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Thursday, 14 February 2019
Page: 10276

Murray-Darling Basin

Senator STORER (South Australia) (14:39): The topic of my question was chosen by South Australian voters and is to the minister representing the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources. Today the Senate agreed that the government should immediately respond to each and every recommendation proposed by the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and the Productivity Commission's review of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. When will the government respond to each and every recommendation proposed by the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and the Productivity Commission?

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandMinister for Resources and Northern Australia) (14:40): I thank Senator Storer for his question and some advance notice of it. As I indicated this week, the government will be carefully considering the findings and recommendations of the Productivity Commission's five-year review of the basin plan and the South Australian royal commission. In respect to the royal commission, it will take time to digest the 746-page report. However, the government has made clear its view that the basin plan has been made consistently with the requirements of the Water Act 2007. The South Australian royal commission was commissioned by the South Australian government, and we would expect that they will respond in due course. The South Australian Premier has requested that the findings of the royal commission be considered at the next Council of Australian Governments meeting. A meeting of Murray-Darling Basin first ministers is expected to take place later this year.

With respect to the Productivity Commission's final report, the government has indicated it will be developing a response to it. It is appropriate that the response to the Productivity Commission is developed in close consultation with Murray-Darling Basin jurisdictions and communities, especially given that many of the recommendation go to those state and territory governments. The response will also be considered by the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council.

While I've looked through the Productivity Commission report, and there are some useful suggestions that the government will consider, I think it is also important that we put on the public record other things that are often not highlighted from that report. For example, the Productivity Commission identifies that water recovery is now within five per cent of the July 2019 target. While we might not exactly get there, it is a remarkable achievement, given the ambition of the basin plan when it was set in 2012. The Productivity Commission also highlights that the arrangements for managing environmental water are working well, with evidence of improved ecological outcomes at the local and system scale. In fact I think the Productivity Commission reported that there are something like 750 environmental watering events that have occurred in the last five years targeting specific environmental outcomes linked to the long-term objectives of the plan.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Storer, is there a supplementary question?

Senator STORER (South Australia) (14:42): Will the government proceed with the structural separation of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, as recommended by the Productivity Commission, to prevent conflicts of interest?

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandMinister for Resources and Northern Australia) (14:42): As I indicated, the Australian government is yet to finalise its response to the specific recommendations of the Productivity Commission report. We will ensure that we consult with basin governments and other stakeholders about that recommendation, along with others, in particular with regard to the recommendation of splitting the regulatory and system management functions of the MDBA. We recognise any split in these functions would need to carefully consider the potential impact of such a move on key basin plan outcomes, including the assessment of water resource plans. We acknowledge that the community places a high priority on ensuring effective regulation, compliance and enforcement of the plan. The MDBA has recently established an office of compliance to manage any potential conflict arising from its different roles. This office will continue to grow and evolve as the MDBA includes more regulatory functions.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Storer, a final supplementary question?

Senator STORER (South Australia) (14:43): What is the point of legislating oversight of the operation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan by the Productivity Commission if the government wilfully ignores their recommendations?

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandMinister for Resources and Northern Australia) (14:43): With all respect to Senator Storer, I reject that view completely. The government is taking seriously these recommendations, as I indicated. It is right and proper that we do so in a considered way, particularly given that the successful implementation of any change from such recommendations will require cooperation and coordination with state and territory governments. I think it's also important, while I have this opportunity, to say that we do recognise that the basin is a diverse community of environmental, economic and social assets. As the Productivity Commission report points out, there are 30,000 wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin, 100 of which are recognised as nationally important. That's why we are doing that more environmental watering through the plan, and great achievements have been made there. However, it is of course the area which produces 41 per cent of our agriculture. Forty-one per cent of our food comes from the basin. The basin also supplies water to 2.1 million people who reside within it and 1.3 million people outside the basin as well.