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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 75

Senator LEES (2:40 PM) —My question is to Senator Ian Campbell, Minister for the Environment and Heritage. Is the minister aware that the National Competition Council has recommended to the Treasurer that competition payments to New South Wales be cut by some $26 million because New South Wales has failed to provide adequate environmental water allocations in stressed and overallocated river systems across the state, despite agreeing to this under the COAG water reforms? What is the minister planning to do to insist that states meet their agreements and ensure that environmental flows are there in all their river systems? In particular, how is the Commonwealth going to ensure that the 500 gigalitres of water promised as part of the Living Murray agreement can actually be found?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I thank Senator Lees for what is a very important question when so much of the community’s attention is turning to how we not only sustain the drinking water requirements of Australians going into the next decade but also, very importantly, supply the environmental flows that are needed for the health of our rivers and our wetlands—and of course for industry and agriculture. It is a very large public policy issue and Senator Lees knows better than most senators here that the Commonwealth has provided significant leadership in this area, both on the Murray River and elsewhere.

I remind honourable senators that the coalition government, under John Howard’s leadership and under the environmental leadership of Senator Robert Hill and Dr David Kemp before me, has also invested in projects across something like 2,000 other rivers in terms of river repair as well as wetland repair. All honourable senators would have been horrified to see the damage to the Macquarie Marshes. That damage, although it began with an act of God—we might call it that as it was a lightning strike—was the consequence of very poor water management, which can only be sheeted home to the relevant state government in that context. The impacts on the long-term biodiversity around Macquarie Marshes, for example, are yet to be determined. Whether it can ever recover is a big question.

Senator Lees would also know not only that the Commonwealth is putting money through Rivercare and other Natural Heritage Trust programs—as well as the Living Murray initiative—but also that we announced in the election campaign a $2 billion water fund, which we hope through three main programs will provide sustainable water for communities and sustainable environmental flows for Australians of future generations. It is part of the Commonwealth’s and the Prime Minister’s commitment, amongst the four or five key outcomes he has set for achievement for this term of his government, to achieve what he has called ‘a sustainable continent’.

To get environmental flows and get the states to follow through on commitments made at COAG the first thing we need to do is to have the state premiers stand by their commitments to the national water agreement and the National Water Initiative. In a fit of pique the Labor comrades of the then Labor leader Mark Latham walked out of the agreement during the federal election campaign. It was a fun political stunt but none of the premiers have come back. We are hoping, and we are getting some good signals, that the state Labor parties will re-sign to the National Water Initiative and they will recommit themselves, for example, under clause 25 of that agreement, to identifying high-conservation rivers and wetland systems and to putting in place protection regimes for them.

The Commonwealth has in recent days received a substantial report on how we may seek to progress the protection of those river and wetland systems. One of the suggestions is heritage listing some of those rivers to provide the added protection of the Commonwealth’s world-leading environmental law. That is something that I would like to look at over coming weeks. But we do need a lot more, and the fundamental basis of it is getting the state premiers to sign back up to the National Water Initiative. I was very pleased to see that Colin Barnett, the Liberal leader in Western Australia, has said that if he is elected he will in fact sign up. That is tremendous news. I hope Mr Barnett’s decision sends a signal to the premiers. (Time expired)

Senator LEES —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In the case of South Australia, Minister, it has not mattered whether it is a Liberal or a Labor government. SA Water is still not split into two parts as is required under the agreement. It seems that neither party there is interested in doing this. Does the minister agree that the failure to do this basically means that SA Water is just in the business of making money by selling as much River Murray water as it possibly can? We did not have restrictions in Adelaide until very late. We were one of the last capital cities to get restrictions because basically SA Water wants to make money. So I ask again: what can you specifically do to insist that the states, whoever is in government there, make an agreement and then stick to it?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —You can only do things by agreement with the states, and the great incentive structure that the Prime Minister has put in place is to say that if you want access to the $2 billion under the Australian water fund program then you need to have signed on to the National Water Initiative. We do not want to hand out massive amounts of Commonwealth taxpayers’ money to projects that do not deliver long-term outcomes for the environment and for sustainability.

The fundamental importance of the National Water Initiative is to get rational pricing into water. It is absurd for us to be pumping out thousands of gallons of River Murray water which is being flushed down the toilet once and then pumped out into the oceans when that water could be properly reused. We have to ensure there are proper incentive processes in place to ensure water authorities right around the country use water in a sensible and efficient way, and that is a big part of the answer to waterproofing Australia. That is why the Commonwealth is providing that money, that is why we need the National Water Initiative in place and that is why we need the premiers to stand by their agreements. (Time expired)