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Wednesday, 24 August 1983
Page: 190


Mr JACOBI(4.06) —I support the new River Murray Waters Agreement with a number of serious reservations. I believe it fails to meet the planning objectives and the policies needed if we are to preserve the Murray-Darling Basin, which beyond doubt is this country's most important multiple-use natural resource. The Murray River is South Australia's lifeline. It provides 80 per cent of South Australia's surface water, which is delivered to over one million people, 90 per cent of the State's population, and is distributed over two- thirds of the State's settled areas. Up to 80 per cent of Adelaide's water supply and up to 90 per cent of the water supply for the Iron Triangle is derived from the Murray. By contrast, the Murray provides water for only some 350,000 people in both New South Wales and Victoria. It provides the bulk of South Australia's water supply for irrigation, stock and domestic and industrial purposes. It provides a riverine environment for conservation and recreation that is unequalled in South Australia. Therefore the River Murray is of vital concern to that State. South Australians especially are not happy with the often poor quality of water available to that State. Dr Keith Walker, a keen observer of the Murray, recently summed up the dilemma we face in coming to terms with management of this troubled river system when he said:

We have a Federal Constitution that 80 years ago placed responsibility for the Murray-Darling system irretrievably in the hands of four self-minded States. River management hinges upon an interstate water-sharing agreement, devised in the riverboat era and excruciatingly slow to adjust to changing needs. Our 'band -aid' system of big-river government is an ecological absurdity.

In another dimension, we have scarcely begun to understand the ecology of the river system. If a central governing authority were established tomorrow, it would have no knowledge with which to begin its task. Yet we are utterly dependent on the river's capacity to supply our demands and absorb our insults. It is the kind of nonsense that only a bureaucracy could sustain.

In keeping with this nonsense, progress towards a new River Murray Waters Agreement has been painfully slow. It was a Labor initiative in 1973 following an approach by the then Premier Dunstan to Prime Minister Whitlam. This led to the establishment of a working party to examine the problems. It reported back to the Federal and State governments in October 1975. It recommended widened powers for the River Murray Commission. It is fitting that Federal and State Labor governments should now be finalising the process begun 10 years ago by their predecessors. The election of four Labor governments also provides a unique opportunity to implement the national platform of the Australian Labor Party, which seeks to:

Extend the powers of the River Murray Commission to-

(a) ensure the responsible management of the waters of the Murray-Darling River Basin, in terms of water quantity and quality, the protection of the River's wildlife resource, and the satisfactory allocation and transfer of water rights; and

(b) manage the Murray-Darling River system.

It is only when these objectives are achieved that we will be able to congratulate ourselves upon real progress towards a more effective Agreement having been achieved. Regrettably, the Agreement now before us falls short of that goal. Over the past 10 years there has been much labour to bring forth a gnat. The limitations of the Agreement-I wish the previous speaker on this Bill, the honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Connolly), had applied his mind to it- are clearly set out by Professor Sandford Clarke in a recent address to the Institute of Public Administration in Melbourne, headed 'Research needs of the Murray Darling Basin October 1982'. He said:

The various amendments have, in piece-meal fashion, endeavoured to broaden the scope of the Agreement to meet some of the limitations in the old Agreement. In practically every case, however, the broader powers granted to the Commission have not increased its autonomy. Instead, the powers have either required the prior consent of individual States before they are exercised, or have been framed as powers to make proposals collectively to the contracting Governments or recommendations or representations to particular States.

The overwhelming and general deficiency in the new Agreement is that it retains the unanimity requirements of the old Agreement. Thus, except for a limited class of matters, any decision of the Commission requires the unanimous concurrence of all Commissioners. If any difference of opinion arises between Commissioners, cumbersome arbitration provisions come into operation. These provisions have, in the past, effectively prevented discussion of, or action upon, any contentious matters. Accordingly it may be doubted whether the Commission would ever resolve to make recommendations to a Government if any element of those recommendations might be unpalatable to the Government appointing one of the Commissioners.

As a result of the amendments, the Commission now has power to investigate new works and initiate proposals for the protection or improvement of both the quality and quantity of water in the Murray. It has power of its own initiative to investigate and measure the quantity and quality of waters in tributaries above Albury or on the Darling below Menindee, but investigation of tributaries below Albury, where the major problems of salinity occur, may be done only with the consent of the State in which the tributary lies. Professor Clarke stated further:

But it is here that State parochialism re-asserts itself. The Commission is not given power to establish or to enforce water quality objectives or standards; nor has it any formal voice in the operation of salinity amelioration works on tributaries such as the Barr Creek works in Victoria. Its power is simply, 'in consultation with the appropriate responsible authorities' of each party, to ' formulate water quality objectives and, where appropriate, standards for any part of the River Murray' and to 'make recommendations with respect thereto to the Contracting Governments'.

Any examination of the provisions of the agreement obviously supports the professor. He concluded:

There is no doubt that the River Murray Waters Agreement, as amended, is not an effective vehicle for striking a balance between contending State interests in the Murray-Darling Basin and for effectively inducing or imposing a regime which adheres to desirable principles of water management.

The commonly held view that the River Murray Commission is, in some way, an independent management authority with ample powers to undertake the range of tasks which one would normally expect of a modern basin-management authority is quite fallacious. It is, in no sense, a basin-development authority. Its autonomous executive powers are limited to the management of releases from storages, within the narrow compass of formulae established under the Agreement. Its powers in relation to catchment protection are dubious and its role in other matters, such as the maintenance of water quality, is purely hortatory and suasive. Accordingly, much of the political lobbying directed to the Commission by special interest groups is misguided, as the Commission has little or no power to influence or effect any re-allocation of resources within the basin.

I would like a speaker from the other side to address himself to these quotations. Rather than fiddle with the edges of such an inadequate Agreement, I believe it is more important that we consider what steps the Federal Parliament can take to tackle effectively the problem of the Murray-Darling Basin. Experience in other federal systems of government has shown that the best way to protect the national interest when interstate waters or river networks are involved is to pool all the powers related to the river basin-whether they derive from State or Federal governments-into one joint authority where each party has an equal say in the decisions of the authority. An example of this power sharing is the Delaware River Basin Commission in the United States of America, which I visited last year. It draws on the collective authority of the four States concerned and the United States Federal Government. The pooling of powers in such a commission does not represent a loss of State rights in favour of a Federal government. Each State and Federal government is an equal partner in the management of the entire river basin and the pooling of powers ensures that the Basin Commission is much more effective than independent State and Federal actions.

Besides being an experiment in federalism, the Delaware compact pioneered the concept of putting responsibility for all types of management functions under one agency, whether it be controlling floods, supplying water or cleaning up pollution. This enabled each signatory State to react to its basin water management concerns through the focus of its governor or his designated commissioner. This provided sharp contrast to the earlier pattern of State water functions being segmented among several State agencies such as those dealing with conservation, health, agriculture, pollution control or whatever, as is the case in the Murray-Darling basin. The only alternatives to a compact which shares responsibility for an interstate river system are autonomous State control, which ignores the interests of the nation as a whole, or Federal control which usurps States' rights. In the case of the Murray, State parochialism and the lack of constitutional authority on the part of the Federal Government have paralysed administration of the basin and thwarted any attempts at co-ordination. Given sufficient goodwill from the States, and all Australian Labor Party States are involved at this time, I believe we could go at least some way in further extending the powers of the River Murray Commission. If necessary, the Commonwealth has the ability to give the States a strong push in the right direction.

In a paper attached to the River Murray working party report of 1975, which led to the negotiations for this new agreement, Professor Sandford Clarke recommended that a number of amendments be made to bring the agreement into line with modern water practice. Whilst some of his recommendations have been accepted and are included in the agreement we are debating today it is fair to say that the recommendations represent the more obvious and the least contentious of his proposals. A number of measures of great importance to good management have been omitted.

There are 11 basic deficiencies. I want to cite only five of them. Firstly, the power to undertake, authorise and co-ordinate studies must be extended to tributaries and adjacent land. I would like that point to be addressed by the Opposition. Secondly, the Commission should have the task of formulating an overall works plan for both the main stem and tributary rivers and of amending the program regularly. All parties should agree that they will not vote public moneys for, nor expend public moneys on, works which have not first been included in a comprehensive program.

Thirdly, the Commission must have power to intervene as a matter of last resort to ensure that the quality standards established by parties are actually observed. It should thus be given power to bring action and to prosecute for any alleged offences under State or Federal law. Fourthly, the deliberations of the Commission should be open to the public and the Press, as should be the record of its proceedings. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all questions should be determined by a majority of members present and voting. When a decision is not unanimous the views of the minority should be recorded if so requested and any report or advice on that question should state the views of the minority. In the event of any equality of votes the independent chairman should have a casting vote. I have asked the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Walsh) to arrange a meeting of all State Ministers to renegotiate to test the waters as to whether these much needed reforms can be achieved. Certainly other limitations still remain.

In my view the Commission is an extremely limited body in terms of the resources available to it. The four part time commissioners and the staff if 11 in effect are not equal to the task of effectively managing such an enormous river basin. It is ludicrous. For example, the River Murray Commission does not have the resources to pioneer new water management techniques. The potential for improved management of such a large complex river system, using earth resources, satellite data, is considerable and has been recognised by the Australian Science and Technology Council. But it will be left to individual States to go their own ways in utilising such techniques, as they have done in the past.

Another weakness of the Commission is that it does not include Queensland, which contributes on average 22 per cent of the water flowing into the lower Murray, and includes a catchment area for the Murray system larger than Victoria . Under the present structure of the Commission any State can veto a decision and the Queensland Government has a highly negative attitude to federalist ventures. Nevertheless, the River Murray must be viewed as an entire ecological system if it is to be maintained effectively. As a first step towards addressing the basin-wide problems Queensland ought to be invited to send an observer, without voting rights, to attend meetings of the Commission. At least there would be some official communication between the bodies responsible for the entire Murray-Darling catchment.

There are other initiatives which the States and Federal Government could take. We should consider the proposals put to the States in 1973 and described by Gough Whitlam in an address to the Murray Valley League in October 1974. He stated:

To date none has made a comprehensive, integrated examination of the implications which different land use patterns have for water resources in the valley. Two of the most significant uses which should be included in such an examination are, of course, irrigation and the development of urban growth centres such as Albury-Wodonga. Such an examination might indicate that changes in existing or planned land use are desirable in order to protect the quality of the waters of the Murray so that maximum beneficial use of the waters in economic, environmental and social terms can be obtained for both the region and the nation as a whole. Because State governments appear to be concentrating on engineering studies, the Australian Government would prefer to fund studies biased towards the social and environmental sciences.

The commission of such a study would be one of the options available to a properly structured River Murray Commission and there is no reason why the States could not immediately agree to take such action. The Murray Valley salinity and drainage report prepared by Maunsell and Partners in 1979 attempted to examine and co-ordinate a plan of action on salinity within the basin but the scope of the study was much narrower that that which we envisaged in 1975. What we can learn from the Maunsell report is, firstly, that the State water authorities and the previous Federal Government did not spend a cent on the on- farm measures which were given top priority in the report. That is beyond dispute. On the other hand, millions of dollars have been spent on the engineering structures surveyed in that report, including some of the projects which were given a very low priority. The warning about the bias of State authorities towards engineering solutions has been borne out.

If there is one area in which the Commonwealth has clear constitutional authority it is in the area of research. It also has undoubted financial powers in other areas. The suasive powers of the Commonwealth would be much more effective if it had at its disposal an independent authority to assess water management problems. For that reason in 1980 I introduced a Bill to establish an Institute of Fresh Water Studies. Co-ordinated research of the Murray-Darling basin is a logical step towards co-ordinated management of the basin. However, some State water authorities may not be happy about another body putting its nose into areas which may challenge or reflect upon their administrations. It is not so much a threat to States' rights which stands in the way of better research or better management of the Murray-Darling basin. It is the threat to departmental rights. The State authorities are suspicious of interdisciplinary and basin-wide planning and research because their importance in the River Murray management hierarchy is involved and could be threatened.

In conclusion let me say that it will be very foolish indeed to view the amended agreement as a panacea for the problems of the River Murray. Rather we should look to commencing negotiations immediately with the riparian States with the objective of having a genuinely independent Commission which has sufficient authority to address the multitude of water and associated land use problems in the basin. In its dealings with the States, the Commonwealth ought to be prepared to assert its financial powers, if necessary, to ensure that parochial decisions do not override the national interest. Finally, we must begin the task of developing appropriate multiple use planning objectives and policies which will bring the management of the Murray-Darling basin into the twentieth century . The passage of this agreement is a small step towards a better management of Australia's major natural resource, but I regret to say that we still have a long way to go. I say to the honourable member for Mallee (Mr Fisher) that I would appreciate some member of the Opposition addressing himself to, and acknowledging deficiencies in, the Agreement and stating the Opposition's policies.