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Thursday, 24 November 2011
Page: 13757

Mr IAN MACFARLANE (Groom) (10:04): This will be news to me as I read it as well, so I am sure it will only go for 11 minutes! I thank the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities for the opportunity to respond to his statement on the Murray-Darling Basin. It has been almost five years since John Howard announced that the Commonwealth government would seek to establish a Murray-Darling Basin Plan to finally put the management of the Murray-Darling Basin on a national basis. As the Prime Minister said at the time:

We could muddle through as has occurred in the past, but frankly, that gets us nowhere. Without decisive action we face the worst of both worlds. The irrigation sector goes into steady but inevitable decline while water quality and environmental problems continue to get worse.

I give credit to the Labor Party at the time for supporting what was a comprehensive and bold step to provide the necessary national leadership to solve this problem. As the minister has stated, these changes were never going to deliver consensus. Changes on this scale would always be difficult for some. Adjustments to lower water use were a necessary reality but never easy ones. But this is precisely why these changes need to happen in partnership with the basin communities.

There are 2.1 million people who live in the basin, and I am one. Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, you are another. I live right at the top, so I get first go at the water. I think of the South Australians every time I press the button! If it were a state it would be the equal fourth biggest state of our nation, on par with Western Australia. Another one million people in South Australia rely on the basin for reliable water supplies. Many of the 2.1 million people who live in the basin have invested their lives in providing 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural output, including almost 95 per cent of Australia's oranges, 93 per cent of Australia's almonds and 68 per cent of our tomatoes. I note that, despite these contributions, the minister on Insiders a fortnight ago remarkably stated that the Murray-Darling is not about food security. Minister, just because cotton and wine grapes are grown in the basin does not mean you can ignore the 90 per cent of the other agricultural output that is grown there.

Many others not involved directly in agriculture rely on the irrigation industry to provide the economic base of their jobs and their businesses. The minister says that purchases are made from willing sellers. That is true, but there is nothing willing about Paul Pierotti, whose furniture business sales in Griffith have dropped by 20 per cent since the release of the guide. There was nothing willing about the 10 per cent average drop in house prices in the months after the guide was released. As the Labor Party moves to another inevitable policy fiasco, there are people that are left behind. The irrigator can sell out and move to the coast, but the mother with a mortgage is left behind with a diminished asset but the same amount owing to the bank.

Unfortunately, the people of the Murray-Darling feel let down by a government that has promoted uncertainty through constant delays in the plan and has chased the political prize of water buyback targets rather than delivering water savings in a way that has fostered a true partnership between the government and basin communities. The government took 18 months to establish the authority alone. This year the draft to the Basin Plan has been delayed three times.

These are not just the political views of this side of politics. May I remind the House that these are the considered judgments of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia. The Labor Party, the coalition and the crossbenchers all signed off on the report on the Murray-Darling, which concluded:

The Committee heard of grave mistrust of this department—

that is, the minister's Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities—

across Basin communities resulting from the failure of the department to identify and respond to community concerns on a range of issues. In addition, this department has demonstrated a consistent failure to deliver water programs, including strategic water buyback, which is in the best interests of productive communities. This department should no longer be responsible for delivering these programs.

I think that the last part deserves repeating and emphasis. The judgment of this House, including Labor Party members, is that the government has consistently failed to deliver its water programs.

Despite these damning allegations, the government has accepted only one of the 21 recommendations made by this committee. These water programs were absolutely essential in delivering a solution to provide environmental benefits at the least economic and social pain. Principal among these was the $5.9 billion that the coalition put aside to help modernise Australia's irrigation network. Such investments would deliver more water for the environment and irrigation communities. However, this government has spent just $245 million on projects which will actually deliver water into the Murray-Darling Basin environment. Only 33 gigalitres of water had been transferred to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, which works out at $7,400 per megalitre of water saved.

Instead this government has raided the funds we set aside. From the $5.9 billion Infrastructure Fund that we established, this government has allocated over $2 billion to projects which have nothing to do with delivering water to the environment, including over $200 million for the bureaucratic expenses of its water manager and the expenses of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and $8 million for an advertising campaign in the Murray-Darling. We must remember that it was always the coalition's plan, right from the start five years ago, to prioritise these investments over the buyback of water. That was because these investments gave communities the best chance to adjust to a future of lower water availability. Instead the government has adopted the exact reverse approach. The government had spent $1.54 billion on water buybacks by 30 June 2011. Labor has mismanaged the buyback program and has failed to end the non-strategic buyback of water, despite that being a recommendation of the House of Representatives committee.

In its election policy last year, the coalition promised to make the buyback program 'more strategic'. Every year Labor has spent more on water buybacks than planned and less on water-saving infrastructure than hoped for. It is $200 million ahead on water buybacks but $1.25 billion behind on infrastructure investments compared to its original plan. For every one bucket of water the government has saved through investment in infrastructure, it has bought back 24 buckets. The minister is absolutely wrong to say that the Basin Plan will start in 2019. It has started now. For the town of Collarenebri, the purchase of $300 million of water from the Twynam Agricultural Group shut down its cotton gin. For them the plan is not starting in 2019; it is being felt right now.

I note that the minister suggests that the draft Basin Plan will be released on 28 November. It surprises me that so many members and senators already seem to have a copy of this draft under their arm. If the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area had as many leaks as the authority, it would be a national disgrace. At the very time that the government should be partnering with local communities to deliver reform, these leaks to stakeholder groups and the media have just added to the angst and uncertainty. Why should Lateline get a copy of the plan before the people of Griffith? Why should the press gallery get a copy of the plan before the people of Renmark? Indeed, why should the opposition have a copy before the people of Dirranbandi?

I think that what was most remarkable about the minister's statement was that it barely mentioned the communities of the Murray-Darling. The coalition firmly believes that any Murray-Darling Basin Plan must deliver an equal balance between economic, social and environmental factors—that is, it must deliver a triple bottom line. Everybody accepted that the guide would have to be a social and economic disaster for regional Australia. That is why the government ran a thousand miles from it not long after it was released. It is up to the government now to regain the trust of the people of the basin. It is up to the government to prove that the draft that will be released next week is materially different from what was dumped on communities last year. But the minister has failed to do that this morning. There was no mention of how the government has listened to communities since last year. Only a few days before the plan's release, we still do not know when and where consultations will be held. Once again the government is keeping the people of the basin in the dark.

The plan that is released next week will be judged on some clear principles. First, the plan must return water to the environment, but the plan must be about environmental outcomes, not a number. The government must clearly show what the environmental benefits are and at what economic and social cost. Second, the plan must be based on an equal consideration of economic, social and environmental factors. It must deliver a triple bottom line. Third, the plan must provide a detailed plan for the economic and social future of basin communities and involve local communities in true consultation and engagement. Fourth, the plan must clearly show what environmental assets will be watered and when, and it must include a detailed environmental watering plan as required by the Water Act. Otherwise how can we decide how much water is needed if we do not know what we are to do with it?

Finally, the plan must take into account the natural limitations of water delivery in the basin. It is simply not acceptable to flood vast parts of private land for the purposes of environmental watering. The coalition will support a plan that can deliver on these outcomes. The problem is that the government is starting from a long way behind. They have lost the true trust of the people in the basin and they have lost the true trust of a vast number of Australians. (Time expired)