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Wednesday, 24 August 1983
Page: 194

Mr FISHER(4.25) —I am very pleased to follow the honourable member for Hawker (Mr Jacobi) in this debate. I acknowledge the work that he has put in over the years in this Parliament to ensure that Bills such as the River Murray Waters Bill, fiddling at the edges as they may be, are introduced into this Parliament. This Bill represents the culmination of many years of work by members on both sides of the House, and I am pleased today to support it. This Bill gives effect to a new River Murray Waters Agreement between the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia for the control and management of certain water resources of the River Murray. As the second reading speech says, the new agreement charges the River Murray Commission with the responsibility for monitoring the quality of water in the river, in tributary inflows and in the Commission's storages. To this end, a monitoring network has already been well established. This agreement will also authorise the River Murray Commission to formulate water quality objectives or standards for key locations along the river.

It is against these objectives that the Commission will have to develop its water management strategies. State authorities will be required to inform the Commission of proposals under their consideration which could have a significant effect on water quality or quantity in the river and to provide the information necessary to enable the likely impact to be assessed. The agreed water quality objectives will be important benchmarks, and the Commission will then be able to make representations as necessary to the appropriate State authorities on such proposals. The water distribution provisions have been completely recast not only to ensure an equitable distribution of water between the States but also to allow each State maximum flexibility in meeting its own particular water demands . The provisions in the Bill will enable account to be taken of the quality of tributary inflows and drainage returns to the river from each State in assessing its respective share of the water resources under the Commonwealth's control. As the Bill also states, this procedure should provide a strong incentive to each State to improve the quality of flow in its tributaries and from outfalls to the river.

In keeping with modern water management principles, the new agreement now comprehends important river water management objectives for the Commission additional to its traditional role of supplying water for irrigation. Of course, it also includes flood mitigation, environmental protection and recreation uses. I point out that the Commission retains its autonomy under this new Agreement. I see this as essential if it is to continue as an effective custodian in the national interest of our most important water resource and to provide a stimulus , hopefully, for co-operative action by the States in the maintenance and, eventually, the improvement of water quality in the River Murray.

I believe that we should emphasise that the River Murray Commission has only, and still has only, the power of persuasion. I accept all of the comments of the honourable member for Hawker. Its representations will be based only on mutually agreed water quality objectives or standards, and on an ever-increasing body of knowledge of the river system and its problems. Subject to the new water quality provisions, the current water sharing principles and arrangements between the three States will continue. South Australia will be entitled to 1.85 million megalitres annually as measured at the South Australian border in accordance with specific monthly volumes. This includes the recent 23 per cent increase made possible by the completion of the Dartmouth Dam. Thank goodness we proceeded with that project when we did. The two upper States will share the balance of the water resources available to the Commission but with some flexibility to cope with year-to-year pressures in water demands.

While the River Murray Waters Agreement is, and will continue to remain, the main policy instrument for the Commonwealth's involvement with the three States in the management of the nation's most important water resource, considerable financial assistance has been provided to the three States for salinity control and drainage works in the Murray Valley which fall outside the area of the Commission's responsibilities. These have all been priority works recommended by the consulting engineers, Maunsell and Partners, in the plan of action that they proposed in their 1979 report on salinity and drainage problems in the Murray Valley.

There are already very real signs that these initiatives undertaken by the former Government are becoming very effective. Water quality recordings by the River Murray Commission during last season's severe drought indicated that salinity levels were lower than in previous comparable dry periods. This comparative improvement has been attributed to the initial operations of Dartmouth Dam, and the effectiveness of already completed salinity control works . High river flows resulting from heavy winter rains and snow melts are already having a very beneficial flushing effect on the river system and adequate water supplies of good quality should be available next season.

It has been recognised throughout the world where irrigation has induced salinity problems that techniques which reduce the application of water surplus to plant requirements are essential to the success of any long term strategy to bring salinity problems under control. Amendments made by my Government in May and December 1980 to the Income Tax Assessment Act now provide strong incentives to irrigators to improve their watering practices. The new provisions of this Act allow full deductibility of expenditures for income tax assessment purposes on water conservation and conveyance, salinity control and associated drainage works in the same year as they are incurred. These incentives are becoming very effective when used to complement the laser land levelling systems now under way in many of our irrigation areas. I ask the honourable member for Hawker, and the honourable member for Bendigo (Mr Brumby) in particular, to ensure that their Government does not remove these very beneficial taxation initiatives, as it has done with many other taxation initiatives in the mini-Budget and last night's Budget.

I am mindful of South Australia's specific problems with River Murray water quality, particularly during prolonged periods of minimum river flow conditions. To some extent, these problems originate outside the State. However, I remind South Australia that half of the salt load of the River Murray at its entry into the ocean is incurred within South Australia itself, and South Australia has many areas in which initiatives in relation to salinity reduction can be accomplished. In relation to drinking water, of course, South Australia has the additional problem of turbidity caused by the presence of suspended soil particles and organic material which reflect run-off conditions in vast catchment areas, including, as the honourable member for Hawker said, parts of Queensland.

I accept what the honourable member for Hawker has said, that we are just fiddling at the edges; but this is a very significant move forward just the same . We must accept that the States still have a pre-eminent role in all aspects of water resource. Commonwealth powers in this regard have been reserved under the Constitution in respect of meteorological observations, water resources in Commonwealth territories and international aspects of water resource matters. Other constitutional provisions have been interpreted to extend the Commonwealth 's role in water resource matters in situations concerning defence and interstate trade. It was the interstate trade argument which brought the Commonwealth into the River Murray Waters Agreement at a time when river transportation was an immediate important means of interstate trade. Nevertheless, and thankfully, the Commonwealth has become involved in water matters at the request of the States or in response to Commonwealth initiatives, but to this point only in co-operation with the States.

A national authority to manage Australia's inland waters has been suggested on many occasions. In fact, the Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution-the Davidson Committee of 1970-proposed a national water commission, but all governments opposed this on constitutional grounds. A national authority for the Murray-Darling system, if it is to work effectively, would require surrender by the three States of practically all matters in the Murray-Darling catchment which affect water quantity and quality, not only water regulation and allocation but also policy on irrigation development, land use for agriculture, forestry and industrial development.

I believe that, given the States' constitutional responsibility for water matters and their jealous and parochial defence of their rights, the River Murray Waters Agreement is possibly the only practical instrument of interstate co-operation in relation to the management of the Murray-Darling system at this time. To the extent that its functions to date have related to water quantity only, there have not been many serious interstate difficulties within the River Murray Commission, but with the expansion of its role into the more contentious area of water quality I believe that the utmost goodwill will be necessary if its new water quality responsibilities are to be carried out effectively. I charge the States, with their responsibility, to ensure that this goodwill is evident in present and future negotiations.

This Bill opens the whole area of water reticulation, dry land salinity, irrigation salinity and all matters relating to the conservation of our country' s most valuable resource, water. I remind the honourable member for Bendigo of promises made during the election campaign by both himself and his Government to retain the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline scheme, which was to be a significant part of our moves towards reducing salinity and the conservation of water. Of course, as we know, it has now been discarded by the Hawke Government. Last night we heard an announcement that $46m would be spent on water resources in 1983-84. We saw in the Budget Papers that that represented a 19 per cent increase. I remind the House that this is a 19 per cent increase only on the expenditure of last year and not a 19 per cent increase on the amount of money that was available for expenditure on water resource programs.

Mr Lloyd —It is about a 9 per cent increase on the Budget allocation of last year.

Mr FISHER —It is in fact an increase of only 9 per cent, as my colleague the honourable member for Murray said, which is well below the rate of inflation. I also remind the House and the honourable member for Bendigo that, in accepting this $46m, $70m which was available under the former Government's bicentennial program for additional expenditure has been discarded. I believe it is absolutely essential, in order to control further river salinity, to conserve River Murray water for other purposes and to improve water reticulation to our townships, that the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline scheme should commence immediately. The people served by the Wimmera-Mallee channel system have now built up very strong expectations in regard to the implementation of the pipeline scheme following announcements made by my Government prior to the last election. Country towns in the Wimmera-Mallee region experience water restrictions almost every summer. Such restrictions, together with extreme summer temperatures, have a detrimental effect on the quality of life in these towns. Repeatedly, because of a lack of water, people living in these areas are unable to maintain their recreation and sporting faciliies at standards that would normally be considered acceptable. The existing scheme in this region-a scheme that is probably one of the most significant water reticulation schemes developed in the early 1930s-is now over-committed; yet we are still able to tolerate the waste of some 92,000 megalitres of water annually by seepage and evaporation in the northern part of this scheme alone. Of the total amount of water released from the storages to the channels in the Wimmera-Mallee system only 26 per cent is delivered to farm dams and town storages. In other words, only 7 per cent of the total water released to the northern Mallee region is delivered. The 92,000 megalitres of water that would be saved if stage one of this Wimmera-Mallee pipeline were continued could be utilised to strengthen the system generally and also enable increased areas to be developed for irrigation.

The Victorian State Government and the 17 municipalities served by this system support the scheme to pipe the Wimmera-Mallee open channel system. There are two vital problems in the Wimmera-Mallee area that a pipeline scheme would almost certainly be responsible for alleviating. These complement the initiatives we are taking in this Bill. They are the alleviation of poor water quality and the alleviation of salinity problems. The implementation of a piped water supply in this area would be responsible for creating enormous employment opportunities both in the short term and in the long term and at the same time creating a project of national benefit. I therefore charge the honourable member for Bendigo and the honourable member for Hawker, people who I know are interested in the conservation of our water, to ensure that their Government adheres to the programs developed by the former Government, particularly those that have been developed to design stage and those that have been shown to provide enormous benefit to the total complement of Australia's water resources.

The honourable member for Hawker very briefly referred to the possibility of extending the River Murray Commission's charter. I can assure him that I will support any extension of that charter that can be negotiated between the States and can be shown to be successful. He referred to the programs that have been developed in certain areas of the United States, particularly the Delaware basin . I guess we could also refer to similar types of co-operative efforts that have been undertaken in the United States, in the Tennessee Valley and in the Colorado Valley. I acknowledge that these particular co-operative efforts have been relatively successful in recent years.

Mr Jacobi —Pretty limited, though, Peter.

Mr FISHER —They are limited. They operate under completely different constitutional arrangements. I am also aware that they are at present breaking down under the stress caused by a lack of co-operation in many areas.

This Bill is an important step forward but there are many areas that have to be taken account of if we are to progress further. I accept the need for future research programs. I believe that it is only by adequate research that we are able to understand the very real nature of the salinity problem and to bring forward measures that will not just be short term measures but measures that will provide long term and lasting benefit not just for the River Murray basin but for the conservation of water generally throughout this country. I support the Bill and I acknowledge the tremendous work that has been undertaken by the shadow Minister for the Environment, Mr Connolly, the honourable member for Bradfield. I also acknowledge the efforts of the members of parliament, both from the State parliaments and from the Federal Parliament, who have recently been involved in a full tour of the River Murray and have endeavoured to lay down recommendations to their respective parliamentary parties that will continue the sort of co-operation and bring forward the sort of changes and improvements in policy that this Bill implements.