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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13791

Mr JOHN COBB (Calare) (19:22): I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. This bill is to commit another $1.7 billion in spending that, to be quite frank, the government does not have to spend and imposes a liability on a future government. Before the 2007 election, Labor leader Kevin Rudd publicly admonished the Howard government, saying, 'This reckless spending must stop.' Given that the Rudd government started with a $20 billion surplus and $70 billion in the bank and that this has now been reversed—with, last year, a $44 billion deficit and debts of $150 billion—that was some statement! The current government, with the new leader, has not changed; it has just got worse. Five years on, the public can see the absurdity of that.

The problem with this bill is the same as the problem with the government: they say one thing and do another. They commit to infrastructure projects but actually deliver buyback. Everyone knows that the Howard government $10 billion water plan was based on investing in the infrastructure and irrigation of the Murray-Darling Basin and making savings. It was concerned with what could be recovered for the environment while ensuring we had a productive and innovative irrigation sector that could underpin economies for the next 100 years in these communities. There was $5.8 billion in infrastructure and irrigation efficiencies, with $3 billion for restructuring and buyback, as a last resort—not, 'Let's start buying and worry about a plan later,' which is totally untargeted buying.

When Labor were elected they shelved the infrastructure investment and stripped water from local communities. I will give you two clear examples of this. On the Lachlan River they started buying up large volumes of water before they even worked out what the water was to be used for. Of course, everyone with any understanding of the system realised that the Lachlan River is a terminal waterway. Yes, it does get into the system—twice every 100 years. Let me tell you: buying lots of water on the Lachlan does not deliver a single megalitre to South Australia in most years. In fact, in the years that it does get into the system, the last thing they need is more water, because it means they are facing one of the two biggest floods in 100 years. The government have bought more water than they can use within this catchment, taking water away from food and fibre production and depriving communities of economic activity.

The second example is the small village of Caldwell, 60 kilometres west of Deniliquin. The buyback has decimated this farming community. It is an untargeted, unplanned buyback—'Let's just see what we can get. Let's show that we've done something. If we destroy it or it's wasteful or not needed, so what?' There are a small block of farm south of Caldwell. Since 2007, around 10 of these farms have changed hands, with seven of the farms sold without water. This has meant that three farms on a stretch of about 10 kilometres of channel need to support the irrigation upgrades and costs of running the channel previously supported by 10 farms. Three now have to support the same infrastructure that 10 used to. That has left Murray Irrigation with a channel that is simply unsustainable—certainly for the people who are there. What do they do? Do they shut down these three highly productive farms or continue to lose money on maintaining a channel system? This example is repeated over and over throughout the irrigation district of New South Wales and Victoria.

The loss of business—the loss of critical mass—in these areas is just enormous. Also, the loss of irrigators has meant that, instead of 10 families, we have three. There are fewer kids at the local school. The school bus route has stopped. There are fewer people to retain the critical mass for services. Hospital services in Deniliquin have shrunk, so, instead of going 60 kilometres to Deniliquin for many services, locals now drive 250 kilometres to Albury. What has changed for the people in Canberra who make these decisions? Nothing. They have not lost income or services. The member for Watson lives in Sydney. Nothing has changed for him. He has no skin in the game. The Labor Party has no skin in the game.

The point I want to make here is that, while the government has made a commitment to concentrate on investments, the reality is it will just go in and buy back the water, which will further decimate rural communities. Burke and Wills are famous for exploring this country and opening up the nation's eyes to its potential. Now Burke and Wong will long be remembered for selling out our rural communities with untargeted buybacks.

I strongly support the amendments, to be put forward by the coalition, which will ensure that water purchases must be tied to infrastructure upgrades and system works and measures, with no social or economic detriment for the communities that the water comes from. This bill seeks to appropriate $1.77 billion until 2024 into a special account, which includes $55 million over the forward estimates. It is a good way to have a plan without paying for it.

I am really struggling with this bill—I will be honest. I have spent my whole life in the basin. I have lived on it and never been an irrigator, but I have lived with irrigators my whole life. The Prime Minister and the water minister announced this bill in Adelaide on 26 October 2012 with a promise that it would recover an additional 450 gigalitres of water for the environment. In the basin plan, which is supposed to be based on what science says, 2,750 gigalitres is the magic number. We might question the science because, without an environmental water plan, the figure does not deliver any tangible outcomes. However, the government says the basin plan is based on sound science to bring the river system back to health, yet this bill is providing more water for the environment based on what? The government has given a commitment that water will only be recovered in an economically neutral way via on-farm structural projects. What credence do we give to this commitment?

This bill seeks to put aside money to pay for additional water to allow the 2,750-gigalitre figure to increase to 3,200 gigalitres. Delivering more than the 2,750 gigalitres of water back to the environment requires removing a number of physical constraints on the system—doing such things as lifting bridges and moving roads to avoid flooding. This is enormously important. This is the actual practical part of what they are talking about. To deliver this water they have to, as I said, lift bridges, move roads to avoid flooding, purchase easements on private lands and change water operation rules which limit water flows. The challenge of removing such constraints is obviously huge—and it is totally untalked about and unproven.

Does anyone really think that the states of New South Wales and Victoria, the states which would actually have to release the water and cause the flooding, are going to put themselves in a position where they might be sued to their back teeth for deliberately—I am saying they are doing it deliberately!—causing this kind of chaos? Are we going to spend $1.7 billion removing constraints which will most likely involve raising bridges and doing those other ridiculous things I mentioned? The minister has left open the option of buying back the water if the constraints cannot be removed, despite the fact that the basin plan says that 2,750 is the maximum which can be delivered without removing constraints. The reality is that Labor can and will spend the $1.7 billion on buybacks, despite the basin plan saying extra water is not deliverable.

The coalition has two amendments to move which are aimed at holding the government to its word. Those amendments require that water only be recovered in a way that does not cause the sort of chaos I am talking about or social and economic detriment. It rules out water buybacks and only allows repurchase of water access. The shadow minister will go into that in more detail. We need to hold this government to account, as they have shown they cannot be trusted in this . One reason the government cannot be trusted is that they have no skin in the game in the Murray-Darling Basin. I implore the parliament to think of the rural communities and to support the coalition amendments. These amendments will ensure the intent will be met and avoid the chaos.