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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 24

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (11:04 AM) —I commend senators for their contributions on this amendment. To be fair to Senator Brown, I think his motivations are absolutely pristine. There is no doubting that we share his views about the need to improve the environmental outcomes along the Darling and Murray rivers and basins. We have in fact, with the assistance of many very good people both within the basin and without, invested heavily and tried to develop a framework. I think we have successfully developed a framework that can see significant progress made. It was a pleasure for me to attend my first Murray-Darling Basin Commission Ministerial Council meeting on 26 November and to add to the approved list of projects projects that will in fact deliver something like 240 gigalitres of water to environmental flows. This will assist the six icon sites and is a big step forward.

It is probably fair to agree with Senator Brown on this point and say that progress has been far too slow. If we had been more ahead of the game then those red gums would not be in the distress that they are in now. I think it is helpful to learn from our mistakes, and there have been huge mistakes made along the River Murray. However, I think the other thing we should not do is undermine or potentially denigrate the work of many good people. There are good people all around Australia—people in the state governments; people in the ACT government under Jon Stanhope's leadership; people showing leadership like Bob Debus in New South Wales, who is working very hard with his ministerial colleagues and the people from his authorities; scientists putting the hard work in; and farmers, as Senator Lees referred to—who are all working hard to get a great generational breakthrough on these issues. I do, however, think that the amendment of the Greens to effectively take the Living Murray first step initiatives and the responsibility for their implementation out of the Murray Darling Basin Commission and shift them across to the National Water Commission would be counterproductive. I hope that Senator Brown, who is quite clearly focused on the same issues as we are—we seek to deliver the same sorts of policy outcomes in a different way—would see that his amendment may actually be counterproductive.

Senator Brown asked questions about the time lines. I commend to him the National Water Initiative—if you do not have a copy, Senator Brown, then I will provide you with one—which does in fact set some quite clear guidelines and time lines. In fact, they support his own time line in part (c) of his amendment, which talks about sustainable levels of extraction by 2010. Senator Brown may not be happy with this but sometimes when you have state-Commonwealth negotiations you do not get the highest common denominator—you might even get the lowest common denominator. But I think in this case we have a practical, achievable deadline.

Even if you accept the view of Senator Lees that we might have some constitutional power to override the states on these things, the practical reality is that, when it comes to building the projects and negotiating with the farmers, a lot comes down to land use management which is, ostensibly, under the constitutional control of the states. Negotiating with irrigators about how much irrigation water they will get and letting contracts to build pipelines and cover over irrigation channels are things that the states have to do. They are things that the Commonwealth cannot do unless we get rid of the federation all together, and some people probably advocate that from time to time.

We do have to work cooperatively. In the National Water Initiative the states and territories have agreed to make substantial progress by 2010 towards adjusting all overallocated and overused systems, in accordance with the time lines indicated in their implementation plans. So there is a clear time frame. The national timetable for action includes the development of the implementation plans, which are, as I said, progress by 2010, risk assignment by 2014, interim thresholds for water markets and trading by June of the coming year, freeing up of institutional barriers by 2014, and a range of investment programs and processes within that. So there are some clear time lines.

We also, to be practical, need to understand that we can build the projects and we can get to work on the projects that the Murray-Darling Basin Commission ministers agreed on late last month, but it does not help the environmental debate to blur these things unnecessarily. I think more people of Australia need to understand the practical side of environmental repair. When looking at a wetland or a piece of endangered biodiversity you can see that a lot of it is about practical measures—keeping out feral animals, stopping erosion, getting rid of weeds and fixing riverbanks. All of these things will get better community buy-in, which will help the cause that Senator Brown professes to support, if you do not blur this. One thing that you can easily confuse people with about the Murray is pretending that you can create this water. You can certainly save water by closing in irrigation channels and you can save water by making sure that you do not have overallocation for irrigation purposes. But, ultimately, to improve the amount of water that goes to environmental purposes once you have done all of that you have to rely on precipitation—you actually have to have some rain. We have been very challenged for rain and, unfortunately, this parliament cannot legislate to make it rain. That is a practical fact that we should not hide.

In terms of those time lines, I said I think in answer to a question from Senator Lees during question time earlier in the week that I would seek to inform the parliament on the implementation schedule for the Living Murray Initiative, under the first steps. I will seek to do that on a regular basis. I will rely on my state colleagues to provide us with progress. It will be in my interests, in the government's interests and in the interests of the people to have regular reporting on that. I have undertaken to do that and will continue to do so. That is the key reason why we cannot support Senator Brown's amendment.