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Wednesday, 24 August 1983
Page: 197


Mr O'NEIL(4.43) —I am delighted to speak in support of the River Murray Waters Bill 1983. This is the tenth version of this legislation which was first passed in 1915 to resolve conflicts which were developing even then among the various States and users of the Murray waters. If we take seriously some of the more stringent warnings that have been issued in recent years about the over exploitation and declining qualities of the river water we might see this as the eleventh hour in the struggle to preserve the Murray as a permanently viable waterway capable of sustaining the many and widely varied demands made upon it. It is a measure of the seriousness of the present situation in regard to water supply and quality, and the widespread public consciousness of this, that the new agreement to which this Bill refers is the result of the first major review of River Murray agreements since the River Murray Commission was first formed in 1917. This review was carried out with special reference to water quality and it was made at the insistence of South Australia with the co-operation of the Commonwealth.

South Australia has a special position in relation to the Murray and to any legislation regarding water quality because, as well as being the least populous and therefore generally the least influential of the three States, it is the driest and, consequently, the most dependent on the river as almost the sole source of water for both domestic use and industrial use in its major cities. South Australia is also, because of its geographical position, the most susceptible to progressive salination and chemical contamination of the river as the result of increasingly intensive irrigation and industralisation along the upper reaches of the Murray and its tributaries.

We therefore welcome the provision in this Bill for the appointment of a Commonwealth commissioner and deputy commissioner and the widening of the Commission's scope to give it some power over water quality even though from our viewpoint that power may be seen as somewhat too limited. It is interesting on this score that some publicity was given a few weeks ago to a four-day inspection tour down the Murray by a party of Opposition members who afterwards called for a stronger policy on water quality, including power over irrigation management on the tributaries as the only practicable counter to the salination threat.

I agree and I acknowledge this to be too vital an issue to become confused by political point-scoring. However it must be remembered that the Agreement to which the Bill seeks to give effect is a carry over from the previous Government and that is apparently the best compromise between the State and Commonwealth powers that could be arrived at after many years of bargaining with the States following the last adjustment to the Agreement by a Labor Government in 1974. I do not expect that this new Agreement is the end of the story, not by a long chalk. The Labor Party platform produced at its 1982 conference provides for increasing and broadening powers of the River Murray Commission.

This Government is also conscious of the glaring need for a lot more soundly based information on which to base controlling powers over river practices and I intend to say more about that later. On the score of water quality, and with the electorate of Grey in mind, I want to say now that I was very pleased indeed to learn from the Budget Speech of the Treasurer (Mr Keating) that the Federal Government will be restoring the Commonwealth water resources grant to a level that will make it possible to complete the Morgan-Whyalla filtration plant in 1986, as originally intended, instead of having to wait another year to have this urgently needed installation built with our hard-pressed State Government left to pick up the tab.

We appreciate that this temporary cutback in the Federal grant was a reaction to an inherited Budget deficit that was $3.6 billion more than had been indicated. We are grateful fo the reconsideration by the Federal Government of its $7.7m grant to South Australia to improve its much needed water quality through water filtration. The filtration will not only make life more pleasant in the northern towns served by the pipeline but also will greatly reduce, if not entirely eliminate, the risk of amoebic meningitis, the waterborne disease which has killed 12 people in the area, most of them children, since 1955. Filtration will certainly eliminate the need for very heavy chlorination-in itself not the healthiest of practices-which has been applied in recent years to counter the meningitis threat.

Appreciative though we are in South Australia that a purer end product is on the way we must not deceive ourselves into thinking that treating the symptoms will do anything about curing the degenerative disorders that are breaking down the general health of Australia's old man river. This is a time of crises for this mighty Murray-Darling watercourse which has, over the last 130 years or so, been first a major thoroughfare for trading paddle steamers and a source of irrigation for vineyards, orchards and farms and then has assumed the awesome responsibility of being almost the sole source of water for domestic and industrial use for cities and towns, both directly and by pipelines over hundreds of kilometres, in Australia's driest State.

The crisis applies both to quantity and quality of water. In the serious drought conditions of recent years we have had an alarming foretaste of what could be the shape of things to come if the present pattern of exploitation without adequate knowledge of the consequence is allowed to continue. We have seen the city of Adelaide faced with the stark reality of its own vulnerability when the river actually stopped flowing to the sea for a short while a couple of years ago. The Minister for Science and Technology (Mr Barry Jones), in his second reading speech on this Bill, said:

The Government will be maintaining a close interest in the implementation of the new Agreement and if there are indications that the Agreement needs to be strengthened we will approach the three States to determine how this might be done.

While we should support this Agreement as the best attainable in the circumstances, we should recognise that there are already clear indications that it needs some strengthening. For instance, the Commission's responsibility for water quality covers only the Murray. The best it can do in regard to tributaries is to make recommendations to the State or States concerned. It is perfectly obvious that there can be no effective control over water quality without equally effective power to restrict pollution going into the river, whether along the Murray banks or by way of the tributaries. Whether the pollution is in the form of salt draining into the watercourse from properties where irrigation has been raising the water table for generations, from industrial waste or sewerage discharged into the river, from pesticides, exotic plants or animal matter, it is equally obvious that no part of the river system, which is the fourth longest in the world, can be considered in isolation from the rest.

For instance the catchment area at the headwaters of the Darling in Queensland is larger than the State of Victoria and the type and manner of use of toxic chemicals sprayed in that area can conceivably have a bearing on the purity of the water we drink in South Australia. The irony of this example is that Queensland is not a party to the three-State agreement. However, there is one relatively bright spot on the horizon. The political climate in Australia has been undergoing some important changes since most of the hard groundwork went into formulating the terms of this Agreement. All the States that are party to it now have Labor governments and with a little luck the fourth State that should be a party to it will follow the wise example before very long.

If we are going to do something about breaking down the remaining barriers standing in the way of a truly comprehensive formula for management of the river system-barriers that are all traceable to State rivalries and private empire building-we probably have a better chance to do so than any Australian government since Federation. With the imponderables of politics being what they are we should be wasting no time in setting about the task. I have said that this issue is important enough to be above party politics. It is also too crucial for priorities to be confused by State partisanship. The States must retain their responsibilities but not at the expense of a national resource. This is where the conservative political philosophy is vulnerable to partisan pressure. It enforces a retreat at the first hint of any accusation of centralism. However, the national interest demands a national perspective. The Murray-Darling river system drains over one million square kilometres or one- seventh of the land surface of Australia, a country with an average rainfall of only 41.9 centimetres or 16.5 inches.

I know full well that the question of irrigation rights and quotas in New South Wales and Victoria is a highly emotive area where angels fear to tread. I do not want to rush in with any gratuitious suggestion that the Commonwealth should put on the jackboots it has been accused of wearing in Tasmania and set out to trample State rights into the soil, however saline that soil may be. If the threat to the Murray were a more direct and spectacular one, such as the prospect of a dam on the Franklin instead of a more distant but potentially just as disastrous fate in the wake of salination, siltration and general pollution, demands for swift and strong Federal action would be filling our mail boxes. So far most of the calls for stronger river management have concentrated on giving the controlling body more power to make tougher regulations and enforce them, usually in somebody else's State.

However there is another aspect which I think should have a greater priority. We must make certain that any extra powers given are based on absolutely sound and well researched information. The execution of power without adequate data can be not only counterproductive but also dangerous. I think it is relevant to any consideration of this agreement and to any future extention of it to realise that the River Murray Commission already faces a herculean task in coping with the responsibilities assigned to it without attempting to delve deeper into studies of the fundermental ecology of the river system. But the amassing of such a bank of information is vitally necessary, now more than ever. The case for setting up a parellel organisation to handle just such a specialised task was put very capably by my colleague the honourable member for Hawker (Mr Jacobi ) when in June 1981 he introduced a private member's Bill for establishment of an institute of freshwater studies. I am indebted to him for pointing out that certain Senate committees have reached similar conclusions. I think their comments will bear repetition. I commend the honourable member for Hawker for his speech today, which was very positive.

The Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution found, among other things, that there are large gaps in the documentation of our water resources and there is no pragmatic program of research into the causes and consequences of water pollution, or into its economics. The Committee also recommended urgent steps to establish a national water commission, but the idea foundered on the rock of the States' opposition. In 1978 the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources recommended not only a national approach to water resources, but also the establishment of an independent bureau of water resources to undertake all the Commonwealth non-policy, co-ordination, technical and information activities. That suggestion also finished up in a pigeon hole. The Government in its reply said:

This recommendation would signify a considerable broadening of the Commonwealth' s role in water resource matters, but the Government does not believe that such a step is justified at this time. This recommendation will be reviewed if warranted by changed circumstances at some later stage.

I think it might be said that the time for such a review has arrived. I quote from just one more report, one which came from the Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment in 1979:

Many people along the river are obviously frustrated by the apparent inability of any one department, Commonwealth or State, to take responsibility for providing responses to views and grievances.

I can bear witness to hundreds of such grievances over a decade or more-and the people did not even live along the river; they only had to drink the water from it. I understand that the honourable member for Hawker's private member's Bill for an institute of freshwater studies has not foundered but could still emerge to supply the answers to the problems of an overstressed Commission. When the necessary groundwork is completed, and if it is decided that this is indeed the answer, I think there will be fewer calls for the Commission to have more teeth, because the proposed institute would have the advantage of being staffed by such specialised people as biologists, hydrologists, chemists, microbiologists and medical researchers, with support from economists and engineers. It does often appear that the best antidote for destructive self-interest is a soundly argued case put by an authority whose facts are beyond question and who can prove conclusively that the selfish interests of the few are ultimately doomed to failure unless the interests of the great majority are well looked after. When that stage comes, if more teeth are still necessary, no doubt they can be supplied.

People in my electorate might have been spared family tragedy had such a capacity for research been available at the time. I refer to the parents of the children who died from amoebic meningitis. In 1972, 27 years after the first case of the disease in the area, the amoebic research unit of the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science in Adelaide isolated the pathogenic amoeba in water from the Morgan-Whyalla pipeline. Nine years later a 10-year-old Whyalla boy became the next victim. In the exceptionally hot summer of 1980-81 all the contributory data was put together, with the result that supplementary chlorination was extended to Whyalla. I mention this not as condemnation, in hindsight, of the valuable work of people from medical, health and water supply authorities, but as an example of the kind of unforeseen danger which has a better chance of being countered, or even averted, under conditions of constant specialised research and monitoring than it has when such attention is available only in response to an emergency situation. Who knows where, when and how the next emergency associated with this river system might emerge? I commend this Bill to the House.