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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 33

Senator BROWN (11:54 AM) —I ask the minister: what is the date of the return of the 500 gigalitres of water to the Murray, which the scientists tell us is one-eighth of what is required to assure the health of the river? What is the date of the return of the first drop of that 500 gigalitres? The minister sits there. He cannot answer. There is no answer. There is no time line. After nine years of failure to get water back to the Murray—in fact, after nine years of presiding over a reduction of water to the Murray—this minister cannot give an answer and say when the repair process date will be set, after all we have heard in the last 10 years. It is just not good enough.

The schoolchildren, the people in the suburbs, those working in Landcare and those who participate in Clean Up Australia Day—I join them, like so many other people in this place do—have a right to know, at the juncture of an important piece of legislation like this, what the government's time line is for starting a process of return of water to a river where there are massive deaths of river red gum populations every day. This is a crisis situation but what we are getting is blancmange—a new bureaucracy set up with $2 billion, if the government can sort out the funding, to be taken from the state governments, but no goals are set. The Prime Minister wants 20 major programs but he does not know what they are. It sounds like a good figure. The serial announcements of 20 major programs, which cannot yet be defined, will go well over the summer.

But it is all a political exercise. There is a void of the hard, urgent and critical work of getting water back into the Murray and Darling system. You come up there against vested interests and the government is not and has not been prepared to tackle them, just as it was not prepared to tackle the land clearers, just as it is not prepared to tackle the coal industry and just as it is not prepared to tackle Gunns Pty Ltd destroying the forests of Tasmania, under the Prime Minister's signature, and with it the river systems where clear-fell logging is occurring.

So this is a move to set up a commission with the states represented and a general view that it is going to take stock of what is happening. With the minister's leave, the parliament might even find out what is happening. But there is precious little action in terms of the critical situation of these river systems and no time line for action. When the Greens moved for it, everybody in here except Senator Murphy said, `Oh no, we can't go with that.' Heads are in the sand. It is a failure of imagination—no, not imagination; it is a failure to face reality, because we are in an age when money speaks the loudest and values do not count or, if they do, they are very secondary. But every river red gum dying in these years and in these months—and with it the bird, marsupial, fish, insect and plant species that are being driven rapidly towards extinction by a failure of action or failure even to have a time line—is the responsibility of this government. The minister cavils at my using the word `greenwash'. He said that this is the best performed government in Australia.

Senator Ian Campbell —I didn't say that, Senator Brown. You misrepresent me continually. You should try to tell the truth. A good argument uses the truth, not distortions.

Senator BROWN —The minister is now getting a bit out of hand. I am sorry, the minister did not say this is the best performed government. He admits to that, and that is a breakthrough.

Senator Ian Campbell —I said `the highest investments in the environment in Australian history'.

Senator BROWN —He says `the highest investments in the environment in Australian history'. It is a money measure. We put money in there; therefore we are the best performers. It is law. It is tackling the people doing the wrong thing. That is required.

Senator Ian Campbell —That is called the EPBC, which you oppose.

Senator BROWN —The minister says that the EPBC does that. Does it? What has it done to protect the river red gums? It has been there as they move towards regional extinction at an enormous rate. What has it done to protect the endangered species of Tasmania as the forests fall? It has aided and abetted it. In fact, it says that this minister is not responsible for what happens in forests in Tasmania; the Prime Minister handed that power away. That is what the EPBC did. What is the EPBC doing to protect the great wetlands of the Macquarie Marshes? I have asked the minister twice now to give this committee a report on the condition of this great birdlife habitat. He has failed to do so. That is a measure of his EPBC, which was meant to protect such places. But since the EPBC came in three or four years ago, the plight of the marshes has manifestly deteriorated. The plight of nationally significant species in these river systems has gone from bad to worse. There is another thing you need besides EPBCs, and that is government action—and we do not get that from this government.

If the minister thinks that he is in for an easy time in this environment by simply being able to criticise the Greens—take the wise-use dictum from the United States: when you cannot sustain a reasoned argument across this chamber, go for the individual, divert attention to them—he is not. I have been dealing with this for 30 years. He will be the latest in a long line of people. His predecessor, Senator Hill, was good at criticising environment groups, but the environmental awareness in this nation is way ahead of this government. I guess it is not trammelled by the vested interests. The average primary school class has a much greater environmental sensitivity and maturity than the cabinet of the Howard government with its power and presiding over the environmental fortune of this country.