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Monday, 18 October 2010
Page: 423

Mr FORREST (12:53 PM) —Can I commence my remarks in response to the Governor-General’s speech by congratulating the members for Canberra and Herbert for their first contributions. It is interesting for those of us who have been here a little longer than they have to think about how we felt when we first arrived in this place. I remember standing here on behalf of the nearly 100,000 constituents in my electorate and feeling great honour in being their voice in this great chamber. Congratulations to them both. As the Governor-General made her speech in the other place, I was thinking about how, even after my seventh occasion of winning the confidence of the people of the division of Mallee, that sense of honour and privilege at the opportunity to speak on behalf of such a large number of people still remains.

I was impressed that the Governor-General’s first remarks went towards parliamentary reform. I was thrilled, Mr Speaker, to hear those words spoken on the subject of the reform that is needed in this place, and especially in reference to question time. I congratulate you, sir, on your first week of question time. I did note that without being prompted by the member for Mallee or anybody else you actually drew the attention of somebody who was not addressing their remarks to the chair. I know you understand how I feel about that because, as you would know, it is the only point of order I have ever raised in this place. And there was a reason for that point of order: in any proper meeting you might be at, remarks are addressed through the chair because it is less confrontational, less provocative and less rancorous.

I will be looking forward to the new rules being applied because the hardest thing I have found in all the time I have been here is trying to justify to the school groups that I have invited to the gallery the behaviour that they witness in this place, particularly in regard to question time. There is no explanation for it. In meeting them afterwards or a few weeks later in their classroom they say to me, ‘Mr Forrest, I am not allowed to behave like that in the classroom.’ Neither should they. I usually respond to them by saying, ‘When you see me do it, it is time for you to write me a letter and tell me I have been here too long.’ So in that first week of question time when the foreign minister responded to a question and sat down after four minutes I turned to Mr Oakeshott, the member for Lyne, and said, ‘Well done!’ I will be gratefully encouraged, Mr Speaker, if you continue to enforce that because it will be the single most important measure in making the chamber less disorderly and will therefore enhance its stature. The member for Canberra already made reference to the need for members in this place to be well regarded. Improvement in behaviour will contribute more than anything else towards that.

I was particularly overwhelmed on the evening of 21 August to find such a massive endorsement of me in the division of Mallee. I was greatly humbled. I was amazed that even more votes could be gleaned in the strongly conservative electorate that is Mallee, but people said to me throughout the campaign that they respected my position because I did not play any of the silly games. Brinkmanship and partisanship is so much wasted energy. I might not like the party who has enough members to make a government. I might not like their policy approach on a whole range of issues—and in fact some of those issues are adversely impacting upon my constituency—but I have to accept the reality that they are an elected government. Even in this case where there is such a fragile margin I have to accept the reality that those ministers of the Crown are now appointed and that I will need their cooperation in order to deliver the aspirations I have for my constituency.

The Governor-General also focused very much on the need for a stronger economy, and she made the point that this was to be achieved by government actions. To be frank, that may well be true, and governments set the overarching fiscal parameters. But the pleasant reality I notice in my own constituency is that the greatest contributor to our regional economy will be the profits generated from rainfall outcomes. To stand, as I have, in canola crops up to my chin in the northern Mallee is something I have not seen in the nearly 18 years I have been the member. What we now need is arrangements in place whereby the farming community can take advantage of this—so that they are not disadvantaged by taxation pressure and so that whatever dividends return to them after seven or eight years of very meagre incomes do not adversely impact their future viability. The determined resilience of the people in my electorate makes me proud to be in this place in order to represent them.

The Governor-General then went on to the need for infrastructure investment, particularly in regard to the parlous state of the water supply we have seen right around the nation. The irrigators in my constituency are currently beside themselves in regard to the implications of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s plan. I just hope that the water minister, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the Hon. Tony Burke, and the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, the Hon. Simon Crean, will listen to my remarks here. As the only civil engineer in the whole place, I have spent most of my time arguing for the need to invest in the plumbing of Australia’s antiquated irrigation arrangements. Some of them are as old as 150 years. Most of them were instigated by the governments of the day after the first big war and the second big war. They are already obsolete and inefficient.

I championed the cause of one particular water supply scheme—the need to pipe the Wimmera-Mallee. It is a huge part of western Victoria, covering one-third of the state’s supply from storages in the Grampian Mountains by open channel all the way north to Ouyen in the northern Mallee. Although an engineering achievement of its time before the turn of the century—it took 67 years to build the Wimmera-Mallee, including all the storages and supply—to now have it completely piped with a partnership funding arrangement between the Commonwealth government, state government and the local community is an achievement that I am immensely proud of. It serves the purpose of demonstrating what the nation has to do. To say we are purchasing water from alleged voluntary sellers is just a misnomer. The great bulk of my irrigators have got to the stage where they may be considered voluntary but it is the only option they have in order to redeem some of their equity in their lives’ investment. Often it is a second- or third-generation life investment. It is not fair to describe them as willing sellers.

As I have said constantly, fix the plumbing and there will be real water savings achieved on a massive scale. For example, the piping of the Wimmera-Mallee, both in the north and right across the south, all completed saves enough water every year to fill Olympic swimming pools placed end to end from Melbourne all the way to Darwin and back again. It is a huge amount of water that is saved. There are irrigation systems in place right through New South Wales and the Victorian side of the Murray Valley that supply hundreds of kilometres of earthen channel with massive evaporation, massive seepage, and creating additional salinisation to boot that deserve investment. That is a big challenge. I am just hoping that with the status of the numbers in the chamber today we will get some real attention to an engineering fix.

When the Romans built a new city the first thing they secured was their water supply to give them security of supply in the event of siege from any of Rome’s enemies of the day but also to secure the viability of that city. The first thing they did was to provide an assured water supply. Their engineering achievements are still visible today. Huge aqueducts were built by military engineers in those days. They did not become civil engineers until the end of the Roman Empire when instead of working for the military they moved towards working in the civic areas. They became civil engineers. Tunnels through the rock to supply water is a staple of virtually the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The second thing I would like to say is that my growers—and some of this is because they have a suspicious view of the agenda—to some extent resent the criticism they often hear that they are the problem. They are not. In the past 20 years irrigators along the Murray Valley, particularly in regard to horticulture, have already made a huge sacrificial contribution. When I was a young graduate the issue was salinity. I was born and raised in the soldier settlement district of Red Cliffs where my father and uncles could not spray their citrus in the daytime. They had to wait until the evening because of the high salinity of the water being supplied to them through the river. That is where I have come from. I have seen immense, positive changes, but that contribution has come because irrigators have been prepared to sacrifice some of the surplus water they do not need and all they are asking for is some consideration.

They also say to me that they are part of the solution and they are not the issue. I say to the Australian nation and those ministers who now will be responsible for making a decision on whether the authority’s plan is acceptable in its current form that new cities and provincial communities were created because of government investment. Swan Hill and Tresco were First World War soldier settlement districts. Robinvale was a First World War and Second World War soldier settlement district. Red Cliffs, the hometown of my youth, was too. They were all created by government investment. Governments have a responsibility to ensure that the prosperity that has been created continues so that we have inland provincial centres of great economic strength.

I will say how disappointed I was when I read a copy of the authority’s report to find the economic impacts of their proposals completely underdone. I do not accept their defence that their focus was on the environment because that was the way the legislation directed them. I expect an independent authority to do its homework, and to say that the removal of 3,000 gigalitres of water from the Murray-Darling Basin would result in only 800 jobs lost is completely unacceptable. A rough guide would be that every gigalitre of water lost to irrigation represents approximately 30 jobs spread across the whole local economy. Therefore the figure for that level of water is more like 80,000 jobs, not 800. I will be looking forward to seeing the authority do its homework better. In fact, I am pleased to see that the government has accepted this point. I heard the honourable minister for regional Australia on my local radio last week. To paraphrase, he said he had got the message on that matter.

One thing that irrigators in my electorate resent is the assumption that they do not care about the environment of the Murray River. That is completely unfair. Many of us live on it. In fact, I live on the river, and when I have visitors from Melbourne or other places around Australia they look out at the river and say, ‘We thought it was dry.’ It is the most carefully and judiciously managed river in the whole world, and people travel internationally to find out how we achieve such good management of the Murray-Darling river system. It once boasted the most secure water supply system in the world, and the events of the last five or six years have proved just how callous and misguided that assumption is.

Another thing irrigators in my electorate say to me is that they resent governments—any government of any colour—purchasing water in what is supposed to be a commercial water market. I am not on any particular government’s case here, because the government that I was part of engaged in this activity. It is a complete distortion of the market when governments move in to buy water in that way with the huge cheque-book that they have. It distorts the market, and it is not fair. It is done by both sides of politics, and I am alarmed at the current circumstances out on the southern end of the Mallee division around the Horsham district with the piping of the Wimmera-Mallee supply system and the lack of water people there have had in the last seven or eight years. The Wimmera irrigation district has not had any water at all, and there are about 30,000 megalitres of water available, but either the irrigators in those areas who have that allocation have to sell it on for the benefit of the environment or we need another $30 million or $40 million to rehabilitate the irrigation district.

Those irrigators who are associated with the Horsham irrigation district have come to the point where they decided that perhaps their best option is to redeem this asset and put the capital to better use. So they offered it to the federal government. They started at $1,800 per megalitre and they were refused; the department said that this was not considered value for money. So they rejigged their offer and progressively came down. The last offer was $1,100, and they are now considering coming down to $900 per megalitre. This is completely unfair. There is no buyer except the federal government. It is not a market at all. A sum of $950 million went into the piping of the Wimmera-Mallee to save the amount of water that has been saved. It was an investment that two governments—the state and the federal governments—and a community were prepared to make and they put the value of that water at $7,000 to $8,000 per megalitre. That is what a community, including the federal government in Canberra, local governments and local water authorities considered was the value of having environmental water for the Wimmera River, the Glenelg River and those very dry terminal lakes all the way up to Lake Hindmarsh and Albacutya, yet here is a government saying that compensation of $1,100 per megalitre to irrigators does not represent value for money. I find that argument completely obtuse.

I am pleased to see that the authority has scheduled one of its consultation meetings in Horsham on, I think, 11 November. I will be pleased to see that issue brought to the authority’s attention by the large number of irrigators associated with that supply system. There is a lot of work to be done, and I am saying to the Hon. Simon Crean and the Hon. Tony Burke: for goodness sake listen to the engineers, because there are viable and realistic and economic engineering solutions to the challenges of the Murray-Darling Basin, even to the extent of flooding wetlands. This can be done in an engineering way, and to some extent that has been experimented with in the last three or four years in the Hattah Lakes by pumping the lower level of the river water and supplying the lakes that way. But that would not be a substitute for the big flood, which we may or may not get, that is needed once in a hundred years so that the wetlands get the drink they so desperately need. So there are engineering solutions. I was pleased to see that the Governor-General’s speech highlighted that as a major area of government activity. I will be looking forward to having some say in that, and I argue that irrigators are not, as alleged, the problem but very much an important part of the solution.

I finish my remarks by going back to where I started—that is, the behaviour of this chamber. I hope that this week and next week we see much the same behaviour as we saw in our first week after the swearing-in, because we are on display. Even as I speak, there are schoolchildren in the gallery, and we need to consider what they will think of adults if this place erupts and they see adults behaving in the same way that I have seen members behave all throughout the time that I have been here. I will be looking forward to that reform being implemented, and I place that responsibility in your hands, Mr Deputy Speaker.