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Thursday, 11 October 2012
Page: 8068

Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (18:08): I present the interim report of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee on the management of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator McKENZIE: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

The report highlights the concerns and shortcomings of the existing Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This is an interim report and some of the issues contained within it will be fully addressed when the final report is handed down. I think it is crucially important that the Senate takes note of this committee's interim report.

In the limited time available, please let me say how important the basin is to regional Australians, and paint a picture for those struggling to understand why so many people are—rightly so—up in arms over the decisions being made by Labor and their coalition colleagues, the Greens, on this issue. To start, the basin is home to 2.1 million people, more than 900,000 of whom are employed within the basin—33 per cent in manufacturing, with a lot of that in food processing, and 11 per cent in agriculture. About a quarter of the basin's residents live in Victoria, the state I am so proudly representing in this place, with about 27,000 people employed in agriculture and other sectors dependent on it.

The dairy industry in northern Victoria, where we have a lot of irrigated country, produces 74 per cent of the basin's milk. The Goulburn Murray irrigation district dairy industry is the region's largest user of irrigation water, so any loss of access to water would have serious ramifications when it comes to the viability of dairy businesses and processing facilities.

It is not only dairy that relies heavily on irrigation water; Mildura has a thriving horticulture sector producing nearly all of Australia's dried fruit, 75 per cent of table grapes and 94 per cent of our citrus. The Mildura Development Corporation expects the region has a great future in food production but says:

… we will see impacts from some of the issues that are coming out of the current draft of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—

in our own communities. Those directly affected, such as those in Mildura and Shepparton and throughout the Southern Basin in my home state of Victoria, find it very difficult to understand how this is being played out. I am talking about your lovely report, Senator Heffernan.

The committee travelled to Mildura and heard evidence, and Cheryl Rix from Western Murray Irrigation Ltd told the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee hearing in April this year:

In terms of the basin plan … you can't even get across the technical information that they are putting out, and it is all hidden anyway—it is like a treasure hunt trying to work out what it means for you.

Treasure hunting is the right phrase to use, because for those communities along the Murray the great treasure that they have built their entire existence on is the treasure of the water that flows from the great Murray River and how it is used in those irrigation systems. If the people who live and work on the irrigation systems cannot work it out then we have some real issues.

I am sure Ms Rix is not the only person to be confused by the government's multiple Murray-Darling Basin Plan drafts; we are now on the fourth version. Perhaps Mark McKenzie, of Murray Valley Winegrowers, put it best when he said:

We believe there quite clearly needs to be some balancing … we are all vitally interested in the health of the basin…

Farmers are the great conservationists and environmentalists of our nation—

Our lifeblood depends on it. We are absolutely dependent here.

These are the people, products and profit of the Murray-Darling Basin. Each is vitally important and together they ensure that Australia's food bowl is strong and prosperous. Given the government's commentary on Australia being Asia's food bowl, and the growing food scarcity projected, we need to be ensuring that we give Australia's farmers the water they need to do what they do best, which is produce the cleanest, greenest produce on the planet, and to continue to do it in a sustainable manner.

The people of the basin have an acute understanding of the need to look after it and do not want to see its health jeopardised. At the same time, they must be able to continue to make a living from the region. You need to make a dollar to stay in business, and farms are not social projects; they are small businesses. All of these industries underpin towns such as Shepparton, Cobram and Swan Hill, right throughout my home state.

The interim report points to various effects that could weaken the basin should the current plan be fully implemented. I draw the Senate's attention to recommendation 7. The committee recommends that the MDBA 'clearly and publicly explain the socioeconomic impacts of the 2,750-gigalitre target and any subsequently modelled target' because we want to know (a) that the river is healthy and (b) that there will still be the people and the industries along the river to produce the food for our nation and the world and to continue our way of life. People are important in this conversation, and sometimes I think that is lost.

One aspect of the report that was raised is something that has severely impacted the Victorian irrigators: the Swiss cheese effect. This goes to an issue where the government, in buying water for the environment, has done it in a very unstrategic manner and this has resulted in some—I hope—unintended consequences in some irrigation districts in my home state. The loss of water or sale of water back to the Commonwealth stops irrigation districts shrinking because the loss of water has been taken randomly across the district. Someone at the end of a channel is having to pay all the costs for the upkeep of that channel because the government has decided to indiscriminately purchase high-security water from Victoria's irrigators.

This effect not only impacts irrigators but also irrigation authorities when the price of water increases and the rest of the community that services the irrigation businesses suffers. This is what we are seeing right across the Goulburn Valley now. These are the issues that need to be addressed for a successful plan to be implemented. A successful plan means a healthy river going forward and it also means healthy and successful local regional communities.

In Victoria we are proud of our irrigators, who have always been at the forefront of adopting new technologies to become more efficient—and they are. It is evidenced by our tomato growers in the Goulburn Valley, who went from producing 30 tonnes per acre to 90 tonnes per acre by moving from flood irrigation to subsurface irrigation. This is as efficient as you get, dripping water as it is needed at the most environmentally proactive time of the day to decrease evaporation et cetera. You cannot get any more efficient than that. These tomato growers as well as the horticulturalists right around the Goulburn Valley have permanent plantings. They cannot afford to swap to another commodity in drought. They cannot afford to swap to another commodity when water prices differentiate, the way some other producers and commodity growers are able to do in other sections of the basin. Technology is really great at solving our environmental problems, which you will see is a theme of mine if you look at my comments on the carbon tax legislation. The advent of subsurface irrigation is also indicative of our irrigators' adaptability. If this Murray-Darling Basin Plan goes too far it will stifle this innovation and put it under enormous pressure. Once again science and innovation in new and efficient use of new technologies will drive the efficient use of water, and that is something to get excited about. My Senate colleagues and I are consistently working towards ensuring that issues which impact viability are addressed. We have a tough task ahead of us.

This was not the only report handed down about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There was also a report from the minister about the hydraulic modelling of the relaxation of operational constraints in the southern connected systems. This report was implemented stating 3,200 gig of environmental water would be recovered without constraint. I am aware of many farms, caravan parks and the like that would suffer from undue environmental watering leading to greater flooding along the river channels. That would be a totally unacceptable outcome for the people of Victoria. The report makes some really fantastic commentary and I look forward to contributing to the final iteration.