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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 22

Senator LEES (10:56 AM) —I rise in support of the sentiments expressed by Senator Brown, in particular his emphasis on a time line. We certainly do need a time line and the teeth to insist that it is met. However, we in this chamber are not the ones putting together the plan of action; we are putting legislation in place that supports a COAG agreement. As much as we might like to get inside the COAG process and undo what has been done—which is at least a step in the right direction but still not good enough—we are at last seeing the states get serious about water, about the conservation of water, about the state of our rivers and underground aquifers and about guaranteeing the long-term availability of water for cities such as Adelaide. And the majority of farmers understand that, if they are not part of this process, in the long term the water will not be fit even for agriculture.

As I mentioned yesterday, already there are algal blooms in the Murray-Darling system and we are barely into summer. Alarm bells have rung, and with the drought they are ringing through the Murray-Darling Basin and in many other water systems across the country, such as the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges and the central Mount Lofty Ranges, in the mid-north of South Australia.

Finally there is an agreement between the states and the Commonwealth. Yes, there are some questions about funding which some states are concerned about, but we in this place cannot undo the basics of the agreement. The only issue I believe that is outstanding, where the legislation does not reflect what was agreed to, is in the process of openness and accountability. Looking at the running sheet, I see we are up to about half a dozen amendments—from the Democrats, me, Senator Murphy and the Greens—and I understand we are very close to the government agreeing that there has to be a transparent process where all parties and everybody who is interested in this is able to see what is going on, what is being accepted and what is being rejected.

I know the frustration when I have tried in South Australia to get information on issues that lots and lots of money has gone into. Many millions of Commonwealth dollars have gone into the salt interception schemes. Farmers were promised that they would have annual watertable and salinity readings for the ground water under their properties and in the surrounding stockyard plains. What has happened? As things started to go wrong, we suddenly saw all the information dry up and the reports not released. Indeed, for the last four years farmers have been doing the work. They know that their bores are going up six or eight metres, but they cannot get the overall picture unless they put it together for themselves, because those reports are now hidden. So, while I am certainly supportive of the sentiments that Senator Brown has expressed, I believe to support at this time the amendments he has put forward will unduly delay this piece of legislation, which is a very positive step in the right direction.

If it does not work then yes, the Commonwealth should basically say to the states that enough is enough. I believe there is already power under the Constitution for the Commonwealth to step in where water is not being used wisely—I think the words are `where there is not reasonable use'. However, if there is any question about that then the environment minister can determine to put another power under the EPBC Act so that water becomes a trigger under the EPBC Act. I believe the minister already has enough grounds to do that. I think it will be at least 12 months before it has been proven whether or not this COAG process is really going to work on water. But somewhere down the track it will be up to the government to say either, yes, this is working—yes, we are getting somewhere—or, no, the states are still refusing to come to the party and to do what is sensible so we the Commonwealth will step in. For now I think the only amendment we have to concern ourselves with is the one that ensures the spirit of the COAG agreement is adhered to when it comes to openness and transparency of process.