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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 32

Senator LEES (2:36 PM) —My question is to Senator Ian Campbell, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage. It follows on from a question from Senator Ferguson earlier in question time regarding the 500 gigalitres of water that will be available for environment flows in the Murray. I ask the minister: what is the timeline for the completion of the four projects you mentioned that will free up 240 gigalitres? When will the 240 gigalitres be available for the red gums and for the environment? Will it be as soon as we have good rains, or will we have to wait until the four projects are completed? What is the timeline for the remainder of the 500 gigalitres? When will that be available for use for the environment?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I thank Senator Lees for the question. Senator Lees is someone who has taken a long-term interest in this issue, and it is appropriate that both Senator Ferguson from South Australia and Senator Lees should draw attention to this. The government, through the Living Murray partnership with the states and the territory in the Murray-Darling Basin, can be quite proud of the achievement that did take place last Friday in this building. As Senator Lees and Senator Ferguson would know, there are a number of stumbling blocks between achieving the agreement on Friday and the delivery of the water. Senator Lees, of course, has identified one of them: we need it to rain. You cannot just create water in this world. Mr Garrett and Mr Latham went along to the riverbank of the Murray during the election and stood at a site made famous a generation earlier by Mr Hawke and Mr Richardson—who promised to plant a million trees, a billion trees or whatever it was at the same site—and they promised to create 1,500 gigalitres of water. They did not say how you would pay for it. They did not say how they were going to make it rain. They made this bizarre promise based on no science and based on no funding. But it was appropriate that they chose that site because, of course, it was proved to be a site good for illusions and political rhetoric but not much good for delivering for the Murray. So that is the first prerequisite: we have got to have the rain.

In terms of the delivery of the projects, the great thing that was achieved on Friday was that the projects were signed off on by the government. They have now been placed on a register and will be available for investment by the partners. Up to $500 million can go into those projects. We expect that they shall cost around $179 million. As I said, they will deliver 240 gigalitres. In terms of the practical project delivery, a number of the projects reduce evaporation. They will involve major piping work. For example, the Darling anabranch project is a major piping project which will see available water delivered to where it is needed. It can be delivered to some of those key wetlands, help restore water flows to the wetlands and, of course, help to start watering those red gums that require a fairly regular cycle of flooding. That work can begin.

We do need the National Water Initiative to be recommitted to by the states. We are hopeful—and I say this quite earnestly—that the states will recognise that we do need to put the politics of the pre 9 October period behind us. The environmental needs of the river far outweigh the petty political fights that occurred prior to 9 October. The National Water Initiative does underpin the whole future of water, particularly in this basin. We need to ensure that water is properly valued, that it is properly accounted for. The South Australians, for example, are very concerned that the gigalitres that are identified can actually be delivered. The South Australian government want to see that properly accounted for. There is no use governments putting up promises of gigalitres if they are not delivered. So there needs to be a proper accounting framework, and the National Water Initiative can do that.

In terms of the project timeline—and this is what Senator Lees is very concerned about—I will get for her the details of the rollouts of the projects. Some of them are simple allocation and reallocation processes that can happen immediately. Projects like the Darling anabranch program are massive engineering projects that will take longer, but I will get for Senator Lees and the Senate an indicative timeline for all of those projects so that we know when the water can physically be delivered.

Senator LEES —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I ask the minister if he is aware that in 2000 a number of these areas that were not flooded could have been, and the red gums could have had a drink in a number of other areas down the river. I ask him if he is aware that the decision was made to actually drop the lock gates all the way down the river and simply flush the water through. Is there an agreement in place to raise the lock gates, not to lower them, next time there is a decent flood? If there is not an agreement, Minister, then who is it that will make the decision to give the red gums a drink if and when the water is available? As well as providing to the Senate a timeline for the completion of the various projects, can you provide us with a timeline for the availability of water for these gums, which have in some cases been without water now for seven and eight years? They are not going to last another seven or eight; indeed, they are probably not going to last another two.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I think Senator Lees is right: they certainly need a drink. As much as these trees have learned to adapt to a drought and a flood environment which typifies much of the area, it is very important that we get water to them in appropriate amounts. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission will make the decisions on how the water is managed. I think the great thing about the Living Murray initiative is that it has identified the six sites and—as Senator Hill quite properly intimated by way of interjection—you have got to ensure that you look after the Murray mouth, you have to look after the channel and you have to look after these other very important Ramsar listed wetlands. So you need the experts at the commission to determine how you deliver the water to those six icon sites. They are the people who have got the skills to do that. Clearly a decision was made in the last flush to flush it down the channel for whatever reasons were applied at the time. You have made the good point that we need to share the water more sensibly next time. (Time expired)