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Wednesday, 29 October 1997
Page: 8380

Senator BROWN(4.21 p.m) —I oppose this legislation on behalf of the Australian Greens. In the words of the Snowy River Alliance:

. . . this bill should be withdrawn from the Federal Parliament until satisfactory agreements have been established between the State governments and the communities locally on environmental flows for the Snowy River and other affected rivers including the details of other outstanding issues including irrigation.

The Snowy River Alliance, which had led the campaign for the rescue and return of the Snowy River's flow, says:

If the Senate passes this legislation prior to the formulation of the detail of the proposed corporatisation, then it will consequently be supporting any decision that the NSW and Victorian energy and treasury ministers make on water resource management for the next 125 years.

That is because the corporatised authority will be able to enter into agreements for water flows for 75 years with options to the recipients of those agreements for another 50 years.

This legislation takes away from the government the responsibility for the environmental outcomes of this scheme. The Snowy Mountains scheme provides five per cent of the electricity in the south-east grid of this country. On the other hand, the scheme prevents 99 per cent of the water flowing down arguably the most famous river in this country—certainly in the culture of this country—the once great and mighty Snowy River.

Local residents, supported by environment groups, have been saying that there should be a restoration of flow to the once mighty Snowy below Jindabyne to enable the ecosystems at least to survive at a tenuous but possible level in the Snowy River. In June a group of local residents on foot and horseback protested outside Parliament House in New South Wales when the analogous legislation for corporatisation was before the New South Wales parliament. It was notable that the New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, did not come out to speak to that group of people. In the coverage of that protest by Snowy Mountains and Snowy River residents this was said:

Since the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme diverted water flow into the Murray and Murrumbidgee irrigation schemes in 1967, the flow has dwindled to less than one per cent of the original flow, Snowy River Alliance chairman Paul Leete said.

"The trouble is, they took the lot. They wiped the Snowy River clean off the map . . . (Scientists) all say that if we don't get at least one quarter of the river back then we might as well get the liquid paper out and wipe it off the map."

Mr Leete and about 40 fellow protesters, several of them on horseback—

as I have said—

invited the Premier . . . to accept a framed photograph of the Snowy River before the flow was halted.

That was not possible because the Premier ducked the protest. However, veteran actor Gus Mercurio was at the protest and, as the report goes on:

. . . while acting in The Man From Snowy River movie, he had been shocked when he first saw the river.

"It's choked with weeds. It's a shrivelling, little meaningless creek held together by pools . . . The Snowy that I and thousands of Australians once knew is in its death throes."

Rae Solomon Stewart, elder of the Monaro Aboriginal people, said her people dispersed from the Snowy River area since the flow was halted.

Ms Stewart, who said she was born on the river's banks where her ancestors had spent much of their time, said camping there had been a central part of daily existence.

"Being Kooris, black kids, we used to swim in the river because Aboriginal children were not allowed to swim in the swimming pools.

Of the towns, that is.

We used to get water from the river for cooking and washing. We'd take our washing down and boil water up in old kerosene buckets."

Ms Stewart said her family also caught eels in the Snowy. "When it dried up, the families just scattered.

That is, when it dried up after the Snowy scheme. It stopped the flow.

"The families just scattered. They all moved away," she said.

She said flow should be returned so that young people could enjoy what she experienced as a child.

Instead of listening to the Aboriginal people and all the residents and locals of this region—and, I suspect, to the heart of the Australian people who, without exception, have heard of the Snowy River and see it as part of this nation's cultural history as a whole—this bill is about shutting out the environment and social and cultural considerations and shrugging off the responsibility we have to the environment of what is, as Senator Lees aptly said, `arguably the greatest river in this country'.

As it is, there is an amendment from Labor which concerns the holding of the water flow inquiry—and what a remarkable thing; we are being asked to pass this bill before the results of an inquiry into the need for returning flow to the Snowy River are available, before that inquiry has been held. However, Labor has an amendment flagged before the Senate which would enable the minister to act on the results of that inquiry. The minister, it turns out, is Senator Parer, the Minister for Resources and Energy. So here we have an environmental outcome being placed in the hands of the minister for holding back the flow of the Snowy River, who sees this as an irrigation outcome. We are asked to trust Senator Parer in this matter.

Senator Calvert —I trust him implicitly.

Senator BROWN —I would rather trust the sensitivities of the Snowy River Alliance and get the results of that water inquiry and ensure the environmental flow in the Snowy River before we hand this across to the corporatised authority and basically the laws of New South Wales.

I have recently watched the environmental concerns of the minister in question regarding the mine at Jabiluka in the Northern Territory. I have noticed no great proclivity for understanding the concerns, social and environmental, of local Aboriginal people, let alone the sentiments of a wider nation about Kakadu National Park. So it would be quite foolish and remiss for the Greens to accept that the same minister might have a different point of view, a different approach, a greater sensitivity, when it comes to the needs of the Snowy River. Of course he has not. That is absurd. Of course we cannot expect that anything but a greenwash will occur post-corporatisation as far as the flow of the Snowy is concerned.

And, of course, it will be the holy dollar which determines the outcome—not the needs of the river, not the concerns of the Aboriginal community and not the concerns of all those communities downstream of the scheme right through to the Victorian coastline. They are not going to rate when it comes to a corporate entity which is doing business and which is selling that water for money. We do not live in that sort of society and we cannot expect in this day and age that sort of outcome. We know from the behaviour of the minister, as I have just said, that we certainly cannot leave this in his hands. We would be very foolish to put the safety of the chookhouse in the hands of the fox.

I make an appeal here to the Labor opposition. This is a matter of holding up a process of corporatisation of the Snowy Mountains authority, not the flow of the Snowy River west into other systems for irrigation or for the production of electricity. That will go on. This is an appeal to halt the process of corporatisation, and essentially the Commonwealth divesting the influence it has, until the environmental safety of the Snowy River is returned; until an adequate flow—and the scientists say 28 per cent is the minimum—is returned to this majestic river.

A couple of months ago here in Canberra I watched film of the river as it was. I saw canoeists going down this remarkable, majestic river on the snow melt, on the spring thaw from the Snowy Mountains, back in the 1940s. It can only be described as stupendous: a fabulous experience, a life-moving experience. Today, if you go to emulate that experience, you find, as Mr Mercurio said, a riverbed choked with weeds, a shrivelling little meaningless creek. If we as a nation cannot get this right, if we as a nation cannot return 28 per cent to nature, to the environment, to local residents, to the Aboriginal community—it sounds minimal to me—while 72 per cent goes to the other pursuits for which the Snowy Mountains scheme was put in place, what does that say about us?

If we as a Senate—and I include particularly the Labor opposition in this—cannot say, `Let us stay the execution of the Snowy until we get the outcome of the relevant inquiry into water flows, till we know what we are dealing with. Let us put off this corporatisation and not divest ourselves of powers until we ensure that the health of the Snowy and the aspirations of the people who live along it are met,' what does that say about the Senate, what does that say about the parliament and, indeed, what does that say about the Labor opposition and its claim to be sensitive to social and environmental matters of this sort?

I do not hold out any hope with the government. I do not hold out any hope with Senator Parer. I do not hold out any hope even with government members who represent communities along this mighty river. But we have got the numbers in this place to delay this corporatisation until the river is spoken for and until those people are spoken for. So I make this appeal to the opposition to join the Greens, the Democrats and, hopefully, the independent component in this place so that commonsense, if not environmental excellence, prevails and we get the information from the water inquiry into the needs of the Snowy River for centuries to come. What is the basic flow, the minimum flow, the least we can give back to this grand river to ensure its health into the future? We should have that information before we throw away our ability to do the right thing by the river and the people who live along it.

(Quorum formed)