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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 755

Ms RISHWORTH (11:33 AM) —I am very pleased to rise today to move this motion that is of great importance to our nation. The Murray-Darling system is the most significant river system in our country. Spanning over four states, it is a critical freshwater system sustaining not only local communities along the river system but indeed many of our major cities. The recent floods and rains across the eastern seaboard have also seen a large increase in inflows into the Murray-Darling system—water that the system desperately needed after a decade of drought. But the recent increases in inflows should not be an excuse to walk away from long-term reform in managing this critical national asset.

This Labor government takes reform of the Murray-Darling Basin seriously. Whilst it was the Howard government that introduced the Water Act, that government took no practical action to return any water to the system. It took this Labor government to start the heavy lifting on this important area of reform, negotiating with the states to get agreement on the management of the system by the Commonwealth, to establish the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, to buy back water and to invest in water-saving infrastructure.

As a representative from South Australia, the state at the end of the river system, I have seen the impact a combination of drought and overallocation has had down at the end. The state of our river system has not been a result of neglect over the last two years but neglect over decades. In South Australia we have seen not only the vast destruction of our native environment along the river but also the destruction of our communities that rely on this water supply. In the Lower Lakes community situated at the very end of the Murray-Darling system we have seen the water quality deteriorate so much that it can no longer be used for drinking water or for irrigation. Dairy operations in the Lower Lakes region have been decimated, reducing from 23 to three. Other industries have also suffered, including the Lakes and Coorong fishing industry, who have reported a sharp decline in fish stock.

This is one point that the opposition fail to understand. They try to paint the issue facing the Murray-Darling system as a choice between the environment and rural communities. You hear over and over again from those opposite—and I am sure we will hear it in this debate—that it is environment versus communities. But this argument is a false dichotomy. Reforming the Murray-Darling system is not a choice between the interests of primary producers and the environment. Reforming the Murray-Darling system is in the interests of everyone that relies on this vital system. The choice really is between a healthy system that can service the community for the long term and an unhealthy river system that can no longer be relied on or used by local communities. The opposition uses this false dichotomy as an excuse to do nothing and oppose everything when it comes to reforming the system.

The health of the Murray-Darling system is of great importance to South Australians, so it is no wonder that during the election last year we saw the Leader of the Opposition fly in, trying to capitalise on this issue that is held dear by many South Australians. He said:

Water is probably the most urgent environmental challenge facing our country. The Coalition will end Labor’s procrastination and fully and finally implement the … plan for the Murray Darling basin.

I think at the same press conference he said he would implement the Basin Plan within two weeks after the election result. This same plan which he said he would implement he is now criticising and calling for it to be scrapped. Clearly the Leader of the Opposition has broken his promise to the people of Adelaide and the people of South Australia, paying lip-service with no real intention of doing anything.

The coalition’s lack of concern for the Murray-Darling River has only further been confirmed by the coalition announcing two weeks ago that if they were in government they would scrap the water buyback to improve the overall health of the system. This is a slap in the face for every South Australian who believed the Leader of the Opposition was serious about the issue of water reform during the election, only to find out now that he is full of hot air. Unfortunately, it seems Senator Joyce now has the numbers in the Liberal-National caucus and not Senator Birmingham. In fact, Senator Joyce has won the day opposing reform.

But, in clear contrast to the opposition, this government is working in our national interest, working with the states to get outcomes that are in the long-term national interest. Since being elected, it has been this government that has committed $12 billion to Water for the Future. Under this initiative, we have commenced water buybacks which enable the government to purchase water from willing irrigators and deliver it to the rivers, wetlands and flood plains of the basin.

At 31 January the Commonwealth had secured, through the exchange of contracts, entitlements with a long-term average annual yield of 690 gigalitres of water. This is a significant investment and a significant return of water to the basin. This government has also committed $5.8 billion of funding for water infrastructure and efficiency measures under the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program. About $4.8 billion is currently committed. During the government’s ongoing consultations, the government and particularly the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government have continued to listen to communities and take on suggestions. In addition, some very constructive suggestions have been made by the member for New England, in his capacity as the Chair of the Standing Committee on Regional Australia, currently inquiring into the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in regional Australia.

The Hon. Tony Burke, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, has announced that the government will move to change taxation regulations so that irrigators who take up water efficiency investment grants will no longer be disadvantaged. This will encourage more investment in water-saving infrastructure. Furthermore, water buybacks will now be more strategic, with smaller payments being made available more frequently to introduce greater certainty into the market. The minister has made it clear that, while individual tenders will be smaller, the total amount allocated for buybacks will not be reduced. This is an important point. This way the market will not be distorted. We will have a modest presence in the market each month to generate greater confidence that water purchasing will be gradual and staggered. Irrigators who miss out on a round of water buybacks can be certain that another round will still be available.

The government will continue to consult and speak with local communities, but it will not walk away from reform. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority will continue to work on the proposed plan for the Murray-Darling Basin to be presented to the states and Commonwealth for their consideration. The Standing Committee on Regional Australia, chaired by the member for New England, will continue to inquire and report on the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin in regional Australia. Reforming the basin will be no easy feat. Agreement about the Murray-Darling Basin has never been easy. The Barrier Miner, on 21 January 1911, reported on the Murray river waters conference:

The Murray river waters conference sat yesterday and the matters at issue were discussed all day by the various state representatives. No understanding was reached. The New South Wales ministers stated that their state would not be limited in any way in the use of the Murrumbidgee water for the large irrigation schemes.

So we can see that in 1911 this was an issue. It continues to be an issue today, but after 100 years it has taken the election of a Commonwealth Labor government to finally make reform so that for the first time we can manage the Murray-Darling river system and have a plan for its long-term sustainability into the future.

I call on the opposition, especially those members from South Australia, to stand up and act in the long-term interests of this important river system. We have heard the Leader of the Opposition come down and make some grand plans. We have heard members from South Australia say that they are committed to water reform. But we have seen absolutely no evidence on the ground that the coalition takes this seriously. So I invite the coalition members to get on board for reform, to come and join us and to work constructively with us so that in 100 years time those communities along the river system—the large cities, the towns—will all still have a water system that is not degraded and unable to be used by anyone. This is not just an issue for today or for tomorrow; this is an issue for farming families for this generation and for the next generation. We need the Murray-Darling system to be in a state that allows for mixed use of it into the future. So I call on the opposition to get on board, because the government is fully committed to reforming this system and ensuring that we get a long-term, viable outcome for our nation’s interests.