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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 12620

Mr RAMSEY (Grey) (19:31): I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Long-Term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. The adjustment mechanism referred to in this bill has some agreement within the Australian community from the various parties, including the ministerial council. Because of that, it deserves to be taken seriously. I believe there are still some deficiencies in that plan, but I am hoping the minister can progress the negotiations and reach a good, sustainable outcome for the river from one end to the other.

There are some deficiencies in this bill which will be addressed by the coalition's amendments, and I will come to those a little later. It is planned to return 2,750 gigalitres to the river and, as it has quite a lot of support across a number of communities, it deserves to be taken seriously. All of this falls within the coalition's long-term vision for the river system.

The sustainable diversion limits actually allow for flexibility within the management of the system. It seems to me to make sense that, as improvements are made within the system—whether funded by public funds or otherwise, but presumably funded by the taxpayer—the management plan has room to adapt. In that sense, I think a flexible arrangement is a good idea. If farm practices can be improved, presumably by public moneys, if production can be held stable or improved within the communities along the river, and if those communities are healthy in a financial sense, it makes some sense that there could be a reallocation of the water. Equally, if public moneys are spent to reengineer the river system and remove some of the constraints, to actually manage the water better in the flooding of the wetlands as we go down the river—and I am sure there are always improvements to be made in this area—then equally it makes sense that more water may become available for agricultural diversions. So it makes sense to have flexibility.

Importantly, decisions by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority must be made on sound scientific evidence, and the coalition has long been a supporter of this position. However, we do draw the line at a totally hands-off approach, divorcing the parliament from all responsibility. That brings us to the coalition's amendments in this area. Yes, the governing council, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, should make the independent, scientifically driven decisions, but at the end of the day, we cannot totally muzzle the people's voice in this area. We live in a democracy and it is important that the people's voice be heard, and the parliament is the people's voice. That is why the coalition amendments seek to restore ministerial responsibility in this area. I hope we will be supported by the government. I think they are very good amendments.

In the end, decisions made by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority could conceivably have large impacts on the federal budget or even, depending on the appointments of the commissioners, make decisions that are not well based—decisions of the heart rather than of science. In that case, the government, the parliament, must have the room to intervene. For those that worry that the allocation of water would then become a political football, I would say they should watch an old episode of Yes Minister. I think the words would be: 'Any minister who chooses to overrule his independent authority is a very courageous minister.' I think it is right that we should put some power back in the hands of the minister but it should be used with great care. I am sure it would be, because any opposition worth its salt that would see a minister overruling his scientific council would wear some criticism.

It is important in this debate that the parliament understand the great significance of the Murray River in South Australia. The average diversion limit to South Australia from 1997 to 2010 was seven per cent. Of that, 75 per cent is for primary production.

As a representative of an electorate that has no irrigation in it but is a recipient of the Murray water—and the Murray water is very important to my electorate—I would just like to put the case at this stage for the sometimes much maligned non-irrigation use of water out of the river system. I make the case that anybody paying $3.73 a kilolitre for water is unlikely to waste it. In fact, they are likely to put it to very good use indeed. That price has risen by 50 per cent in South Australia in the last two years and that has led me to some criticism of the state government over a number of issues. Water has risen to $3.73 a kilolitre or by 50 per cent over the last two years.

If we take the City of Whyalla, which is often raised in this place by the government, it uses around 15 gigalitres a year. It supports a population of 23,000. None of that city could be there without the River Murray water. The water has a very high multiplier effect, and is very important to communities all through South Australia, including our irrigation communities. It is also important to note, from a South Australian point of view—I know members from the eastern seaboard may be a little tired of hearing this—that extractions from the river have been capped in South Australia since 1969: a period of 43 years.

Progress on achieving an outcome for national management of the Murray Darling Basin has been slow. And there has been a series of mis-steps and mistakes by the government, including the sight of irrigators burning the draft report of the Murray-Darling plan—an exercise, I think, which antagonised all players in this game. I think, in retrospect, even the minister may wish that that original report had not gone out in that form and that it had some more careful consideration before it went out. I believe that that very confrontational blooding of the public to the views of the report entrenched positions and made it harder to achieve an outcome later.

But it is important, I believe, that the coalition be part of the solution—that we do not frustrate an outcome in this area but actually work with the government to try and bring about the right results for the river. Now, let me say that while the figure of 2,750 gigalitres has been broadly agreed amongst some of the major parties, exactly how we arrive at that 2,750 gigalitres is still part of the debate, and I know the minister is probably working on this on a fairly regular basis. And I wish him well on achieving the right outcome, because whatever our political background, Australia will not thank us if we do not reach an outcome. And I want the minister to achieve that outcome.

That deals with this bill and the amendments that pertain to this bill, but it brings me back to the announcement by the Prime Minister and Jay Weatherill, last weekend, of the extra 450 gigalitres. We are still waiting for the detail of that announcement. It worries me that it appears to be another of the cheap and fairly empty commitments from the government.

Look at the government's recent form on the NDIS, the Gonski report, the national dental health plans, the recently announced participation in the Asian century and, now, the Murray River. These are all announcements without specific funding. There are plenty of lofty goals and no money. And they are all outside the life of this government and even outside the life of the forward estimates. So they become very empty promises. Empty promises about a river that was recently empty are really not good enough. I believe, with the government's form across all of those subjects, the government has resigned itself to losing the next election, and is setting up to attack the incoming government from opposition.

However, I do want to be part of positively moving this forward. So we wait to hear what those new commitments are that were made on the weekend. If the guarantees for future increases in environment flows are supported by irrigation efficiencies funded by the government, even though there does not appear to be much money in this announcement, then we should be flexible enough to allow for new circumstances. If the government of the day can find the money to fund these engineering works, both on farm and in the river, to release more water then we should be flexible enough to allow for new outcomes. But I think we need to draw some kind of line in the sand about the buyouts of licences that are currently occurring. We simply cannot afford to achieve all of those outcomes through buyouts. The minister knows that that would rip the guts out of too many communities. That is why we know this will be some kind of compromise between the parties.

It is very important that the government finds the money for the engineering works that can release water to the environment without damaging the communities down the river. That is something that I and the coalition have maintained ever since John Howard first announced the Murray-Darling rescue packages. It has been the long plan of the coalition to go down this path. We should continue to go down this path and we should continue to find the way that causes the least damage to the irrigation communities the length of the River Murray.