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Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Page: 62

Senator HEFFERNAN (7:33 PM) —Madam Acting Deputy President, I seek leave to speak for 20 minutes.

Leave granted.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Tonight I want to talk about something that ought not be political, that is in the national interest and that is all about the future of Australia. I want to background that against the climate science for the planet and reduce it to the climate science for Australia and to the catastrophic errors that are being made in water management, including the recent purchase of Toorale station on the Darling.

As I have said many times in this chamber, the climate science for the next 50 years says that, presuming the world population grows from six billion to nine billion during the next 50 years, one billion people will be unable to feed themselves. At present there are 800 million people on the planet who are short of food—and one billion people who are obese and eat too much food, which is the contra. Thirty per cent of the productive land of Asia, where two-thirds of the world’s population is going to live, will go out of production due to climate change. The food task is going to double. Fifty per cent of the world’s population is going to be water poor, including 400 million people on the great northern aquifer in China and about 250 million people in the northern part of southern Africa. With the food task doubling, there will be 1.6 billion people at the top of the science vagary who will be displaced on the planet. That is a lot of people and a problem which the United Nations will not cure.

Coming to Australia, the same science says—and in all science there is vagary—that there will be a decline of between 25 and 50 per cent in the water run-off in the southern parts of Australia. As water declines in a river run-off, you have to disproportionately return water to the freight of the river, for the fish to swim down, otherwise you have to carry buckets of water down, as it were. So a disproportionate amount of water is going to be available in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, where we already know 38 per cent of the run-off comes from the two per cent of the landscape that is going to be most affected by the change in climate. Presently I am part of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport inquiry looking at the future for the Coorong. The Coorong barrages are a half a metre from sea level now and the lakes are below sea level. Hundreds of years ago they were in the sea and they are going to return to the sea.

What has got to happen in the Murray-Darling Basin and what has got to happen right across Australia is that we have got to take possession and ownership of the future based on science not on the hopes, wills and wishes of the past. This ought to be done in the national interest. The committee that I sit on does not play politics with people’s livelihoods—as Senator Barnaby Joyce would know. We try to get it right in the national interest.

I have had cattle on agistment everywhere, and I am getting sick of it. It is still crook out there in southern New South Wales. I learnt the hard way that if you are going to buy something or agist somewhere then you have to go and have a look. Years ago, I rang up a bloke east of Cunnamulla at Murra Murra—Senator Joyce, do you know where Murra Murra is?

Senator Joyce —I know it well.

Senator HEFFERNAN —There is some beautiful country as you drive up through Cunnamulla and you head east to go to St George. I thought, ‘Oh, gee, this is pretty good country. This will be good.’ I drove into Murra Murra and it was, as you know, bloody scrub. I had already sent the cattle because the bloke said, ‘Oh, send them up. There’s enough feed here for two years.’ Anyhow I learnt a hard lesson—that is, you should go and have a look—because the feed was not there, after I had gone to all that trouble. I have never allowed myself to get trapped like that again.

The Commonwealth government need to learn this lesson because, much to my dismay, they have just spent nearly $24 million buying Toorale station up there on the Darling River at the junction of the Warrego River and no-one from the Commonwealth has set foot on the property. They have bought its sight unseen. There has been a bit of a fly over from the parks mob and last Tuesday before the sale two girls from New South Wales parks went there to look at—the people on their property tell me—the machinery and goods and chattels that were given in with the sale. The crops and the stocks are not given in. They were there for 45 minutes. We in our wisdom, to return water to a system to which it is not going to return, spent $24 million buying that property. I just want to put on the record exactly what it is that the government have bought.

Toorale station covers an area of 98,000 hectares. It is a beautiful dryland property owned by Clyde Agriculture. I note that on the board of the Swire Group, which controls Clyde Agriculture, is the federal government’s adviser on acquisitions of infrastructure and water et cetera Mr Eddington. I have to say also that Mr John Anderson is on that board. I note also that Mr De Lacy is on the board of Cubbie Station, which I will come to. Toorale’s 98,000 hectares—which is roughly a quarter of a million acres—runs 30,000 merino sheep, including 10,000 breeding merino ewes. So it is a viable enterprise in the wool industry. It runs 800 cows. And tucked away down in the corner near the junction of the Warrego and the Darling rivers is between 4,000 and 5,000 acres of country that is prepared for irrigation, of which they generally use two-thirds annually. The Warrego floods perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 acres through a series of banks that were put in 100 years ago or more. The Warrego splits and a lot of the water goes west—

Senator Joyce —It bifurcates.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is the technical term. It joins the Darling downstream. Usually the Warrego has a flood event every year, and it has what we call a large event every three or four years. Most years that it has an event of any proportion the Darling also has a good flow. In the last 17 years that the manager who is there now has been there, there has been only one year where the Warrego had an event and the Darling did not have one. I think that was two years ago. So in its wisdom, without having a look, the government has decided to purchase this station.

Dr Tom Hatton, from whom we took evidence last week, from the CSIRO is doing a study on the flow regimes of the Culgoa River and the Warrego River. This is not a scientific snapshot including the full drilldown for the environmental impacts of decisions; it is just an assumption on future flows of the system and what can be extracted. He said on the record last week that buying this station is no short-term solution; it is sort of a long-term planning thing. This is about buying a water licence in one of the few places left in New South Wales where they have not separated the land from the water. So to get the water they have had to buy a seriously large grazing enterprise which employs a lot of people and is the lifeblood of a place like Bourke.

By not going to have a look and not understanding the country, they did not understand that there are a couple of banks there—the Boera and the Booka dams—which divert water for two adjoining properties’ stock and domestic water. Those properties have now put their hands up. They are ringing Toorale asking, ‘Well, what are we going to do about our water?’ No-one had thought about it. This is sort of silly stuff. I just want to put on the record exactly what you are buying when you buy these places, because obviously if we want to return water to the likes of the Coorong et cetera then you are not going to get it up there. Tom Hatton, Don Blackmore and Mike Young, all scientists, have put that on the record. We all know that. Anyone who is a practical person will know that the freight component of getting that water through 4,000 kilometres of river from the top end to the bottom just will not work.

I have a list here of what is at Toorale just so that I do not get it wrong. In the extraction regime for Toorale there is an A licence of 67 megalitres, there is a B licence of 1,437 megalitres and there is a C licence of 6,168 megalitres. That water can be extracted according to flow levels at Louth from the Darling. It is an extraction licence. It will go into their storage, which holds about 14,000 megalitres. So you could say that they have 6,000 or 8,000 megalitres of extraction out of the Darling. Then they have 6,000 megalitres gravity fed into the same storage out of the Warrego. No-one actually knows how much they take because there are no meters and no pumps. It is just sort of a good guess, and no-one has ever queried it. So they have a 6,000 megalitre licence for that. They have bank licences of 972 megalitres and 1,141 megalitres. And, quaintly I think—I do not know of any other that is left in New South Wales; there may be some—they have an area licence.

The original water licences in New South Wales 40 years ago were given on the acreage you wanted one for, not for the volume of water you wanted. They have a 1,620 hectare water licence, which apparently does not get utilised. The Ross Billabong’s storage capacity is 13½ thousand megalitres and they gravitate from the Warrego and pump from the Darling. They have water in the account for the Darling but if the water is not there it is still in the account. You do not actually get it. What they have done there is to buy a pig in a poke. If the water was further down the system you would have it by allocation not entitlement. It is a serious and grave error.

I have to say there has been some amusement from the locals at the lack of expertise shown in the negotiations on the sale of the property. My understanding from the locals is that the government got played on a break, buying it sight unseen. There was no on-ground inspection by federal authorities prior to the sale and purchase. They did not buy water that was separate from the land title—one of the few places in the state where that is the case. I mean, you talk about influence and why they might be buying this place! The Queensland government then, to square up the account, came up the next day and said, ‘We are going to donate 10 gigalitres of water, eight of that from the Warrego.’ It is unallocated water. It is meaningless. It is a smoke and mirrors trick because it is not allocated. So that means it was going to flow down the system anyhow. When it flows down the system to Toorale there is a series of banks that was put in there a hundred-odd years ago. In recent years there has been an effort by the authorities in New South Wales to free up some of the flow. Those pipes let through between 600 and 1,000 megalitres in an event and there is about 2,000 megalitres in the event when it gets to Toorale in a normal high river. So what they have done is to put two four-foot pipes in all the banks. The banks then create an artificial flood in a low river, and in a big river it floods anyhow. They are saying some fantasy about 90,000 megalitres of water returning to the system and somehow finding its way down the river. In fact, there will probably be nothing finding its way down the river if that river remains in the condition it is in now.

The Ross Billabong stores their water. In recent days there was some footage and a photograph in one of the papers of a lot of water at the homestead. That is actually just the stock and domestic billabong. When the thing floods they fill it up for stock and domestic water. I do not understand how we cannot have enough brains to know that if you want to return water to the system you buy water that is separate from the land. Why are they buying this land and putting into some sort of a park a property that is vibrant and enthusiastic, that employs a lot of people, that has 30,000 sheep, 10,000 breeding sheep, 800 cows and irrigation? They are going to turn it into a national park which, I am told, will cost $3 million to $4 million to supervise just to stop it from going to bloody rabbits, kangaroos and burnt out boomerangs or something. At the same time they will put a whole lot of people out of work. If that same water had been bought further down the system somewhere, it would have made sense. Go to the records of the inquiry of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport into the Coorong. They will tell you that Don Blackmore, Tom Hatton from the CSIRO and Mike Young said that it is a waste of time. It is a further waste of time because, like the water that Anna Bligh has said we are going to donate to the system, it is a furphy. The water resource plan for the river had no science that was connected to the environment applied to it when it was developed, and the resource operating plan still says they can issue licences. If they buy this water under the present arrangements for the system, they can issue new licences further up the system, Senator Joyce, and take the water before it gets to Toorale anyhow. It is sort of crazy stuff.

Senator Joyce interjecting—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Well, they can still issue them. They wanted to have that auction last year and they cancelled it. There was a bit pressure put on from one or two people close to me. I have to say that it distresses me greatly that we think taxpayers should put up with an arrangement where the Commonwealth would go and spend $24 million, sight unseen, on a property to return a few thousand megalitres of low security water entitlement to that system when at the same time there is the situation with the New South Wales government in the Riverina. Bear in mind that the New South Wales government and the Commonwealth got together on this even though they did not go and have a look. The New South Wales parks mob went and had a look—they flew over it in a helicopter or something. But on-the-ground inspection is the way to find out what is really going on, which is why the neighbours are worried and why the locals are distressed. They set aside about $20 million in the Riverina to recompense people who lost their groundwater entitlements. It is the same thing: all governments of all persuasions for all time have cocked up the management of water. This is not to do with a particular flavour of government. They allowed $20 million, which is less than the price of this property, for all compensation in the Riverina for groundwater. I know one property—and I will not name them so I do not embarrass them—that spent $30 million developing almond orchards and the latest of trickle root-zone irrigation. They acquired the water licences, were ticked off and were approved. There were 280,000 almond trees. Then they got a note in the mail that said, ‘By the way, we are going to take half your water back off you.’ They tore up $10 million on one property, with no proper compensation. I know another family down there on the Murray who lost 85 per cent of their water with no compensation. And we think this is sensible? This is silly.

What we really have to do, as Mike Young said in Adelaide last week, is to go back and apply the science of the future to the redrawing of the allocations and entitlements of the entire system. Now Senator Joyce will take notice, why we would be considering issuing licences on the Lower Balonne in the full knowledge that we are going to buy them back is beyond me. Part of the draft ROP for the Lower Balonne is a rather spectacular licence—the largest licence ever issued in Australia of 469,000 megalitres or 469 gigalitres. Bear in mind that, if the 8,000 gigalitres that smoke and mirrors Anna Bligh said she is going to return to the system were in the system and were applied to a cotton farm, you could grow $3 million worth of cotton. And if that same amount of water were scientifically used with the latest Israeli and Spanish technology, as has been proven in Carnarvon, you could grow $60 million worth of produce.

On the Balonne, having done this job on the Warrego, they are issuing a draft ROP and they are going to issue a series of licences. Then they are proposing to buy them back and that is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. They need to redo the plan. Everyone I speak to says, ‘Bill, you are right, but we don’t know what to do.’ I think the government have panicked about having to act symbolically, to be seen to be doing something, about the mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin. They have made some grave errors and we ought to rethink the way we are managing water. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money. In fact, I think there ought to be an inquiry into some of these allocations where people who are not qualified for water licences are getting water licences in the full knowledge that they are sharing in the process to give them back to the government. I think it is a fraud. (Time expired)