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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 8997

Mr GEORGANAS (5:15 PM) —I too rise to support this bill, the Water Amendment Bill 2008. People throughout the Murray-Darling Basin have been experiencing tremendous pain for years due to the dying river system. We know that low inflows of water into the system have obviously been reducing the economic activity of farms and the resultant income for their workers, for local food processing and production businesses and for dependant communities right along the system’s water courses. The drying of channels both above and below ground has been causing what water that is coming into the system to be soaked up before it can even be used. The lack of inflows has brought about the loss of economic assets in permanent plantings across multiple regions along the Murray-Darling, and 100-plus-year-old gums and reserves of native vegetation have been stressed beyond their ability to cope.

We have seen graphic images of the fluorescent yellow-orange acidification of soil, creating what looks like a toxic wasteland in many parts of the river—it looks like mud, but this mud has pH readings of 1.7—the resultant loss of habitat and life, and the threatened expansion of acidification along the river and in the Lower Lakes. We have seen desperate public meetings, public rallies and a government at the national level hell-bent on doing all it can to remedy this situation. We have seen the $12.9 billion Water for the Future program being rolled out—including the $3 billion water licence buyback program. Obviously the outcome of this measure will be, as the program’s name suggests, restoring the balance—that is, the proportional and actual decrease in the total Murray-Darling Basin volume of water potentially used for non-environmental pursuits. And we have also seen the development of an agreement between governments on what will be the future governance of the Murray-Darling Basin water supply.

It is this agreement that we today seek to honour, for all that is regrettable and with all that is commendable, in debating and ultimately passing the bill before us at this time—the Water Amendment Bill 2008, as I said. I believe all stakeholders support the intention that underlies this bill: that the Murray-Darling Basin’s water resource be responsibly managed by one authority system wide which will be accountable through one minister to one government alone—that is, the Commonwealth. For the first time in this continent’s history, there will be clear management of the overall system. As I said, this is what people have been calling for for years. The Australian public has also asked that tiers of governments, rival governments, stop boasting of their provincialism and get down to working for a sustainable future for the river and for both the people and the biodiversity reliant upon it.

Residents throughout South Australia, my home state, have been demanding improvement for a very long time so that the interrelated interests of the River Murray and the population be simultaneously, adequately and sustainably accommodated. And so, on the basis of this Water Amendment Bill 2008 being agreed to, we look forward to the development and implementation of the overall Murray-Darling Basin water allocation plan. Looking well into the future, it is anticipated that the basin, and those reliant upon it, will not again be comfortable with the historic average of water abundance. It is expected that the long-term average annual yield will continue to decrease well into the future. This is the reality that scientists give us reason to expect. And it is necessarily going to be this new reality that the Murray-Darling plan is going to have to work within.

It seems to be a very commonly held belief these days that the Murray-Darling system is overallocated: too many licences exist for drawing too much water out of the rivers. That seems to be an almost universally held view at the moment, irrespective of whom you talk to or where they come from. People are expecting a notable decrease in the overall volume of Murray water being used for economic purposes. In Adelaide a couple of months ago, a rally was held on the steps of state parliament. There were people from two great regions of the South Australian state: people from the Riverland and people from the Lower Lakes. Their expressed concern was the lack of available water. Those from the Lower Lakes were arguing that too much is being drawn out of the river for upstream agricultural purposes. I gather that those from the Riverland were arguing the same for people even further up the river. I am not aware if this was evident to those attending the rally, but half the crowd was largely rationalising their immense problem—that of the drying and potential acidification of the Lower Lakes and the complete ecological destruction of a world-renowned wetland—on upstream users, of whom the Riverland contingent could have been seen to be representative.

This is the dynamic that the water plan will need to address with incredible finesse: the decrease in average inflows, the decreasing proportion of what water there is being made available for irrigation, and the ongoing economic stressors weighing down upon regional communities along the river. There are currently tremendous stressors. People are screaming for change and an improvement in life reliant on the basin’s rivers. The river system stakeholders that may not be facing a more challenging future are the environment and the domestic water consumers. The increase in the proportion of available water that will be reserved for and allocated to the environment will make the river system itself the biggest winner in the years ahead—that is, those of its elements that survive this current drought. And this is a necessity. If we were to let the river system itself deteriorate for sectional interests, all interests would become increasingly compromised.

This amendment bill makes provision for critical human water needs. Adelaide and other towns reliant on the Murray for their supply of water will continue as required. I note in the wash-up of the Senate inquiry that the opposition are unhappy with the city of Adelaide extracting water from the River Murray. They clearly plan for 100-plus gigalitres of water to be harvested over the course of a few wettish months, if we get them, each year and stored for the rest of the year for domestic and industrial use, with another 100 gigalitres on top of that stored elsewhere as a contingency. I expect that treated waste water and Labor’s desalination plant will provide the other 100-plus gigalitres per year that Adelaide uses. That is one heck of a lot of additional storage capacity.

It is a brave political move by the opposition to plan to flood Clarendon in the Adelaide Hills to build a new reservoir, with perhaps another one at Bridgewater and probably a couple more elsewhere, maybe in Lobethal or Coromandel Valley. It is brave to tell the population that they are going to mix their drinking water stored at Happy Valley with road run-off. It would be extremely brave of them to tell the residents and councillors of Mitcham that Brownhill Creek Reserve is going to be closed off and flooded. I look forward to reading their detailed policy statement on how they are going to do all of this in due course. In the meantime, the Liberal Party have an opportunity to support this legislation, which is clearly necessary and a highly substantial leap forward in the management of water in this country.

It was under the leadership of former Prime Minister Paul Keating that the first great step forward was made in Australia’s water management within the Murray-Darling Basin. That was the 1994 COAG agreement to separate land titles and water licences, freeing up water licences to be traded as goods for use in the marketplace, where they could do most good. Fourteen years later we are taking the step of the establishment of a basin-wide plan under the authority of a single minister. I note that the bill will enable the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to better monitor the trading of water within the water market.

I look forward to a time when trade will not be restricted between regions as it is today and when this resource will be able to be applied commercially, where it can deliver the greatest amount towards our nation’s agricultural production. This bill points the way toward better water management, maintenance of the water supply in the preservation of the environment, better systems for the allocation of water within sectors and the most sustainable and productive working river that southern and eastern Australia can enjoy, which we would all benefit from. I commend the bill to the House.