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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 8985


Mr HUNT (4:20 PM) —In rising to address the Water Amendment Bill 2008 I begin with the simple proposition that in January 2007 the then Prime Minister, John Howard, and Malcolm Turnbull introduced a once-in-a-century water revolution. That revolution was built on two great pillars. The first was a $10 billion plan for real water savings which involved piping, covering of channels, lining of dams—funded practical, real initiatives which would make real, practical savings. The second pillar was of institutional reform, of a once-in-a-century bringing together of the different powers and the differing state approaches to water management. It was designed to give real power and real authority to a single national institution.

For 21 months, almost two years, the Labor Party in opposition and subsequently in government have either opposed or delayed real reform along these two lines. Finally, almost two years later, after having stood in the way of real reform whilst in opposition, a position which we regard as having been a venal violation of their sacred trust to advance reforms in this place and in this country, we now see a partial embrace of the Turnbull reforms in this bill. To the extent that this bill embraces the institutional reform principles of, firstly, a single authority, secondly, greater transparency and, thirdly, an agreed national framework for water allocation, we support those reforms. They are the principles which are part of the institutional changes we proposed for a once-in-a-century revolution in water and which we put on the table.

We do not seek to delay these principles. We have sought to bring them forwards and now we will not delay them. We do, however, unashamedly seek to improve them in some cases. In that respect, the bill is too slow in a number of areas. Firstly, there is the lack of a truly national referral of powers. Secondly, there is the lack of an effective early Basin Plan for allocation, for identification of priority water efficiency sites and for identification of those communities which are at risk from ad hoc buyouts and which are in need of support. In addition, the bill is too slow, because we have seen the abolition of structural adjustment funding, which was disclosed in answers to questions on notice before the Senate estimates hearings. The bill is too slow because it fails to address the reprehensible action of wiping out the beginning of real on-farm water efficiency projects. These projects have been stalled under the present government. The bill is too slow because it fails to provide for a transparent water market, and the bill is too slow to the extent that it embodies the passive acceptance of a north-south pipeline and does not push the states—in particular Victoria—to embrace the urban water revolution which is necessary.

Having said all that, I would say this: it is imperfect and it is flawed—it only goes part of the way to completing that element of the institutional revolution which the current Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, put on the table—but we do not seek to delay it. Our criticism has been that it is too little too slow, not too much too fast. So by comparison with that which we have seen from the government—and, as they previously were, the opposition—we are the party of water reform, having put this once-in-a-century package on the table. There is $10 billion in funding and a once-in-a-century reform of our institutions.

It was indeed the Turnbull $10 billion water plan which put in place a three-part rural recovery plan, and that was a rural recovery plan, firstly, for infrastructure investments in practical efficiency—of piping, of the covering of channels, of the lining of dams. Secondly, it was a plan of selected voluntary trading and purchasing, where we have seen real gains in water efficiency and, thirdly, it was a plan of community support where communities are going to suffer as a consequence of the buyouts. That is the constructive plan which we will continue to pursue as the blueprint for water reform in Australia. By comparison, the water reform model which we have seen is a slow grind in relation to the big institutional steps, which see some progress in this bill. They are for the most part in line with the principles we laid down, only less ambitious. We have seen, unfortunately, rather than a rural recovery plan, a buyout only plan. The water efficiency components of piping, of the covering of channels and of the lining of dams have been lost. The community support elements have been lost.

That brings me to this bill. As I said at the outset, the coalition’s National Plan for Water Security announced on 25 January 2007—21 months or almost two years ago—comprised the two major pillars of institutional reform and the $10 billion rural recovery plan. This particular bill implements some of the missing elements of the institutional reform package. In particular, the Water Amendment Bill aims to amend the Water Act 2007 by giving effect to the intergovernmental Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform, which was signed by the Commonwealth and the premiers on the 3 July 2008 meeting of the Council of Australian Governments. This agreement should have been signed shortly after the January 2007 announcement, only the Victorian government held out, unfortunately—and it did so, I posit, for the most base of electoral reasons. This was an agreement which should have been reached, which could have been reached and which was delayed simply to ensure that there was no national agreement on water prior to the federal election. Conveniently, with no additional funds, Victoria signed on. The posited $1 billion of additional funds was a mirage. It is money to which they were entitled and which they were going to receive in any event and which was presented—I see the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry smile—in such a way as to imply that it was new. It was not new. It was false.

Having said that, the principles which were put in place were largely based on the coalition’s National Plan for Water Security reform, and this bill largely picks up four of those principles in action. Firstly, it transfers the powers of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority. This provides, as we always intended, one independent body to manage both the planning and the ongoing affairs of the Murray-Darling Basin. Secondly, it enables the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, through the Basin Plan, to specify three tiers of water allocation and emergency management guidelines so as to balance critical human water needs and irrigators’ needs. Thirdly, it strengthens the role of the ACCC by giving it jurisdiction to monitor water transactions carried out under the act and in accordance with the provisions of the act. Fourthly, it gives the Commonwealth a greater share of the risks relating to future reductions in water allocations if unforeseen events are to occur which were previously the responsibility of states and individual contractors. These are not objectionable principles. These are the principles which we laid down, and we are pleased that they are finally being brought before the House as part of an overdue intergovernmental agreement.

Against that background—having laid out these principles, having laid out the plan, having laid out the revolution—I want to make some comments about the coalition’s record on not just Murray-Darling Basin reform but the once-in-a-century water revolution which is now being given most of the missing elements. The coalition has a very clear and profound record on tackling the issues faced by the basin. We are proud of that record. As I said earlier, on 25 January 2007 Malcolm Turnbull and John Howard announced the coalition’s National Plan for Water Security. The $10 billion plan agreed to fund, in more detail than I have set out previously, a series of elements: (1) a nationwide investment in Australia’s irrigation infrastructure to line and pipe major delivery channels; (2) a  nationwide program to improve on-farm irrigation technology and metering; (3) the sharing of water savings on a fifty-fifty basis between irrigators and the Commonwealth government, leading to greater water security and increased environmental flows; (4) addressing once and for all water overallocation in the Murray-Darling Basin; (5) a new set of governance arrangements for the Murray-Darling Basin; (6) a sustainable cap on surface and groundwater use in the Murray-Darling Basin in many different areas; (7) expanding the role of the Bureau of Meteorology to provide the water data necessary for good decisions by governments and industry; (8) a task force to explore future land and water development in Northern Australia; and (9) completion of the restoration of the Great Artesian Basin. This was not a minor proposal. This was the most significant change in water policy at federal or state level since Federation.

We know that less than a month later, on 23 February 2007, the coalition sought a reference of additional powers to ensure a single, accountable and comprehensive management arrangement for the Murray-Darling Basin. It was agreed to by New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, but not Victoria—again, for reasons which were not explicable by reference to any substantive point but simply a desire to ensure that there was no agreement prior to the federal election. The consequence has been that real water reform has been delayed for 21 months, close to two years.

Given that background, in August 2007 the coalition government passed the Water Act 2007, which implemented as best as possible the coalition’s National Plan for Water Security. Existing constitutional powers enabled the coalition to implement a large part of the national plan without the need for a referral of additional power by states and territories. We vowed to complete the rest of the plan as soon as we could get Victorian support after the election, knowing that their opposition would melt away. That is what has happened—the opposition has melted away. In the circumstances, the additional funding which should be available for piping and lining of channels and for river and storage operations, the $3.55 billion which had been earmarked, has largely been left to lie fallow. That money is earning interest; it is not digging out dams, not doing the things which can be done.

Only a week and a half ago I visited the town of Bourke. I spoke with farmers there and I spoke with people in western New South Wales who are involved with agriculture. They said that, in their small area alone, they could save eight billion litres of water were they given some small assistance in local irrigation and water efficiency projects. That is the sort of thing which was intended. That is the sort of thing which has not occurred. By comparison, with the greatest respect to the other side, we have seen a dragging of the chain on real water reform.

At the federal level, the ALP supported the coalition’s water plan but they were fundamentally complicit in the Victorian Labor government refusing to sign the agreement prior to the election. It suited their purposes to delay national water reform. A single word in the ear of Victorian premiers, either Premier Bracks or Premier Brumby, could have ensured that this plan was passed and water reform was not delayed. In addition, Senator Wong could have had a functioning basin authority working on the Basin Plan from March this year, thanks to the Water Act 2007. This was not put in place and we will not see an effective Basin Plan or an effective basin authority for some time yet. We have one or two staffers in place at this time.

What we see ultimately is a comparison between a three-point water rural recovery water plan as opposed to an ad hoc buyout of farmers. We proposed a water efficiency revolution based on the $6 billion of total water efficiency funding for infrastructure. Unfortunately, this has largely been abandoned—an investment in water efficient infrastructure of pipes, covering of channels and lining of dams, which should be a national priority.

We should also be seeing the cleaning up of our coasts and the recycling of the almost 1,800 gigalitres from 140 ocean outfalls, water which should be made available for industry and agriculture. The second thing is the planned and limited buyback, not an ad hoc buyout such as Toorale Station, primarily after water efficiencies, to allow for sharing between farmers and the environment. Thirdly, the community support program: the Rudd government has abandoned the $1.5 billion structural adjustment component of our original water plan—not acceptable, not good enough. So we see that the $50 million emergency assistance package which we had previously proposed for the people of the Lower Lakes and Coorong region has been ignored. These people need assistance, support in a time of drought, because they have suffered at the bottom of the Murray-Darling system.

In relation to the specific items in this bill, I want to make these points. We support urgent and long-term action for the Murray-Darling Basin. We believe that we need to get this legislation right, however. The coalition will not oppose this bill and supports an inquiry in the Senate. We will be constructive. We will seek to hasten rather than to delay because for too long we have seen an approach which is too little, too slow, rather than too much, too fast. Our approach in opposition will not be the same as the ALP’s. Therefore, in this House, we will not oppose the bill but we will seek to amend the bill to ensure that there are provisions to support the coalition’s $50 million Lower Lakes and Coorong communities package.

After the report of the Senate inquiry into the bill is presented in the other place, the coalition will consider the following amendments because we have concerns with principles contained within the act that, for the most part, do not go far enough. Firstly, we want to ensure that there is a guaranteed community impact statement for water purchases by the Commonwealth from each subregion of the basin. Secondly, we want to ensure that there is a structural adjustment assessment program for communities affected by water purchases. Thirdly, we want to set time frames for on-farm infrastructure to be delivered—not simply be delayed. Fourthly, we want to establish a fully transparent disclosure process so any water purchases undertaken by the Commonwealth are disclosed in real time with regards to price, volume, security and location. Fifthly, we want to prevent new and additional extractions from the basin for non-basin purposes, such as the north-south pipeline—a project which we believe is a serious error. In addition, we will also consider as possible amendments, following the Senate inquiry, strengthening the powers of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority so as to remove the veto of the ministerial council and bringing forward an interim Basin Plan.

We will be guided in all of these whilst recognising that we do not want to prevent the intergovernmental agreement from coming into force. We do not want to delay it. So as not to be misrepresented I make it absolutely clear to the government and to this House that we will work to a fast timetable on this bill. We do not seek to oppose the bill, but we are serious about improving it.

The coalition is listening to the people of the Murray and to people throughout Australia. In particular we want to help right now the communities of Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, of the Lower Lakes and the Coorong area, who are suffering and have been ignored in relation to accessing community support. That is why we are proposing an amendment that will provide $50 million in emergency assistance to the people of the Murray Lower Lakes and the Coorong. Our amendment will: (1) require that the federal government provide $50 million to help local residents, farmers and tourist operators to deal with the ongoing record low levels of water in the region; (2) provide urgent and real assistance to help the community to deal with this unfolding environmental crisis in South Australia; (3) help with practical measures such as carting water for domestic and stock use, building a boat lift, providing rent relief for small businesses, and providing retraining and skills development; and (4) support a rescue plan for the Murray turtles and wildlife and provide assistance to the schoolchildren who are trying to save them. We are calling this the Briggs and Secker amendment. I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“while not declining to give the Bill a second reading, in respect of the Lower Lakes and Coorong area of South Australia the House acknowledges the dire situation faced by the local people, local businesses, local communities and wildlife due to the devastation of the area’s economy, and calls on the Government to support the Opposition in its commitment to the provision of $50 million for immediate and practical assistance to provide support

(a)   to the local community, small business, tourism operators, the fishing industry and farmers, and

(b)   to protect wildlife and flora in the region”.

I conclude by making the point that we do not intend to oppose the bill in this House and we will support it in the other house. This amendment supports the devastated communities of the Murray Lower Lakes and the Coorong. We support the concept of a Senate inquiry and we await the findings of that Senate inquiry. We have a series of amendments that we will seek to make which will be consistent with the actions and provisions of the intergovernmental agreement. We want this bill to go through. It is imperfect and it does not go as far as the Turnbull reforms, but it at least enshrines some of the key principles on institutional reform.

Ultimately, the coalition believe in real and urgent reform of the Murray-Darling Basin. We want to see action that provides immediate and long-term assistance for the Murray, but we must get this right. Above all else, the government should get on with the business of real water savings through the urgent delivery of water efficiency infrastructure: the piping of water, the covering of channels and the lining of dams. Whilst we are not opposed to institutional reforms—indeed, we are the generators of those reforms—above all else this bill is no substitute for the real rural recovery plan needed in infrastructure, in allocation and in support for communities in place of merely a buyout of our farms and the destruction of our food security.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Is the amendment seconded?


Mr Secker —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak at a later time in the debate.