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Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Page: 6403

Mr GARRETT (Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) (10:17 AM) —I thank the honourable member for his questions and I acknowledge that he has a deep interest in, and knowledge of, these issues. On the question of the identified need for a basin plan: by virtue of the reforms that we have undertaken up to now, we are committed to that plan, to all of those elements that have been identified and to those elements that have been considered up to now by the commission. I refer to one particular aspect of the honourable member’s question—the Windsor Liverpool Plains study. I think the member will be aware that the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong, has agreed with New South Wales to pay one-third of the cost of a study to look at the impacts of mining on groundwater. I know the point has previously been made in the House to the member that it is primarily a state land use planning matter. In respect of my own responsibilities, I am not aware that there are any matters of national environmental significance that attach to it, but I think it is a sign of a commitment to ensure that we do have better knowledge about groundwater impacts occurring as a consequence of those activities that you have raised in the past.

Can I make the additional point that it is on the back of a lack of action or significant political will to address this issue, prior to Labor coming to office, that we now have a significant plan in place. We now have a substantial plan in place. We have the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority and it is developing a basin plan and sustainable caps on water use. You may have noticed, today, the appointment of the reference panels by Minister Wong on water use purchasing programs. They are reference panels which are representative of the interested communities and of the stakeholders. This is consistent with the government’s position of wanting to make sure that everybody who has a significant, legitimate and real interest in the way this reform process runs its way through the basin has an opportunity to participate.

I will address a couple of additional commitments while I am on my feet. The government committed $3.9 billion towards water efficiency programs, investments and the like. That has included a number of specific commitments: the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline, commitments to invest in improved water efficiencies in the Menindee Lakes and some $300 million in improved on-farm water use efficiencies in the southern connected basin, the Lachlan Valley and the like. The important thing to note here is that these are regional commitments. They will enable those regional communities to have confidence that the focus that the government is giving, in boosting economic and employment opportunities across the basin, is real.

We have also committed money to the purchase of water at Toorale, and we are delivering more than 8,000 million litres of water to benefit the environment this particular year. This was a decision by the government that was roundly criticised by the coalition, which has a ‘hitherto’ view on water policy. Some of those who are up the system think that certain matters should be addressed and some of those who are down the system completely disagree. But the point is that flows here will benefit a number of important areas of river red gum forest. Hattah Lakes in north-western Victoria, Lindsay Island on the Victorian and South Australian border, Backwater Lagoon near Wentworth, Markaranka Floodplain near Waikerie, Gum Flat on the Chowilla Floodplain near Renmark and Overland Corner Floodplain near Kingston-on-Murray are all important areas of river red gum forest which will benefit from this significant contribution by the government, which was criticised quite robustly, as I recall, by the coalition.

Additionally, I refer to the recent announcement by the government to purchase almost 240 gigalitres of water entitlements for just over $300 million from the Twynam Agricultural Group. This is the single largest purchase of water for the environment in Australia’s history. This is a commitment of significance from this government, which is taking seriously the task that it has to make up for the lack of action and the lack of commitment on the part of the coalition in the past. Some of the places that will benefit from that purchase are the internationally significant Ramsar listed wetlands of the Macquarie Marshes, the Gwydir wetlands and the Fivebough and Tuckerbill Swamps near Leeton. Other environmental assets to benefit as well include the Booligal Wetlands in the Lachlan River, the Menindee Lakes in the Darling and the Lowbidgee wetlands near Balranald.

Mr Windsor —What about groundwater?

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr GARRETT —For members opposite, the point is that while you make these criticisms we are getting on with the job of producing positive and significant environmental benefits, something which you completely ignored for the entire period you were in government.