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Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4723

Senator LEES (2:32 PM) —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Hill. I refer to a number of upgrades of irrigation channels across the Murray-Darling Basin which are designed to save water, and I ask: is the minister aware that the New South Wales and Victorian governments are intending to sell some of the water saved from the upgrades, including from the Darling Ana branch pipeline and the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline? This water is being sold, they say, to expand irrigation and also for their own revenue purposes. Does the federal government support the sale of water saved through these large infrastructure improvements rather than see it used for environment flows to improve the health of the river?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —In general, the government has accepted that savings can be utilised in more than one way. This government has always taken the approach that, when we can get economic and environmental benefits, we should seek to do so. One way of building cooperation in the rural sector, in terms of investing in more efficient irrigation and better use of water, is to allow a certain part of the savings to be reinvested in agricultural outcomes and another part of the savings to be reinvested in a more sustainable river system. So, in principle, the government does accept the sharing of the saving being appropriated towards the joint outcomes of a better environment and a more productive agricultural sector.

Having said that, I acknowledge—and I have acknowledged in answers to previous questions of Senator Lees—that the current level of withdrawal of water from the system is unsustainable. The cap needs to be implemented effectively, which requires more cooperation from Labor state governments. The current audits that are taking place need to be completed to determine to what extent, if any, the cap needs to be varied. If the cap does need to be tightened, the money must be found to, in effect, buy back more water, and efforts must be made in terms of sensible regulation at a statewide level to ensure that the river system is sustainable. So there is that overall challenge, but within achieving that overall challenge, where we can get both economic and environmental benefits, we will always seek to do so.

Senator LEES —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In response to the minister's answer, I must say that I am not sure why we have to buy back water that we are now selling. Specifically, I ask the minister: if, when water is freed up by large-scale improvements to infrastructure and then sold, and we have some environment flows being borrowed by water authorities and never paid back, and if water saved on-farm, which the minister just mentioned, through efficiency gains can then be used on those very farms because the water belongs to the farmers, how are we actually going to find the water? What is the vision of the federal government with respect to where we target to find the water to make sure that we have environment flows in the river? At the moment, every time some water is freed up, someone either on-sells it or uses it.

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —That is not correct. Under the Snowy Mountains program, water was used for two objectives: one was some for increased agriculture and the other was some for a net saving within the system, which is designed to achieve a more sustainable outcome. Why do we sell water? I would have thought Senator Lees would acknowledge that it is important to attach a real value to water. When a real value is attached, you get a more responsible use of the water that takes into account the environmental consequences, and that is a move in the right direction. It is a complex debate and there is not going to be a single solution to it; it requires a multifaceted approach. This government has the policies to achieve progress in the right direction, but we could do with some extra cooperation and support from the Labor state governments, particularly Queensland, that continually obstruct such progress.