economics. There is more water taken out of the Goulburn, for example, than it is healthy for the Goulburn to have taken out of it. There is more water taken out of the upper Darling than it is healthy for the Darling River to have taken out of it. They are the things that people see. Those decisions are made by politicians to allocate those licences. If that is taking too much out, then it is to the detriment of the greater community.

Senator HEFFERNAN —In my day the bloke used to be like Father Christmas. One bloke went up the Lachlan River and said, ‘How much do you want?’ It was $35 or 35 quid or whatever it was. We allocated a whole lot of licences which went to sleep and went to bed—everything from dozers to sleepers—and everyone thought the job was right. The decision that really brought us all unstuck was waking up the sleepers and dozers, and in some areas it was either ‘use it or lose it’. Across the basin we said, ‘No, you can wake them up.’ That completely jigged the whole—

Ms Griffiths —That is right.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Human failure, you call it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Ms Griffiths, I want to go back to something you said in your opening statement. You said that the river needs to be managed by a single authority. From someone who has been organising fetes and Christmas pageants, how have you come to that decision?

Ms Griffiths —I do not know. I suppose I have been watching and reading about politics for too many years or something.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —It just seems plain as day to you?

Ms Griffiths —Yes. It just seems plain as day.

Senator HEFFERNAN —In public life, the more you know the worse you feel about it.

Ms Griffiths —Hope springs eternal.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —That is a good ending note.

CHAIR —Ms Griffiths, on behalf of the committee, thank you very much for your frankness and openness. It is a breath of fresh air to hear someone with a very balanced view and who has the concerns of their community at heart.

Ms Griffiths —Thank you.

CHAIR —I would like to thank all witnesses today and those who have put their submissions in. A special thanks to our Hansard staff and our secretariat. The committee now stands adjourned.

Committee adjourned at 5 pm