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Address to the National Programme for Sustainable Irrigation research priorities workshop.

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7 February 2007

Address to the National Programme for Sustainable Irrigation Research Priorities workshop

Thank you Michael Robinson and Bobbie Brazil, Chairman of Land and Water Australia.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to spend a short while with you this morning before returning to Parliament.

I think the fact that I have been accorded ‘leave from the House’ this morning reflects the importance the Prime Minister himself places on water, and the crucial role the irrigation industry plays in the Australian community - in both rural and urban areas for the benefit of the entire economy.

Irrigation employs and supports 188,000 people in Australia and is the life-blood of many towns and communities across the country.

As both the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture and the local member for a large rural electorate with major irrigation interests, I can attest absolutely to its value.

I often reflect on the ripple-effects of agriculture on employment and the economy - and it is easy to see why irrigation areas are some of the most vibrant in the country.

For example, if we just consider the capital value of establishing a hectare of vineyards - say around $30,000 per hectare - and the benefits that passes on to suppliers, then irrigation isn’t just important for agriculture, it’s vital for regional development.

In aggregate, irrigation is one of the most valuable sectors in Australia. It contributed $9.1 billion in 2004-05 to the national economy.

Let’s be clear - this is around a quarter of the annual production of all agriculture in Australia ($35.6 billion in 2004-05) from only 1 per cent of agricultural land.

But what is the fact that more Australians have at the front of their mind?

That agriculture takes up more than 70% of water used in Australia.

It’s this view that sets one of the challenges we face today.

I prefer to take the view that the irrigation industry is the custodian of 70-80% of all developed freshwater resources in Australia - for producing the goods that cities need

and for the exports crucial to our economy.

Each of you here today know that the industry and the rural communities it supports have a high level of interest in ensuring these water resources are used sustainably.

The Prime Minister is now offering a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity for the irrigation industry to make clear to the Australian community that it has a responsible, professional and productive approach to the role of custodian.

And this is what the National Programme for Sustainable Irrigation is all about.

• The Prime Minister’s proposed $10 billion national water plan aims to significantly improve water management across the nation. • It will accelerate implementation of the National Water Initiative. • The goal is to achieve more efficient, productive and profitable use of water,

while maintaining the value of irrigated production in the face of declining water availability. • The implications for irrigators under the proposed Plan are overwhelmingly positive. • The Plan will help deal with predicted reductions in rainfall and run-off into

storages over the coming decades by providing them with incentives to adopt more modern and efficient practices. • A cornerstone of the plan is a commitment of almost $6 billion over 10 years to modernise irrigation infrastructure both on- and off- farm to save water and

increase water use efficiency. • The outcomes of the (National Programme for Sustainable Irrigation) NPSI has so far made an important contribution to the knowledge base to make this possible.

And now you have an opportunity to influence 10 billion dollars of Australian Government investment on irrigation over the next decade.

The Plan aims to help to increase yields and profitability by stimulating the adoption of technology to better match water application to plant needs. Added benefits of this transformation will be significant savings in labour costs and time through remote or automated control of previously manual tasks.

These interventions will sustain the viability or rural communities and the health of rivers and groundwater resources, particularly in the (Murray Darling Basin) MDB.

If you influence the Plan just a little - then the returns to the country will be substantial.

If you can influence it a lot - then the returns could be immense.

Let me stress - the National Plan is not just about ‘saving water’, nor is it particularly focussed on the environment.

It is about using water well and productively.

That is why it is so pleasing to see collaboration continuing among so many players in the NPSI.

I understand that the 13 partners, including the Australian Government, have made in

principle commitments to Phase 2 of NPSI.

It signals the importance that commodities, water companies and governments place on the programme.

I have spoken in the past about national-level, cross-sectoral collaboration among the RDCs and other research funders, and about the need to be accountable to your stakeholders — government and industry.

Under the NPSI, the value in developing knowledge, techniques and tools across agriculture - then adapting and implementing them in each sector - is acknowledged.

NPSI is recognised for its practical work in water use efficiency, root zone research (including salinity impacts) and drainage - all of which are fundamental elements of productive and efficient water use.

A criticism levelled at the RDC model is that it focuses too much on specific industries and lacks the imperative for co-investment collaboration on cross-sectoral issues.

Instead, it relies on people like you to recognise the advantages of working together on cross-sectoral issues.

Better coordination of some of the research you are undertaking into natural resource management is a fairly obvious example.

It is something I know you can do.

I refer to the Natural Resource Management R&D report you presented to me earlier this year.

It was, as you’ll recall, your first attempt to analyse and report on your collective efforts in this nationally strategic area.

In 2004-05, the report said you collectively spent $78.5 million on natural resource management research.

However, expenditure on co-investment research programmes amounted to only $9.5 million — or just 12% of your collective national resources management (NRM) budget.

Another way of looking at it is to say that this collaborative expenditure represents less than 2% of RDC expenditure on all programmes.

I believe there is plenty of scope for more collaboration.

Your Managing Climate Variability Programme is a perfect example of RDCs co-investing and working together on common issues.

The programme has involved seven RDCs pooling their resources to better understand climate variability and develop applications to minimise its impact.

It’s an important programme because all farmers face climate risks.

And, what’s more, it ties in directly with one of the Corish Report’s recommendations — to develop tools to help farmers manage climate variability and change.

You said it yourself in the report you gave me in March.

That collaborative investment is “easy for the investors to justify to their stakeholders. It addresses a priority concern, shares what can be a risky investment, and is an efficient means to establish a critical mass of research; sufficient to attract the rare expertise required for the work”.

The Managing Climate Variability Programme uses a management model to overcome many of the obstacles to collaboration.

It also gives individual RDCs the opportunity to influence the project.

Finally, you may be aware that a recent external evaluation of the return on investment of LWA investments, showed that during the last 10 years substantial gains in water use efficiency have been delivered, generating a return of 6 to 1.

Over the next 25 years there is an expected return of $86 million from an investment of $15 million.

This research investment combined with the proposed $10 billion national water plan, means that the returns to industry could be immense - provided the RDCs and other research funders collaborate.

Finally, I wish you well in your discussions today about the irrigation R&D priorities for NPSI Phase 2.

And I encourage those partners not yet committed to seriously consider the costs to their stakeholders of not being involved in irrigation R&D.

Thank you.

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