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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 12261

Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (16:33): I speak in support of the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012 because it is good management practice by the government. It is good management practice because it enables the authority to get on with managing the waters of the Basin in a much more efficient and effective way when it comes to making minor adjustments to the plan.

Interestingly, the objective of this bill is the matter that formed part of the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Regional Australia. In July of this year it reported to the House on certain matters relating to the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Recommendation 3 of that report states:

The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government develop a mechanism to adjust sustainable diversion limits automatically in response to efficiencies gained by environmental works and measures.

The fact that the committee, which had inquired into the Murray-Darling Basin for some time and then reconvened in order to consider further matters, has put this recommendation to the government should in itself be adequate to convince members across the chamber that the recommendation to have this mechanism in place should be supported.

Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012 amends the Water Act 2007 to allow the long-term average sustainable diversion limit set by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to be adjusted by plus or minus five per cent of the sustainable diversion limit for Basin water resources as a whole, without invoking the formal Basin Plan amendment process. The bill sets out how the mechanism is intended to operate and introduces transparency in the process, requiring any use of the mechanism to be reported formally and publicly to the parliament. The explanatory memorandum states:

Under the Water Act, the Basin Plan itself is a disallowable instrument. The current version of the Basin Plan includes an adjustment mechanism in accordance with the current Act. As the legislation currently stands Parliament would not be notified of any adjustments, as well as these adjustments not being disallowable. This Bill improves transparency while maintaining the position that amendments would not be disallowable.

The sustainable diversion limits that will be set must reflect an environmentally sustainable level of water being taken from the river system.

The issue of managing the waters of the Murray River and the Murray-Darling Basin more broadly date back over one hundred years. In fact, when the states came together to form the federation the issue had already been one that had caused disputes and grievances amongst the states. Finally, in about 1914 we got an agreement together by, I think, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. That agreement served for some time, albeit there were always ongoing and continuous disputes.

I can well recall many of those disputes, particularly in the sixties, where the waters of the Murray became a major issue of confrontation between South Australia and the eastern states. It seems that after all those years, almost 100 years, of bickering over this issue we are finally at a point where we might be able to reach an agreement that will ensure the long-term sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin communities, sustainability of the important environmental assets throughout the basin and sustainability of food production within our nation. I acknowledge that the basin produces on average about 45 per cent of the nation's irrigated agricultural production.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as you would well know as a member of the standing committee I referred to earlier, the last two years or so have been fascinating in the sense that we have had the Murray-Darling Basin Authority carry out its own inquiry, while simultaneously we have had a parliamentary committee doing similar work. I think it would be fair to say that nobody in this chamber would disagree with the level of concern that exists right throughout the basin and across each state with respect to the poor management practices of the past when it came to the basin waters. It is my view that what the basin communities would like to see is, finally, some sense of security as to where we go into the future.

The authority originally came up with a proposal to restore about 2,750 gigalitres of water to the basin. On Friday the Prime Minister announced that the government would support the return of 3,200 gigalitres to the basin. I believe that 3,200 gigalitres paves the way for a sensible agreement between each of the parties to the Basin Plan—those parties now being Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. I believe that 3,200 gigalitres does that because, firstly, it is possible to restore 3,200 gigalitres to the basin and, secondly, by doing so we achieve most of the key environmental targets that we are aiming for as a nation.

For South Australia, being at the end of the system and being very much dependent on water use by the upstream states, the 3,200 gigalitres is a welcome commitment by the government. For South Australia it means that there will be more water in the Lower Lakes—I understand on average about 15 per cent more water—and that in turn will reduce the likelihood of the acid sulphate soil problems that we had a few years ago. It will ensure that salinity levels in the Lower Lakes and in the northern lagoon of the Coorong will be much, much lower and, in fact, at very acceptable levels. It will ensure that on average two million tonnes of salt is flushed out to sea annually. In the past most of that salt stayed, basically, within the South Australian end of the system. It will ensure that for most of the time the Murray Mouth remains open and, if that occurs, it will enable the salt to be flushed out. Importantly, for the whole of the basin, the iconic wetlands will receive sufficient water to ensure that they remain sustainable. In fact I understand that, of the 18 environmental watering requirements throughout the basin, 17 of them should be met by returning 3,200 gigalitres to the basin. The 3,200-gigalitre figure not only has been assessed by the South Australian government and by the authority but it has been peer reviewed by the Goyder Institute, an institute of expert scientific people. That is why I feel confident that the figure is one that could bring us together in an agreement that we have been looking for for over 100 years.

It is important that we have an agreement in place. The agreement is also dependent on fine-tuning aspects of the Basin Plan such as the amendments that are being proposed within this specific legislation. Since the announcement on Friday I am not surprised that some sectors, including the states of New South Wales and Victoria, have been flagging their concerns about returning 3,200 gigalitres of water to the system. I have similarly heard criticisms from farming organisations and environmental groups that the 3,200-gigalitre figure is not appropriate. The farming groups are saying that it is too much yet the environmental groups on the other hand are saying that it is still not enough. I think the fact that both of them are not agreeing with each other probably indicates that the figure is about right, and I suspect that it is.

The reality is that the 3,200-gigalitre figure is achievable because, as the minister pointed out today in question time, about 1,500 gigalitres of water has already been secured by the Commonwealth. That means we are almost halfway there with respect to the amount of water that we need to secure. Securing the rest through engineering and environmental works, I believe, is possible and the timeframe for us to do that has been extended out to the year 2024. Some, again, would criticise that as well. Given that we have had a couple of good years of inflows into the system and given that there is now substantial water in the system, I believe we now have a welcome relief which enables us to implement the changes over a longer period of time rather than rush through any changes. That is exactly what the government proposes to do with respect to managing the waters into the future.

The interesting question from here on in will be: how will members opposite respond to the announcement the government made that we intend to return 3,200 gigalitres to the system. To date we have seen divisions in the coalition ranging from divisions between the Queensland members and the New South Wales members, divisions between the New South Wales members and their Victorian counterparts, and then divisions between all of the eastern state coalition members and those in South Australia. When the issue has arisen in public debates, and in this place in the past, it depends on which member you are talking to as to what kind of response you get.

As coalition members have moved round the country, it has been absolutely clear that their response as to how they would manage the Murray-Darling Basin depends on which audience they are speaking to. It will be interesting, now that a firm proposition that is achievable has been put on the table, to see whether they get behind the government and, once and for all, implement a workable plan or whether they do not. It will be even more interesting to see where the South Australian members of the Liberal Party stand with respect to the announcements made by the Prime Minister and the environment minister on Friday because they know full well the devastating impact that the last drought had on South Australia, particularly on the Riverland area and on the Lower Lakes. As someone who visited all of those areas and saw for myself at the peak of the drought the devastation that had been caused to both the Lower Lakes themselves and to communities, I am well aware that the last thing anybody wants from outside of government is to see a re-occurrence of that.

The communities right throughout the basin have every right to say, 'We went through this once. You know what might occur. What are you doing to ensure that it does not happen again?' We, I believe, have an obligation and a responsibility to take the steps required to ensure that it does not happen again. We can do that by implementing a sound plan. This particular amendment enables a plan to be implemented that can be adjusted in a minor way when the need arises. The reality is that sustainable diversion limits are as much dependent on inflows into the system as they are on extractions. Whilst we can deal with average inflows, which help for the purpose of long-term planning, the reality is that as short-term measures those inflows and those extractions do change and need to be adjusted to suit. In particular, they need to be adjusted if investments are made in engineering works that reduce the amount of water that is otherwise required. I believe that can be done and should be done and the government has quite properly invested or set aside $1.7 billion—from memory—towards doing exactly that over the coming decade. When we do that then I believe the authority ought to, independently of this parliament, have the right to make those fine adjustments as need be.

I heard the shadow minister's proposal for making changes to this legislation to the effect that he believes that the minister and the government of the day should be the ones who make the final decisions in respect to any adjustments to the plan. I am sure the minister will take that on-board and I am sure the minister is going to consider that. Quite frankly, my view is that the critical issue is that there ought to be a mechanism in place to enable those minor adjustments to be made. That is what this legislation does. I commend the bill to the House.