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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19252

Ms LEY (4:54 PM) —The next time this parliament meets, the 29 August meeting of COAG—the Council of Australian Governments—will have taken place. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the critical importance of this meeting to my electorate of Farrer, given that water and environmental flows feature prominently on the meeting agenda. The water towns along the Murray River know only too well how the present water debate is shaping their future. Change is inevitable and well accepted by regional areas and industries that operate in a climate of constant variability. Farmers are used to change, whether it is in the value of the dollar, commodity prices, bank managers or yet another bureaucratic initiative producing yet another form waiting for your attention on the kitchen table at the end of a long day down in the paddock.

I have great faith in our Prime Minister as he takes his seat at the COAG table, and I greatly appreciate the work that the Deputy Prime Minister has done towards preparing this government's case for secure access rights to water and a robust water trading system that works for irrigators and other water users without fear or favour. I do not have the same faith in the state governments, and I have said many times that I see the agenda of the New South Wales government as working against the interests of agriculture and, in fact—in many cases—being quite antifarming. But I trust that on this issue there will be goodwill and positive outcomes will follow.

I bring to this place the heartfelt concerns of my constituents about what the new world might be like for them after the next round of changes to water access rules. Remember that they made significant although arguably necessary modifications following the introduction of the cap on extractions from the Murray-Darling Basin in 1995. But they feel that somehow in this whole debate the critical importance of the value of agricultural production from the Murray-Darling Basin has been either overlooked or relegated to second place. They feel that people who work the land are no longer considered to be farmers; instead, they are `natural resource managers'. The fact that they have to earn a living, send their kids to school and take their place in the local community does not seem to be as important as managing the natural resource—an activity that state governments often seem to want them to undertake at their own expense, with negative cash flows.

A series of meetings that recently took place in Moama, Barham and Tooleybuc in my electorate and in Mildura in the electorate of Mallee were a strong indicator of the concerns felt by irrigators. At these meetings various resolutions were passed, all of which reflected the high level of scepticism felt by these communities about both the debate to add environmental flows to the Murray and the need to now separate title to land from title to water. Interestingly, the Berrigan Shire made representations to me about the impact that this separation of land and water titles would have on their rate base, because as local government they can charge rates on land but not on water. So that is an example of something we may not have considered but that will have a significant effect on a small rural community. These meetings heard from those who have alternative scientific opinions about the health of the Murray and those who have made estimates of the social and economic impact on regional towns. I congratulate the Murray Darling Association and the Murray Valley Community Action Group for organising the meetings and for giving all those who spoke the opportunity to be heard. I congratulate the local government areas involved, including the Wakool and Murray shires.

One of the resolutions passed expressed lack of confidence in the conclusions of the Wentworth Group. I have to say that those who saw the full-page advertisement by the Wentworth Group in the Financial Review of Tuesday, 12 August, `Blueprint for a national water plan', could be forgiven for thinking that farmers had again been left out of the equation. Nowhere on this full page advertisement that I can see are the words `farming', `agriculture' or `rural community' mentioned once. Quite frankly, I would like to see our own agriculture department detach itself from the environmental debate somewhat and conduct some critical analysis of exactly what these proposals mean to agriculture and what threats they may pose to agriculture. There is talk from the Wentworth Group of the environmental needs of Australia's rivers—having guaranteed first priority call on water—and there is talk of 100 gigalitres each year being guaranteed to be returned to the Murray. I would like to have seen a clear statement about the value of agriculture to this economy and to rural communities and, therefore, the need for whatever measures we take to be built around protecting that.

Many of my constituents feel they are being sold down the river. They are not. The Living Murray process has brought the debate out into the open and demanded that governments come up with sensible public policy in this area. The community advisory committee has faithfully recorded the hopes and fears of those affected, and these will be a valuable resource after COAG's meeting, when state governments and regional communities will have to sit down together to work out the detail. Thanks to the efforts and the vigilance of these rural communities, I believe the message is getting through. Farmers are taking action to protect the future, such as direct drilling and minimum cultivation to protect our fragile soils. (Time expired)

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 5 p.m., the debate is interrupted.