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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 9007

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (6:02 PM) —I rise to speak on the Water Amendment Bill 2008. I come to this debate representing the seat of Maranoa in Queensland which covers almost the entirety of the Murray-Darling Basin that is in Queensland. The only exception to that is a small area around the city of Toowoomba which is represented by the member for Groom.

Listening to the previous speaker and to the speeches of others from the other side of the House, you would wonder whether anything had happened over the last 10, 15 or 20 years in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin. There has been a great deal happen in relation to water entitlements and efficiency measures, and I want to commend the actions of so many farmers who have invested heavily in water efficiency measures. No farmer wants to waste water. They know it is one of the most valuable resources they have, particularly if they are involved in irrigation.

My life has involved being in western Queensland, where water is a critical issue. In the last 10 years we have seen a drying up of many parts of the basin of the Darling and the Murray. It has been part of a long cycle of drought. Anyone who understands or who has taken the time to look back through the records of rainfall patterns dating back to the late 1800s or read any of the history in the diaries of the early explorers who went into many parts of what we now loosely call the Murray-Darling Basin would know that there have been many times throughout history that the Darling and, at times, the Murray riverbed have been dry. The Murray has not constantly throughout history had water flowing through it. There are stretches of the Darling River system that the early explorers can tell us about, and their diaries are worth reading because they provide us with invaluable knowledge of what happened long before this parliament and of course the Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia were established. It is important to draw on that knowledge of the experience of the early explorers and of the settlement that has taken place since European settlement in Australia in many parts of the Murray and the Darling system.

I talk deliberately of the Murray and the Darling systems because they are two totally different ecological systems. The Murray system that I like to refer to, from the Lachlan River in the south, largely gets its rainfall and its water from either melting snow or a Mediterranean type of winter rainfall pattern. North of that, the Darling River system travels through some of the most arid lands in New South Wales. Once you get south of Bourke and down through Louth and Tilpa you are on the edge of desert. North of that, largely in my own electorate of Maranoa, the water can come from an area with an average rainfall of eight to 10 inches per year, in the old measurement scale, up to catchment areas with up to 25 to 30 inches of rainfall on average. So the Darling system is totally different, albeit that the two systems connect below Menindee Lakes. We talk, though, of the Murray-Darling Basin. I think it is time for it to be recognised as the Darling system so as to avoid confusion when people in the cities read the newspapers or see the headlines at night on the news and so they can gain an understanding, as I am sure many Australians want to, about the Murray system and its importance to Australia both ecologically and as a food bowl, as well as the importance of the Darling system as a totally different ecological system, albeit that they have a common point many kilometres south of Menindee Lakes.

I want to put some facts into this debate and put them on the public record. We hear a great deal from the other side, much of it ill-informed. I often wonder about the people who are speaking here. They talk about their own electorate in Adelaide or somewhere in Melbourne. Sometimes we get speakers from the city of Sydney. I welcome their comments, but it is important that we look at the facts. On the Murray and the Darling, which make up this basin, let us have a look at each state’s usage of water from the system as a percentage of the total average annual run-off in that state. In New South Wales, for instance, there is something like 11,295 gigalitres of run-off each year, and the total average usage as a percentage of the total run-off in New South Wales is something like 54 per cent. In Victoria they use approximately 34 per cent of the 9,319 gigalitres of run-off available on average each year. South Australia has an average annual run-off in this system of 132 gigalitres and uses six per cent of the total run-off. Queensland has 3,104 gigalitres per year on average over a long period of time and uses five per cent of the run-off of water into the systems. The ACT, where we are now, uses less than one per cent. It is obviously a very small area. In fact, it has an average total usage of 0.3 per cent.

It is important to get those facts on the record in order to have some idea, when we talk about Queensland being some bogey and an overallocated state, that five per cent of the average run-off in Queensland is used for domestic purposes and irrigation. By comparison with Queensland, which uses 584 gigalitres in total per year on average, the Menindee Lakes lose 700 gigalitres per year to evaporation through very inefficient storage of water for Broken Hill. It is not all for Broken Hill, but I lay that on the public record here to put a few facts, rather than myths, on the table about the way Queensland and successive Queensland governments have allocated water for farmers and for town and domestic use along the river systems in Queensland.

I want to talk about the catchment management authorities that we have in Queensland in my electorate and to commend to this government those catchment management authorities, the people involved in them, the knowledge that they have, the research that they have done and the understanding that they have of the local ecology. It is an invaluable resource. I say to the minister and the Prime Minister: do not sit in Canberra, turn on your computer, look up some science and say, ‘We know all about this.’ Go out to these catchment management authorities. Draw on their knowledge. Draw on the knowledge of the local councils and the councillors, who are there for the wellbeing of their own community. Draw on the knowledge of the local farmers, because they have a vested interest in the sustainability of the river systems.

I will mention the Food and Fibre people in Goondiwindi on the border between New South Wales and Queensland. Funded by locals, they indeed have a wonderful knowledge, and I urge the minister to consult with them. Smartrivers at St George is, once again, funded by local farmers because they are interested in the sustainability of their operations and, of course, of the river systems there. There is the Condamine Alliance up near Dalby and, of course, we have the Murray-Darling Basin local government bodies, one in Roma and one in Toowoomba in my own electorate. So I say to the minister and the government: do not sit at a computer here in Canberra. Go out and meet these people and draw on their knowledge or bring them to Canberra and sit down with them, because I can assure you that they have valuable knowledge and a vested interest in the sustainability, including the ecological sustainability, of the river systems in their area.

I want to touch on buybacks. We have recently seen the federal government buy Toorale Station at Bourke. We heard the previous speaker talking about the amount of water that it will provide for the environment in that area. But it was not an open and transparent process; it was not at open auction. They went in the night before and bought from a private company. I know Senate estimates will want to tease out the information as to what was bought, who bought it, who inspected the property and what sort of compensation will be made available to the local community of Bourke because of the loss of 100 jobs directly through the purchase of that property and the shutting down of what was a very valuable producer of both food and fibre, not to mention, of course, the value to the local economy of Bourke. It was not a transparent purchase but one done behind closed doors the night before the property went to public auction.

I want to talk about an investment in water efficiency. I was talking to a farmer in my electorate recently about how he has, as many have, invested in water efficiency. They have gone to the trouble of laser levelling their property and making sure that any run-off on the property is caught at the other end so that you do not see any residue that might have otherwise ended up in the river system. It is all recycled and put back through the property. Once these properties have their fields laser levelled, if it is a flood irrigation system the water will run evenly down the property rather than lie in pools and waste water and overwater in some cases. There has been a huge investment in water efficiency by farmers.

I was talking to a farmer who has moved from flood irrigation and some spray irrigation to microspray irrigation. He has gone from using water for a summer crop or a cotton crop to using microspray for growing vegetables. And by that investment in water efficiency he has gone from using seven megalitres per hectare to grow a cotton crop, a grain crop or a pastoral crop to using 0.7 megalitres per hectare to grow vegetables. That is the extent to which farmers understand the importance of water efficiency. Just think: even if we take that as one megalitre per hectare, there are seven megalitres per hectare being saved. That could be used for environmental flows or it could be shared between the environment and further expansion of irrigation in that area based on that efficiency model. So, quite to the contrary that farmers are not out there investing in efficiency, that model quite clearly shows that if the government were prepared to invest in water efficiency they would deliver water to the environment and for farmers in a more efficient manner. They should have been doing things like that, rather than going in on the night before a property went up for auction and, in the dark of night, signing a secret agreement with the state of New South Wales to buy Toorale Station at Bourke.

I want to touch on the issue of food security. We talk about environmental flows; we hear it all the time from the other side, and farmers, communities and local governments are committed to that end. But what about food security? The World Food Organisation, based in Rome, has said that within the next 20 years the world has to double its food production or we are going to see large populations go without and starve. Food security, I believe, ranks alongside energy and water security. I want to see more debate in this House about the need for this nation to ensure that in the long term we are addressing the issue of food security.

It is our farmers who are going to provide the basis for that food security in Australia. Their knowledge and expertise will be invaluable in providing the clean, green food that this nation has so often taken for granted. We have seen recently the costs of groceries going up in Australia as a result of greater global demand on commodities. Whether that will be sustained in the long term, I am not quite sure. But I know that Australians for generations have had some of the cheapest—the most affordable—and cleanest food in the world. It is important that we look at that into the future.

I spoke last night in the adjournment about the Premier of South Australia accusing a very hardworking farming family near Eulo on the Paroo River of being linked to a terrorist because the farmer was alleged by a scientist—one of these experts sitting in the leafy suburbs of Sydney—to have put more water investment on his property than he was allowed to. The Department of Water Resources in Queensland, as I said in my speech last night, has been out there and they commended this farmer for the way that he is using water. He is not in breach of any moratorium. It infuriates me when we get these statements and people start finger pointing at others out of ignorance and with no knowledge. So often, it is by people who have never even taken the time to go out to the Murray-Darling river system. If they do, they go to a spot on the river where they can get a great snapshot for the front page of the local paper or maybe the national paper or the national television. I am happy to take any member from either side of this House out into the back of my electorate. We will spend a few days there and I will show you some wonderful farmers. I will show you some science that is being done at a local level with knowledge input from communities. It is important that we speak more from understanding rather than politically finger point in ignorance of what some farmers or communities are doing, because it is ignorant and it is an embarrassment for me to hear some of these people talk in the manner that they have—particularly the Premier of South Australia and a scientist from Sydney.

The lower Balonne River farmers fund what they call Smartrivers. In Queensland, as opposed to other parts of Australia, the storages are owned privately. To give you an example of what they do in the lower Balonne River system, their allocations are event based allocations. They are based on the amount of water and the time of year; it is not just that there is water flowing so that they can harvest. This year, out of those privately owned storages, the federal government was able to buy 10,000 megalitres of water and send that down to the Narran Lakes to ensure the survival of the second hatchings of an endangered bird species. If it were not for those storages owned by those farmers, that second hatching of birds would have perished. Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, my time to speak in this debate is about to expire. I will be supporting the position put by our side of the House, but I wanted to put some very important issues on the record. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Before I call the honourable member for Wills, I would like to remind all honourable members that the correct means of address for the occupant of the chair is Mr Deputy Speaker or Madam Deputy Speaker, unless of course Mr Speaker himself happens to be in the chair at the time.