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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 19

Senator BROWN (10:40 AM) —I move the Greens' amendment (1) on sheet 4439:

(1) Clause 7, page 6 (after line 20), after subclause (2), insert:

Specific functions relating to the provision of water for environmental purposes

(2A) The NWC has the following specific functions relating to the provision of water for environmental purposes in the Murray-Darling Basin:

(a) to complete implementation of the Living Murray First Step by 31 December 2005 (the Living Murray First Step means the provision of an average of 500 GL of water per year in perpetuity to achieve specific environmental objectives and outcomes for six significant ecological assets: Barmah-Millewa Forest, Gunbower and Koondrook-Perricoota Forests, Hattah Lakes, Chowilla floodplain (including Lindsay-Wallpolla), the Murray Mouth, Coorong and Lower Lakes, and the River Murray Channel);

(b) to secure an additional annual average of 2500 GL of water per annum in perpetuity for environmental purposes in the Murray-Darling Basin by 31 December 2007, of which at least 1000GL must be used to improve the health of the Murray River;

(c) to complete the return of all currently over-allocated or overused systems to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction by 2010;

(d) in the Murray Darling Basin to allocate water for environmental purposes in accordance with plans prepared by the Murray Darling Basin Commission.

(2B) The NWC must provide for a national system of heritage rivers to be designated by 2010.

It would be very helpful if the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, and indeed any advisers, were actually available in the house. We had neither last night, but I think it is fair enough that this morning we should have both the minister—here he comes—and some helpful advice for the committee on the matters that have arisen and will arise.

I explained this amendment to the chamber last night, but I will reiterate briefly that this is an amendment to give some teeth and some definition to the National Water Commission, which is going to be funded by $2 billion of taxpayers' money, to meet specific targets for providing environmental flows, particularly in the Murray and Darling. These are, firstly, to secure the entire 500 gigalitres promised by the government—by several governments—required to allow the first steps for the Living Murray to be taken by 31 December 2005.

Chair, you will recall that last night several senators, not least Senator Lees, were speaking about the parlous state of the river red gums along the Murray: 75 per cent are stressed, dying or dead. There is massive carnage of these iconic red gum forests. One scientist described it as driving from Sydney to Melbourne along a thousand-kilometre highway with dead trees on both sides. That is how rapidly the river red gum forests are being destroyed. Of course, with that you get the destruction of habitat for a whole range of birds and mammals, and even the fish life in the river because the food resource in the river is very much related to the natural botanical cover of the riverine ecosystem.

The rescue of the red gums is absolutely critical. Prime Minister Howard and the government say, `We will give 500 gigalitres some time in the coming years.' Maybe it will be 2010, maybe it will be 2014. That is too late. It has got to be now. We know that 500 gigalitres is not going to return health to the river; 4,000 gigalitres are required there—eight times as much. But the government and the Prime Minister have not returned one drop of water to the Murray or the Darling in the last nine years in office—not one drop—as this environmental catastrophe has unfolded in front of the government and several ministers for the environment. It has been a total dereliction of environmental duty to this nation's greatest waterway.

What the Greens are saying is, yes, set up the National Water Commission, let us get a national overview body, but let us not just have a bureaucracy which is monitoring things and disbursing money to applicants. Let us have real goals here which address the real problem we know about. This amendment says, `Let us get the 500 gigalitres'—one-eighth of what is required—`to the river in the next 13 months.' That is going to be too late for many of the river red gums, but let us at least set that target and not let it float off into the ether.

In the absence of that, I ask the minister: what is the target date? Tell the committee what the target date is for the 500 gigalitres. The Commonwealth and the states agreed on the 500 gigalitres and committed $500 million 13 months ago. Last month—and the minister is very pleased with himself about this—there was an agreement on specific measures to secure and fund the first 240 gigalitres, half of the one-eighth required to assure health to the rivers. But not one dollar will be spent and no water will flow because there is no agreement—there is a fight over competition payments. During the election campaign the Prime Minister revealed that the $2 billion is not going to come from the Commonwealth purse; it is going to come from competition payments that the states and territories are getting.

The second part of the amendment is to secure an additional 2,500 gigalitres of water for the environment and the nation's rivers by December 2007, with 1,000 gigalitres going to the Murray. That would take the Murray's allocation to 1,500 gigalitres within three years. That is half what scientists say is required to ensure a healthy river. The report of 2002 has been suppressed. The written report has got out; the pictorial report has not. The Greens are saying: let us go halfway and put a date on it, which is three years out from now. I asked last night about the Murray-Darling Basin. So the minister has had overnight to consider a report to the committee this morning on a part of the Darling catchment which is of national significance and one of the nation's and the world's great waterbird havens and breeding places—the Macquarie Marshes. I ask the minister to report on the state of the health of and the prospects for the Macquarie Marshes. I ask the government to turn around the wholesale destruction of the Macquarie Marshes due to the diversion of the flow from that river system over the last decades.

The third component of this amendment is to return rivers and wetlands to environmentally sustainable extraction levels by 2010—six years from now. The word `sustainable' has become part of the government's lexicon and it does mean something—sustenance for the environment which is guaranteed. Is the government not able to give that guarantee for six years from now? If it cannot give that guarantee, what date does it give? The National Water Initiative commits to returning overallocated systems to environmentally sustainable extraction levels, but there is no time line. Can you believe that? I am sure the minister is going to give us one, because if we do not have a time line it means nothing. In fact, it says that we are not going to achieve this. If we were going to achieve it, there would be a time line. It is done in all areas of the economy, but when it comes to the nation's environment there is no time line. In other words, there is no objective in real terms.

The Australian Conservation Foundation, the Farmers Federation and the Banking Association agreed to environmental sustainability by 2014—a decade from now. When we look at the Murray-Darling system, as I said in reference to the red gum component, we cannot wait a decade. Urgent action is needed now because the whole ecological system has been collapsing in front of our eyes, due to the negligence of this government and indeed state governments, over the last decade when action was required. The problem was known further back than 10 years ago, but Prime Minister Howard, several environment ministers and government in general have sat on their hands and done nothing because they are not prepared to tackle the big irrigation players, the corporate sector, which takes most of the water out of these systems. The most vile and deployable excess has been reached with what we see at Cubbie Station and the upper catchment of the Darling River.

The $2 billion has no defined spending program—I will be asking the minister about that. We would be better off getting rid of Cubbie Station's entrapment of the flow of the Balonne and other river systems in far south Queensland rather than just spending the money on feelgood programs which are not going to make much difference. Last night the minister said that the Prime Minister wants to get 20 major programs going in the next year—or was that years? Let us not set time lines. I ask him: what are the 20 programs?

The Prime Minister has said that water is property. He has put dollars on it and wants taxpayers to compensate the corporations who are overallocated and are, therefore, destroying this ecosystem. Don't ask them to compensate the nation for the destruction of the red gum forests, the native fish populations, the Coorong and its bird population. The corporations do not have to pay for that because that is not worth a cent in this government's estimation. That is not property. Everything comes down to dollars with this government. So, despite the ecologically criminal outcome for this river, nobody will have to pay and nobody will be found responsible.

The Prime Minister says, `Put dollars on water.' One can understand compensation for land—it is even written into the Constitution—and he now says water, but what about air? How about compensating the citizens of Australia for the polluted and heated-up air they breathe due to industrial activity, in particular coal burning, and emissions. Is the Prime Minister going to bring to book diesel exhausts, which I am told kill 1,000 Australians each year? Is air not property? If it is, why isn't there a dollar value on it and a penalty system for those who make it unfit to breathe and in fact, in some cases, lethal? It is selective; it is what the big corporations want.

Deputy Prime Minister Anderson introduced into the discourse a couple of years ago the need to compensate his mates who take the lion's share of the water from the Darling system to make megadollars through the new industrial agriculture in that basin. Where is the compensation for the destruction of the environment that the overallocation of water has incurred? There is not a whisper or a hint of any. Instead the government wants to compensate the companies which endorse it—if commonsense prevails and they have to give back some water to ensure the health of the river. Where will the compensation come from? It will be taken from taxpayers and ordinary Australians and given to the government's corporate mates. They have done the wrong thing and have gotten away with it, under the Carr government and its predecessors in New South Wales, for example. We have been asked to legislate to do the right thing, and they will get the money. They will get paid for it. But that philosophy of compensation does not extend to the environment, and it certainly will never extend to the environment under this government. (Time expired)