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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 143

Senator BROWN (10:16 PM) —I congratulate the previous speakers for their contributions to this debate about one of the most important issues facing Australia now and one of the most important issues for the lives of everybody alive in this country in 2004. We all know the problems but we have to take them in concert with an increasing population, an increasing use of resources and, more particularly, the advent of global warming through the human use of resources. This threatens in the Murray-Darling Basin, for example, to reduce the flow of the rivers there by 30 per cent by mid-century—on top of everything we have at the moment. When you see the almost impossibility, according to conventional thinking, of taking 30 per cent of flow from current users and putting it back in for environmental use, and add to that global warming taking out 30 per cent of the natural flow over the next 40 or 50 years, you wonder how on earth the generations who will live in the Murray-Darling Basin and depend upon it in the middle of the century are going to look back on this debate in this parliament tonight. They will see how far short of the mark the legislation we are dealing with is compared to what is required from governments who have the long-term national interest in mind.

We are effectively establishing another bureaucracy, and it is to dispense money to unspecified projects to reach unspecified goals. It is all very nebulous. It is in many ways typical of the Howard government's approach to the great environmental responsibilities it has, which is to say: `We'll put in place a watchdog mechanism but we're not going to put in place goals and commit ourselves to meeting those goals. We won't sign the Kyoto protocol. We won't commit to a time line for returning a proper environmental flow to the Murray River.' There is massive environmental damage occurring in the meantime while this government effectively sits on its hands. There is the loss of species in the river, including fish species but going on to all the in-water species, and the massive damage to the riverine environment.

Senator Lees has just referred to the study showing the impact on the river red gums. It is a national calamity, and there is nothing in this bill to adequately deal with that. Senator Lees says action is required to get water to the dying red gums, the majority of them stressed and dying, this year. There is nothing in here to address that at all. The Prime Minister, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage and the cabinet are together turning their backs on those trees as they die and on the ecosystem which depends on those trees and which dies with them. It is grossly irresponsible for the Prime Minister and the cabinet to have turned their backs and to be a `do little' government in the face of such a calamity. This is not something facing future generations; this is right now in front of our very eyes, described by scientists. And this government says: `We won't deal with that. We'll set up a commission with vague, nebulous guidelines but we will not deal with that immediate problem.' If the government cannot deal with the immediate problem, how is it going to deal with the long-term and greater problem of looking to the health of the Murray-Darling and, indeed, of all the other river systems of this country?

The Greens have some amendments to try to rescue the ineptness of this legislation and the establishment of this superbureaucracy without the superpowers and discrete and specific goals that it should have. The first amendment requires the National Water Commission to meet specific goals for providing environmental water to really deal with the crisis that we have. Part (a) says that the National Water Commission will secure the entire 500 gigalitres required for the Living Murray First Step by 31 December 2005. That is 500 gigalitres when we are dealing here with a natural river flow in excess of 12,000 gigalitres. So we are dealing with something like four per cent of the natural flow being added to the Murray River through this first step. That is four per cent, when Senator Webber or earlier Senator Stephens was talking earlier about a minimal return of 28 per cent recognised as being required to go to the Snowy—and that took 10 years to get around to. We are talking about four per cent here as an emergency measure, and this government has not got it on the slate. It is looking at that somewhere out at 2010 or 2014.

Senator Lees has talked about her Christmas card of three years ago and the magnificent tree on it that is now dead. Add all the pictures you could take of the river red gums now and see where they will be in three years, let alone in 2014—and we do not know that 500 gigalitres is going to go anywhere near reversing the fortune, or misfortune, of the river red gums.

The Greens amendment effectively says that the Commonwealth and states agreed on the 500 gigalitres and committed $500 million in November 2003. A year later, in November 2004, they agreed on specific measures to secure and fund the first 240 gigalitres. But as things stand not one dollar will be spent and no water will flow because of the fight over competition payments. What is the National Water Commission going to do about that? It is being established under this legislation, but what is it going to do about the Prime Minister's failure to get one drop of water returned to the river during his nine years in office? This Prime Minister has not returned one drop of water to the Murray-Darling to rescue this grand ecosystem which is dying in front of his face in the nine years he has sat in that chair in his office. It is a national disgrace.

The second part of the Greens amendment would secure an additional 2,500 gigalitres of water for the environment by December 2007—a minimum of 1,000 gigalitres for the Murray. This takes the Murray allocation to 1,500 gigalitres within three years. That is what the scientists retreated to saying was the minimum required to get an environmental rescue, environmental health, for the river. This would provide another 500 gigalitres for either the Murray or elsewhere in the basin—for example, the Macquarie Marshes. I will be asking the government about the plight of the Macquarie Marshes when we get to the committee stage.

I notice that there are no advisers in the box. I do not know whether there is anybody at the other end of the phone. I do not know whether there is anybody watching on television. I do not know whether the government gives a cuss at all about this. Certainly the minister is not here. The advisers are not here. Is there anybody at the other end of the phone? Who knows, because as far as the minister is concerned this bill does not matter. I have never seen a situation where a bill like this has been before the Senate and there are no advisers in the place and no minister to deal with it during the second reading debate, let alone the committee stage, which we may guess will be coming shortly.

The third part of the first tranche of amendments by the Greens is to return rivers and wetlands to environmentally sustainable extraction levels by 2010. The National Water Initiative commits to returning overallocated systems to environmentally sustainable extraction levels—but with no time line. The Australian Conservation Foundation, the Farmers Federation and the Banking Association agreed to do it by 2014. The government could not even follow through with that time line in this legislation—and this is the place to be laying down the directives to the National Water Commission. But it is not here, so the Greens are providing a time line which we think is minimal if you are really talking about environmental rescue of the Murray and the Darling.

The fourth part of the amendment is to give the Murray-Darling Basin Commission responsibility for managing environmental water in the Murray-Darling Basin—that is, the return of flow to the rivers. The management of environmental water should be in the hands of an organisation with environmental expertise.

The second amendment is to lift the entrenched secrecy which this legislation gives to the National Water Commission. Mr Acting Deputy President Sandy Macdonald, as you live in the basin, I know you will be concerned to see that everything is open and transparent to the public. The Greens amendment will provide you with the ability to support that. The amendment requires specific documents produced by the commission to be tabled in parliament when they are given to the minister and generally to operate in an open and transparent manner.

I will be asking the minister, if he appears, to explain the need to hide any matter that the National Water Commission is dealing with. It is public money, public water and the national environment that we are dealing with and the public should know about it. According to the bill as written, the minister has complete control over all the information produced by the commission. The public do not get a go unless the minister deigns to release that information. That information includes the assessment of Australia's water resources and their management, whether plans are consistent with the National Water Initiative and should be accredited, whether commitments under the National Water Initiative are being implemented, the monitoring of the impact of interstate trade in water access entitlements, assessing the performance of the water industry against national benchmarks, a comprehensive review of the National Water Initiative in 2010, and assessments of the implementation of the water reform framework. Is any senator going to say that any of those matters should be kept secret at ministerial discretion and, if so, why?

In relation to the 500 gigalitres for the Murray as agreed by the government—and specifically the first 240 gigalitres agreed with much fanfare last Friday week—I will be asking the minister, should he be here, when the works will begin and the water made available. Is there a seasonal requirement for when water needs to flow to the wetlands: for example, is it spring? If so, when is the latest that money has to be allocated in order for water to be available in spring 2005—or is it spring 2006? Some water will be released through policy decisions. Some requires infrastructure, such as the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline, which may take 12 to 18 months to complete, or more.

Senator Kemp —Tedious!

Senator BROWN —The minister interjects that this is tedious, because he is not interested. This is a tedious matter as far as the government is concerned.

Senator Kemp —Come on, Bob!

Senator BROWN —He is making the wrong call there, and it shows what the government thinks about this: it is all tedious, says the wrong minister in the chair for this legislation. `Tedious!' says the government. But `extremely important and critical' say the other senators who have contributed to the debate tonight.

The Independent report of the expert reference panel on environmental flows and water quality requirements for the River Murray system was finalised in 2002. It assessed the likelihood of having a healthy Murray River under different conditions, including environmental water allocations ranging from 350 gigalitres, with a low likelihood of a healthy Murray but some localised improvements, to 4,000 gigalitres, with a high likelihood of a healthy Murray. Remember that that is one-third of the natural flow. Fifteen hundred gigalitres was assessed as a moderate likelihood of a healthy Murray. A second more detailed report was constrained to look only at options up to 1,500 gigalitres, with a moderate chance for the river. I will be asking questions about these flows and how the assessment has been made, why the government believes 500 gigalitres is adequate in the coming period and what its target is going to be after that.

Another question the Senate must have answered is how much water is needed for the Darling, its tributaries and the dependent wetlands. Again, I refer to the absolute catastrophe of the Macquarie Marshes, one of the nation's great waterbird breeding areas, reduced by half and enormously degraded by its having been simply robbed of the water that for thousands of years had flowed to it during flood periods. These are important matters and they require specific answers. There will be some beating of the chest by the government about setting up this commission, this bureaucracy. But of itself it will do nothing in terms of that all-important, immediate and urgent critical need to return water to the river. That is going to be the test.

After nine years you would think the Prime Minister would have done something to make that return, but he has not. One can only conclude that the 70 per cent of users who take water for crops and for irrigation, including grass, have the power over the government; it is not game to take them on. One has to wonder whether the $2 billion being spoken about here for the National Water Commission would not be better spent, in concert with the states, to get rid of Cubbie Station, to get big returns back into the Darling and the Murray. Senator Lees has spoken about the way in which users of water along the Murray would not mind some of their water being bought back if they knew it was going to environmental management. But effectively there is nothing here to give rural water users, irrigators, any sort of real confidence that if they do the right thing the government will stand by them and do the right thing in return.