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Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Page: 6801

Senator FEENEY (6:58 PM) —Tonight I want to talk about one of the greatest issues facing our nation—the ongoing drought and the resulting critical water shortage in some parts of Australia. In particular, I want to talk about the dire situation of our greatest river system, the Murray-Darling Basin.

It may seem unusual that as a senator from Melbourne I would want to speak on an issue which is mostly affecting people in regional areas and mostly affecting the environment outside of metropolitan Melbourne. But I am speaking on this issue because it affects the vital interests of my state. The Murray River forms the northern border of Victoria, and the communities of northern Victoria depend very heavily on the Murray River and its tributaries for drinking water and for the irrigation water that supports the agricultural industries of that area. These communities and industries are vital for the Victorian economy, and their future is a matter of concern for all Victorians.

Under the very able leadership of the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong, the Rudd government is now moving to tackle the issue of climate change, after years of neglect by the Howard government. But of course the states also have a vital role to play in meeting the challenge of prolonged drought. New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia all share a degree of responsibility for the future health of the Murray-Darling Basin.

I was born in Adelaide, I went to school in Adelaide and I have a great affection for South Australia. As I think senators know, I recently had the privilege of serving as campaign director for the Premier of South Australia, my good friend Mike Rann. Hence no-one can accuse me of having an anti-South-Australian agenda. But it is a fact that some South Australians, including Senator Xenophon in this place, have quite unfairly criticised Victoria’s record in reforming its water use policies. They have accused Victoria of not pulling its weight in the battle to save the Murray-Darling Basin. Indeed, they have accused Victoria of putting South Australia at a disadvantage in relation to water. These allegations have no basis in fact. Victoria, under the leadership of Steve Bracks and John Brumby, has been a leader in trying to solve the problems besetting the Murray.

It is true that South Australia, as the state at the end of the Murray-Darling river system, has big problems with its water supply and environment. At the moment we have a crisis in trying to save the Lower Lakes of South Australia. Their water levels are at record lows. But it is quite wrong to blame these problems on Victoria. Australia’s water problems, let us remember, are ultimately caused by the drought, although they have been exacerbated by the inaction of the Howard government, which refused to accept climate change as a reality. There is a lot that governments should be doing to respond to this crisis, and the Victorian government has been doing its part in the nation’s response.

For a start, governments should be reducing urban water consumption. Here Victoria has done an outstanding job. Melbourne now has the lowest annual per capita water consumption rate of any of the state capitals. Adelaide has the second highest, after Brisbane. Since 2001, Melbourne has cut its per capita annual water consumption from 134.7 gigalitres to 110.3 gigalitres, or 81.9 per cent of the 2001 figure. In the same period, Adelaide has cut its per capita annual water consumption from 163.7 gigalitres to 145.6 gigalitres, or 88.9 per cent of the 2001 figure. These figures mean that not only does Melbourne use less water per capita than Adelaide but it is reducing its consumption more quickly than Adelaide.

Secondly, governments can modernise their irrigation systems, because irrigated farming is much the biggest user of water from the Murray. Victoria uses 2,100 gigalitres of water every year for irrigation. Indeed, irrigated agriculture accounts for 65 per cent of water use in Australia. Victoria has begun a $2 billion program, the Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project, NVIRP, formerly known as the Food Bowl Modernisation Project, to modernise and upgrade Victoria’s irrigation infrastructure, most of which is a century old. The project will save 425 gigalitres of water per year.

This project is in addition to Victoria’s plans to spend $3.1 billion building a desalination plant. That is a very significant investment, but the plant will pay for itself by supplying up to 150 gigalitres of water per year to Melbourne, Geelong and, via other connections, South Gippsland and the Western Port towns. It will provide a third of Melbourne’s annual water supply from a source that is independent of rainfall.

I should also mention the Victorian government’s $700 million Wimmera-Mallee pipeline project, which involves the construction of some 9,000 kilometres of covered pipeline to replace the existing, highly inefficient open channels. This project will supply stock and domestic water to approximately 6,000 rural customers and 36 towns across a region that covers 10 per cent of the total land area of Victoria, from the Grampians to the Murray.

The Liberal-National opposition in Victoria has accused John Brumby of planning to take water out of the Murray system and send it to Melbourne via the Sugarloaf Pipeline, the so-called ‘north-south pipeline’. This is a serious misrepresentation. The pipeline will use only water saved through the NVIRP, and only one-third of it. The remaining two-thirds will be returned to the irrigators or to the river system. The federal Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, has approved the pipeline only on the condition that it takes no water directly from the Murray.

The NVIRP, the desal plant and the Sugarloaf Pipeline together will achieve three vital objectives. They will secure Melbourne’s water supplies, they will secure the future of Victoria’s irrigated farming industry and they will return 140 gigalitres of water per year to the Murray system.

Senator Xenophon should indeed be very careful in setting about creating an alliance with the Liberal and National parties in Victoria to attack the Brumby government because, if the Liberals and Nationals were in power in Victoria, even less water would be reaching South Australia. The parochial politicians of the Victorian opposition have opposed all the government’s modernisation projects, just as they have opposed all the transformational projects of the Victorian government since 1999.

Saving the lower Murray requires leadership at the national level, which is why the Rudd government is spending $9 billion over the next decade on irrigation modernisation projects. But it also requires policy leadership in the states. To save the Lower Lakes, between 1,000 and 1,200 gigalitres of water is needed right now, and there simply is not that much water currently in the system. I note that 30 per cent of all the water taken out of the Murray-Darling system, some 2,300 gigalitres per year, is taken by New South Wales to grow rice and cotton in the Riverina. That water alone would be more than enough to save the Lower Lakes. In normal times New South Wales takes 4,500 gigalitres out of the system every year—more than twice as much as Victoria.

Of course, water saved in South Australia is more valuable than water saved in Victoria or New South Wales because less of it is lost through evaporation and more of it reaches the lower Murray. Bringing water from the northern part of the system is not feasible because 70 to 80 per cent of that water is lost through evaporation. If South Australia were to make the same commitment that Victoria has made to saving water from both irrigation and urban consumption, that water would flow directly into the Lower Lakes. But I must acknowledge that South Australia is working very hard to make an important contribution in these areas. In July, Premier Mike Rann announced a $100 million project to modernise South Australia’s irrigation systems.

Senator Wong has quite rightly said that there are no easy solutions to Australia’s water problems. We are paying the price not only for the world’s failure to prevent climate change but also for many decades of overuse of the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin by past governments. Dealing with this crisis requires action by state and federal governments, which must work together intelligently and cooperatively. The federal government knows that, and the Victorian and South Australian state governments also know that. Only a handful of sceptics and obstructionists in the coalition parties seem not to know it and to continue to peddle falsifications and misrepresentations of what is transpiring in the system. It is silly for senators to play cheap, parochial politics on this issue, pitting one state against another, when what is needed is effective cooperation between all the states and the federal government. That is what the Rudd government is doing and that is what the Brumby government in Victoria is doing.