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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 8990

Mr BUTLER (4:43 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Water Amendment Bill 2008. There is no place in the country more acutely aware of the impact of drought, climate change and overallocation in the Murray-Darling Basin than my home state of South Australia. For this reason I am very pleased to see the introduction of this bill. The Australian community have been crying out for genuine and decisive action to help improve conditions in the river and in particular our Lower Lakes system. They waited for 11 long years under the Howard government. Despite many pronouncements, nothing really changed.

The river system cannot survive unless we act decisively. The Rudd government, in collaboration with the basin states, has formulated a plan to deliver the much-needed reforms. Reform is long overdue. I am pleased to be part of a federal government that understands the issues and will deliver genuine reform in the Murray-Darling Basin in particular.

The Water Amendment Bill ushers in a new era of cooperation and collaboration between basin states in the interests of genuine basin-wide water reform. We have not sought to override the legitimate interests of the states in our approach; instead, we have engaged them in cooperative and constructive reform. It is clear that the road ahead will continue to be tough, but we made a commitment to the Australian community, who backed the election of the Rudd government, that we would act decisively to bring about water reform, and that is precisely what this bill does.

This bill amends the Water Act 2007 to give effect to the intergovernmental Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform. The agreement between the Prime Minister and the ministers in each of the basin states—New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, as well as the ACT—was signed at COAG in July this year. Basin states have agreed to propose legislation in their respective parliaments which will provide for the referral of certain powers to the Commonwealth parliament. It is pleasing to see the early efforts of the states, particularly New South Wales and my own state of South Australia, to meet their commitment under the agreement. I will speak briefly later about a proposed government amendment to the bill in recognition of the New South Wales legislation.

The intergovernmental agreement covers three main areas: firstly, the transfer of current powers and functions of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority; secondly, the strengthening of the role of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission by extending the application of the water market rules and water charge rules; and, thirdly, enabling the development of a Basin Plan to provide arrangements for meeting critical human water needs.

The Water Amendment Bill represents a historic agreement for the long-term reform of water management in the Murray-Darling Basin. It introduces a new era of cooperative arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states, and it provides the opportunity for governments, industry and the community to work together on water sustainability and security. The arrangements given effect by this bill will drive improvements to the management of the basin and are in the national interest. It reflects a clear commitment to significant reform by ensuring we have the correct structural mechanisms in place to facilitate future decisions that are made in the interests of the basin. The bill will bring together the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission into one body—the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It will be expert, independent and responsible for the oversight of water resource management across the basin. The authority will also have enforcement powers to ensure that basin water resources are managed in a sustainable way. One of the key mechanisms to secure basin-wide reform will be the development of a whole-of-basin plan by the authority under a clear mechanism of accountability to the Commonwealth minister.

Basin states will have a clear role in the preparation of a Basin Plan through a new Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and the Basin Officials Committee. The basin states will also have a major role in putting the Basin Plan into effect, while final approval of the plan will rest with the Commonwealth. The states will also retain a decision-making role through the new ministerial council in relation to specific functions that will be moved from the Murray-Darling Basin Commission into the new authority. Significantly, the Basin Plan will take account of future climate change and address the legacy of past overallocation. In stark contrast to the opposition on this issue, this government does not deny the science on climate change in this area. Taking the realities of climate change into account, the Basin Plan will be the mechanism for setting out future arrangements to secure the critical human water needs of communities reliant on the Murray-Darling Basin.

The whole-of-basin plan will also include an environmental-watering plan to coordinate management of environmental flows throughout the basin. It will also formulate a sustainable diversion limit for the use of surface and groundwater in the basin to ensure future health and prosperity in the basin and to safeguard the water needs of the communities that depend on it. In South Australia this will be very welcome action. It will also be very welcome to the South Australian community to see that the Commonwealth minister, in approving the Basin Plan and the future cap on water diversions, will at long last be accountable to the people of Australia through this parliament.

We also understand that an effectively functioning water market will be essential to help the irrigation industry manage future reductions in water availability. Therefore, the government has proposed that the role of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission be strengthened to help improve the functioning of the water market in the basin. This will be achieved through monitoring and enforcing compliance with water charge rules and water market rules. Specifically, the bill strengthens the role of the ACCC by providing for the water charge rules and the water market rules to apply to all water service providers and transactions. This means that all users will be assured of a uniform approach to regulation, irrespective of the structure of their water service providers. The bill also extends the reach of the water charge rules to enable the ACCC to determine or accredit determination arrangements for all regulated water charges. This will promote a uniform approach to the regulation of rural water charges to the benefit of water providers and users.

The bill will implement governance arrangements that, in the long term, will improve the use and management of the basin’s water resources and will protect and enhance the basin’s social, environmental and economic values. The government is proposing amendments that relate to three distinct matters. The first matter involves clarifying the processes of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority when it is providing the proposed Basin Plan or a proposed amendment to the Basin Plan to ensure all consultation processes, including those with the ministerial council, have been completed. The second matter involves an amendment to recognise states applying the National Water Initiative risk assignment framework. This was agreed in the negotiations leading up to the agreement. As agreed, any state that enacts legislation to adopt the National Water Initiative risk assignment framework will be recognised in the bill. On 24 September 2008, the New South Wales parliament passed amendments to its Water Management Act 2000 to adopt the National Water Initiative risk assignment framework, as modified by the Murray-Darling Basin intergovernmental agreement. The government has therefore proposed an amendment to the Water Amendment Bill to recognise that New South Wales has applied that risk assignment framework.

The third matter involves amendments to schedule 2, item 93, of the bill to clarify that water access rights and interests held by the Commonwealth for the purposes of the Living Murray initiative are not part of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder holdings and therefore do not fall under the management of the CEWH. In its original form the bill only separated Murray-Darling Basin Authority rights and interests from those holdings. The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts also holds some water access rights and interests for the purposes of the Living Murray initiative. The proposed amendment will separate these rights and interests from those of the CEWH.

This bill departs from years of the Howard government passing the buck and blaming the states. There will be no more shifting of responsibility for the future of the Murray-Darling Basin, because the Rudd government is serious about delivering basin-wide reform. We are serious about reform, unlike the opposition, who we see still cynically courting votes by trying to have a bet each way on the river. In South Australia the opposition give one message, yet upstream they give another. In Victoria, they tell their constituents that the Lower Lakes cannot be saved and the government should stop purchasing water entitlements. Then, in South Australia, they say that the government should purchase more water and that the Lower Lakes can be saved. I am still unsure what they actually believe.

I commend this bill to the parliament as a genuine and comprehensive plan for the future of the Murray-Darling Basin. The Rudd government’s plan will address the fundamental problems in the basin, and we will address them collaboratively and thoroughly with the first Basin Plan, due to commence in 2011.

In closing, while our bill seeks to improve management in the longer term, it comes on top of our short- to medium-term strategies to reduce the stress on the Murray-Darling Basin. Our $12.9 billion Water for the Future program has four priorities: tackling climate change, supporting healthy rivers, using water wisely and securing our water supplies. In July this year, the government announced investments close to $3.7 billion for significant water projects in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. These projects are aimed at improving irrigation efficiency, raising the productivity of water use and making water savings that will be returned to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin.

We have, for the first time in history, commenced a buyback of water entitlements from willing sellers in the water market to reduce the overallocation that prevails under historic caps and agreements over water in the basin. While it will not end the drought in the basin, when it does rain more water will be retained in the river system and important habitats and wetlands will receive a greater share of water. These medium- and long-term strategies are part of this government’s clear and decisive plan of action. Our plan will address the historic overallocation of the river system and secure the future of the basin and of the many communities reliant on it for social and economic survival.