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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 14001

Mr BURKE (WatsonMinister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (17:31): I thank the House for allowing us to debate these two disallowance motions, given that each of them have the legal impact of abolishing of Australia's first Murray-Darling Basin Plan. If carried, the plan will have been in place for seven days and will then expire. That is the significance of what is in front of us now. So that the House is aware, the outcome of there being no Murray-Darling Basin Plan is that the legal processes would have to kick in. The processes under the Water Act that kicked off shortly after the last election—the guide document was not one of them but everything that followed since then has been—would effectively have to recommence. In my judgement, the outcome of that would probably be that we would never get a Murray-Darling Basin plan. We need to be fairly upfront that that is what is in front of us as the option being put.

I do not want to deal one by one, speaker by speaker with the different speeches that were made before I stood up. But I want to work through the issues. Essentially, there is a theme—a significant question that has been put and a claim made—that there is not a problem to fix. At its core, that is the argument behind these disallowance motions: that there is not a problem to fix. That is a position—

Dr Stone interjecting

Mr BURKE: I did not interject once on you, member for Murray—not once. I have been listening intently the entire time and we are capable of conducting this debate with a level of respect.

Dr Stone interjecting

Mr BURKE: Okay, maybe we are not. I will try to. The problem that we are addressing is one that is not the personal fault of anyone alive today and is certainly not the personal fault of anyone in any irrigation community. It is an error that was made generations before us to pretend that rivers would stop at state boundaries. It was a mistake that the Premier of South Australia in 1897 tried to have fixed when the Australian Constitution was being drafted. He wanted to make sure that when licences were put out they were done so with respect to the national demands on the Murray-Darling Basin. Back then, it was not an argument about sustainability; it was an argument about navigation at the southern end of the basin. But, notwithstanding that, the fundamental mistake has been—and this is the way that it was described by Prime Minister Howard as well—that the rivers do not respect state boundaries but we have managed the system as though they do. The only way to stop that is to have a national plan.

You then need to ask the next question, which is: what does that national plan need to achieve? The challenge which brought the Water Act into place—the challenge which a decade before had caused COAG under the Keating government to set down three particular principles—was the challenge that overextraction has a diabolical effect on the environmental and productive assets downstream. That was the challenge. It should have been a challenge that Australia dealt with in 1981 when we had the mouth of the Murray close. A decade later, when the blue-green algae outbreak covered 1,000 kilometres of river much further upstream, people realised that if we manage the rivers poorly the water is of no use to anyone. It was not simply an environmental issue. The water would be of no use to anyone. It was a challenge that we finally saw the underpinnings of dealt with with water market reform. I pay tribute to those involved in the National Water Initiative in 2004. That set up the water market and allowed the 2007 legislation, the Water Act, to go through this parliament.

I have been concerned by the number of people who sat on the government benches and voted for the Water Act then who now want to completely disown it. The Water Act was used in the way that the member for Riverina described: it used international treaties. That was quite a factual explanation of the constitutional underpinnings of the act. In fairness to the minister at the time, the government of the day tried to not have to use treaty powers. It was the government of Victoria—a Labor government—that in my view quite wrongly failed to cede its powers. That led us to the situation in which the legislation was drafted in the way that it was.

Notwithstanding that, there was enough flexibility within it to make sure that we could optimise the environmental, economic and social outcomes. And I believe that we have. But we need to start with that question of what is it we are trying to fix. You cannot optimise environmental, social and economic outcomes if at the end of it you do not actually fix the overallocation problem. That problem needs to be addressed in order for us to deal with the health of the system. Where I believe this plan has landed is that we have a plan, a volume and methods that allow smarter management of water that mean that the fundamental problem that needs to be addressed and fixed will be. We have put all the incentives in place to make sure that it can be done in way such that the impact on communities is absolutely minimised.

How do you minimise the impact on communities? In two ways. Firstly, you say to the states, 'If you can reach the same environmental outcomes through methods other than water being held by the Commonwealth environmental water holder,' which means avoiding the need for buybacks, 'then you are allowed to do so.' It is believed by the states—and this is referred to in the plan—that up to 650 gigalitres can be achieved in that way. But I have to say that I do not believe that you can get the states to run the projects unless the states have their eyes wide open and know that if they do not do that then buybacks are the alternative. That is the reason I do not support the cap. I believe that, by having buybacks as the alternative to the projects within that 650 gigalitres, you actually guarantee that the states will put them forward. If the cap that New South Wales seeks were ever to be put in place and the incentive for them to put forward the projects for smarter management were to be removed, I question whether or not we would have a mechanism that would allow us to effectively achieve the outcomes described in the plan. The states say that they can come forward with projects. I believe that they will come forward with projects. Those projects will involve smarter management of what is a managed system.

There is an argument that has been put many times to me throughout the basin and many times in my office—and it was put during the previous speeches—that I must deal with directly. It is the argument that you can justify every possible intervention upstream—every dam and every weir—but that somehow it is outrageous for there to be a managed system at the Lower Lakes. If people want to run an argument that we need to remove the barrages; how is that a sensible argument but it is not a sensible argument to say we also need to remove the weirs? I support that we have a working basin. I support that we have a basin that is both healthy, environmentally significant but also extraordinarily important for production. That means, to make the system work, you need to have management interventions that occur up and down the system. I would have more respect for the argument about removing the barrages if it was being made by extreme environmentalists who were saying: remove everything. But for people to say, 'Remove the interventions downstream but the ones in my electorate are just fantastic,' I really believe it is an outrageous argument, and part of the source of the problem.

There is an argument that was made by the member for Murray which I believe deserves an extra level of attention because it is one where I believe we can do more, and where we are currently doing more. The basin plan itself will not do enough to address the salinity impacts on the south lagoon of the Coorong. The way you would have to get water near the mouth at the right point, and then the wind blowing in two or three different directions to solve problems in the south lagoon, really does point to the fact that drainage work going into the south lagoon is critical to dealing with the environmental outcomes there. I do not pretend, and never have pretended, that the basin plan itself is able to fix the environmental challenges in the south lagoon. While I disagree with the barrages argument that was offered, I believe the south lagoon argument that was put has merit. That is why we are funding significant drainage work. There is an argument as to whether or not drainage work could go further than what is currently being constructed there, but it is a legitimate environmental argument with respect to the south lagoon, and I concur with that part of it.

A lot has been said about infrastructure money, and I want to be able to deal with this quite directly. I do not believe it is reasonable at all to refer only to infrastructure money that has been spent, because when you are dealing with projects that involve multiyear contracts, the infrastructure money that has been contracted has only not been spent because the project cannot spend it yet. It is true that we do not have the full amount of infrastructure money contracted yet, but $3.8 billion worth of it is. To the claim that not that much has gone out the door yet: that is the nature of a multiyear project. That is how complex hydrological engineering works have to take place. They take a number of years. People only want to look at cash out the door, but if we tried to rush expenditure figures through, we would have ended up with second-rate projects, which would have meant either we ended up with an increased reliance on buyback or we did not solve the problem that we are trying to solve. I respect the concerns that have been made of 'Is the money out the door yet, or not?' but, realistically, when you are dealing with multiyear contracts I do not believe that it is appropriate test.

Of all the projects to be referred to, I am really challenged by there being any criticism of me as water minister on the fact that the Menindee Lakes project has not yet taken place. Shortly after coming to government, the Premier of New South Wales wrote to the Prime Minister of Australia and unilaterally terminated the entire Menindee Lakes agreement—just terminated it. We then wrote back to the New South Wales government—and it is unusual for any state government to say we do not want the money, it is not something the Commonwealth has a lot of experience of hearing—and we are now very productively working with officials there in getting a significant project agreed on Menindee. I expect the water recovery that comes out of the Menindee Lakes project—this will be a decision the New South Wales—will go a long way to fixing some of the challenges that were referred to by the member for Riverina. I believe that it is in the interests of the electorate of Riverina that the Menindee Lakes project goes ahead. I believe it will. But given that it was a Liberal National government that unilaterally said, 'We don't want your money; we don't want to do it,' the fact that it is going ahead—and the incentives within the plan help make sure of that—is an example of exactly what is being asked.

There is an issue of motivation of the government that has been raised. Can I say to the member for Murray, who claimed that this is all because of some agreement with the Greens: when the bells ring, the Greens are voting with you. If this is some grand conspiracy with the Greens, it has really failed. As I understand it, there are about five members of the House who are going to vote to blow the whole thing up, and the member for Melbourne, as I understand it, is one of them. For anyone to say that there is this really terrible deal that is going on with the Greens, it has failed dismally. What we have done is what I said to every one of those community meetings we would do, and that was that we would deal with the problem and we would act to fix the problem, which is exactly what I believe this plan does. But we would do so in a way that minimises the impact on communities.

There is always an excuse, and for many members in this House this debate is really hard and really difficult, particularly with conflicting views within their electorates. The truth is that if we do not fix this it will not be fixed. If this parliament blows it up, let's face fact; there will never be a Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

I want to express appreciation to all those members—including those in basins seats—for the work that they have done, particularly those who have been members of the Windsor committee. They produced unanimous reports. Unfortunately, some people who participated in that, after we have responded positively to those recommendations, have then shifted the goal posts. I should not complain too much: for a century that is what Australians have done. We have an opportunity now to do something really different. We have an opportunity to reach across the parliament in the same way that we need to reach across states and to reach across the basin. We have an opportunity now for this parliament to be different to our predecessors. We have an opportunity now to go over the final hurdle in making sure that we have a national approach to the Murray-Darling Basin, and I implore the parliament to not miss the opportunity that is in front of us today.