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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 9016

Mr SECKER (6:42 PM) —It seems as if all the speakers from the government are singing from the same hymn sheet, because they have all repeated the fallacy that this bill, the Water Amendment Bill 2008, allows the government to create a Basin Plan. It needs to be pointed out that this is false, because you as a government have been able to formulate a Basin Plan since the legislation was formed on 3 March this year. So there has been nothing stopping the government from forming a Basin Plan. In fact, they have had seven months of inaction. I believe this is one of the great problems of this government—the inaction and the half-measures of the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

There is no doubt there is a need for a single authority with all the powers referred to that authority and no veto by the state governments. Unfortunately, we have no longer got that single authority. The state governments will still have the ability to veto actions of this authority, so it is not really much different from what we have now with the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

The River Murray flows 500 kilometres or so through my electorate of Barker. I represent all of the Murray River in South Australia. I represent all of Lake Albert, I represent about half of Lake Alexandrina—because the border goes through the lake—and I represent all of the Coorong. This river supports agriculture, tourism, leisure, commercial fishing and irrigated produce which is consumed by both Australians and people overseas.

In speaking to the Water Amendment Bill 2008, I note that South Australia is mentioned 164 times in the bill and I think 12 times in the explanatory memorandum. It is indeed a critical bill for the state of South Australia and certainly for the electorate of Barker. I might add that I live within walking distance of the Murray River, so I do have a very important interest in the whole Murray River, not just because I represent it.

Whether you see the Murray-Darling Basin as Australia’s food basket or perhaps the nation’s agricultural heartland, the Murray-Darling Basin has long been a vital part of the agricultural landscape. But the river systems are in crisis, threatening the environmental health of the region and in turn those industries that rely on the flourishing river system. In recent years, one of the worst droughts in memory has compounded longstanding water availability issues, resulting in water inflows over the past two years at an all-time low—it was certainly lessening even before that—and now we have devastating environmental problems. Whether the severe drought over the Murray-Darling Basin is as bad as the Federation drought over 100 years ago is arguable. What is not arguable is that extraction from the Murray is much greater now and under present climatic conditions is not sustainable at previous rates of extraction. Hence we have the low allocations for irrigators. For example, in South Australia all the allocations are at 11 per cent which is simply not enough to keep many of the crops such as the orchards, the vines, the almond trees and so on alive.

The Murray in normal times is responsible for about 40 per cent of our food production. Hence we now have the problem of food security facing us. Of late, some commentators question the future of agriculture in the region. I am not one of them. I know that farmers and growers are an incredibly adaptable group of people whose ability to use less water is going up exponentially. However, there is a limit at which technology and improved infrastructure can no longer sustain food production in the face of lack of water flows. We could, of course, import food but that is not a desirable path for Australia to take in both economic terms and environmental terms.

Sadly, the water crisis has pitted state against state and irrigators against environmentalists. Irrigators will continue to come under pressure from environmental groups who will want the environment saved possibly at the expense of our food security, possibly at the expense of our wealth production and possibly at the expense of our job security and local communities.

It has taken much too long for the Rudd Labor government to take action. Their response to date in the meagre purchase of a few water licences does not necessarily guarantee water. They fail to understand that a licence only means an allocation when there is some water in storage. Although entitlement is expressed in megalitres, entitlement is not water; it is a share of the available water resource. So, if there is no water resource, buying up entitlement simply results in zero deliverable water to the holder of the entitlement.

Minister Wong’s department spent $50 million of taxpayers’ money on water buyback—$50 million for about 10 swimming pools of water. Most of what they have bought is general security water. As a result, no water was returned to the Murray-Darling and smart farmers have pocketed $50 million for air space in empty storage dams. So there is nothing for the environment at a cost to taxpayers of $50 million. In any case, the price offered for water was much too low. All they got was water from those irrigators who have no money left, no income due to low or no allocation and the bank banging on their door. These people now have lost a large part of their ability to earn an income as any future crops they grow will rely only on rainfall.

Water really cannot be used twice—that is, for irrigation and, secondly, for environmental flows. That might seem an obvious statement. Keeping water levels up certainly does have environmental benefits and we can see what happens when we have lower water levels as we have below Lock 1. Below Lock 1, we are seeing the effects of low river levels, where cracks appearing in the soils nearby are large enough for cows to break their legs in and make it downright dangerous to ride a motorbike on. Access to water for irrigation is extremely limited, let alone the cost of buying the water if you can get to it. Acid sulfate soils in the Lower Lakes due to exposure as a result of low levels has become a huge problem.

Concerningly, section 86(4) of this bill defines conveyance water as:

… water in the River Murray System required to deliver water to meet critical human water needs as far downstream as Wellington in South Australia.

I have lived in the area long enough to know that the Murray does not end at Wellington. There is a whole community of South Australians living downstream from there who are reliant on the river and the Lower Lakes for domestic water, stock and food production. Clearly they do not count when it comes to this bill. Their critical human needs are not factored in. We know that the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong, waved the white flag in August of this year in relation to the Lower Lakes environmental flows, and now she has turned her back on the good people of the area.

The competing demands on the river between states, growers, environmentalists and residents call for a national response and not every man looking after himself at the expense of others. The pain must be shared and the approach must be for the whole river. There simply is not the water in government controlled storage areas to allow that replenishment to happen at levels we would all like so that we can irrigate at past levels.

I do not blame Australians upstream for South Australia’s woes. Pitting farmers against growers does not help us one bit. This does not mean that we should not argue for our fair share of the water available. Cooperation between states is critical to the success of any strategy to save the Murray-Darling Basin. I wholeheartedly believe that a whole-of-nation approach is essential. This bill certainly goes part way to doing that but it falls short in ensuring cooperation.

Schedule 1 of this bill relies in part on referrals of power from the referring states. This means it will be enacted and commence only after the referring states have passed legislation through their parliaments referring the necessary powers to the Commonwealth. That legislation has commenced. We are not seeing a start-up date until 2011. So we have a plan to have a plan in 2011.

I fear that the states will not willingly relinquish their control. We saw the concessions asked by, and given to, Victoria in approving the massive diversion of 110 billion litres, or 110 gigalitres, of water from the Murray-Darling Basin to Melbourne via a pipeline from the Goulburn River. The state of South Australia made a very similar mistake some years ago when they saved about 42 gigalitres, or 42 billion litres, from the Loxton rehabilitation scheme. What did they do? They onsold to the Barossa and the Clare the water that was saved from those infrastructure upgrades. It was good luck for those areas—and the Barossa is in my electorate—but the fact is that that water should never have been onsold. Savings for the river should remain as savings for the river; they should not be used by governments, as the state government did in South Australia and as the Victorian government is doing with its 110 gigalitre north-south pipeline.

This pipeline is not a very cheap way of delivering water. We are talking about $10,000 a megalitre to deliver the water to Melbourne. The present normal rate of a megalitre is about $2,400, so we are talking about four times the cost.

Mr Shorten —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The amendment refers to the Coorong yet the member for Barker seems unduly fascinated by the Brumby project.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Georganas)—There is no point of order. The member for Barker will continue.

Mr SECKER —Despite my pleading for the Rudd government to consider Riverland communities in South Australia, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, gave the go-ahead to the Labor Party in Victoria for this pipeline at a cost of 110 billion litres that will never reach South Australia. Of course, that water would reach—if it could—the Coorong, Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert. What will the other states demand and receive in return for signing on?

I believe we already had a workable long-term solution with John Howard’s $10 billion plan to upgrade our infrastructure and buy back water from overallocated areas. It was a balanced plan that would have guaranteed our food security with about the same amount of land under production—not necessarily in exactly the same places—with far more efficient irrigation and delivery to farms without all the losses from seepage and evaporation.

For the record, I think the $10 million was only the starting point. I worked with a few of my colleagues to get that plan up with the support of Malcolm Turnbull and ultimately the cabinet and John Howard. The bottom line was that, under that plan, food production would have remained stable but Australia would extract nearly 3,000 gigalitres—about four times what South Australia extracts each year—less each year.

I criticised the stymieing of that plan by Labor. I am, furthermore, disappointed at the time Labor has taken to bring this bill forward. It is very interesting that we did not hear much from state Premier Mike Rann criticising Victoria for stymieing the plan. He was very quick to sign up to the agreement with New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland but ‘We’re not really going to bash Victoria around the ears for not signing the plan’.

While governments can plan for the future so it cannot happen again, we nonetheless have to deal with the reality of the present conditions. We need to alleviate the problems they cause as best we can through government support programs but we cannot make it rain; therefore, I support this bill. I am pleased to note the bill includes the Menindee Lakes at all times and includes regulated reaches of the Goulburn, Campaspe, Loddon and Murrumbidgee river systems, which are part of the basin.

I have already mentioned my concerns for the people of the Lower Lakes. This bill seems to disregard their critical human water needs. They are facing the building of a weir at Wellington, which will offer no relief and is more about protecting Adelaide’s water supply. If citizens of the Lower Lakes are excluded from bills such as this one, they will certainly never win against a million voters.

On a per capita basis, Adelaide is a relatively large water user of the Murray. This must not be allowed to continue. We must plan to wean Adelaide off the Murray-Darling system. It is essential that Adelaide is not totally reliant on the Murray River system. I believe we can do that with things like recycling water. We can make sure that the run-off from the stormwater goes to the Adelaide Airport aquifer or the Port Adelaide aquifer and then we can recycle it. Unfortunately, in South Australia we have a Premier who refuses to look at recycling, even though it is used successfully all around the world. It has been said that each bit of water in London, for example, goes through seven kidneys before its final use. There is no reason why we cannot do that sort of thing in Australia and quite healthily.

Domestic water restrictions in Adelaide and elsewhere in South Australia were a very blunt but largely political instrument. Their imposition reflected a failure of the Rann state government to properly plan for future needs and a failure of the pricing system to supply critical needs at a reasonable rate and increasing cost for excessive wants. The only positive was the raising of awareness to conserve a finite resource.

When Tom Playford was the Premier of South Australia, as part of his long-term planning he bought three sites for future reservoirs. When Don Dunstan got into government he sold that land. That showed the lack of long-term thinking by the Dunstan Labor government. They refused to look at the long-term future. The Rann Labor government in South Australia is no better. It has done almost nothing in respect of investigating new and emerging innovative approaches and techniques for urban water schemes compatible with increasing demands, reducing supplies, increasing flood risks, needs for environmental protection, opportunities for greater efficiency through system decentralisation and competition to achieve a recycling volume of 110 gigalitres per annum.

I recently had constituents in my Riverland electorate office ask me when the Rudd government was going to divulge the real details of the buyback plan it announced last month for irrigators with fewer than 15 hectares. The trouble is that, with South Australian allocations on 11 per cent this year and some water already used or sold, it is unlikely to provide any substantial relief to the Lower Lakes in the short term. Nonetheless, Riverland communities need access to the money on offer now and the opportunity to adjust quickly. There is little or no market for their properties, and they wish to stay in their homes. Most would use grants to retire debt. Those that do retire from irrigation should be recognised for their willingness to be part of the solution but, unfortunately, they have no details as yet. Given the scale of the problem, these people deserve to be offered payments significantly above market value. Time is no longer on the side of the river or the community, but they are still waiting on detail from the minister.

I support the amendment moved by the member for Flinders, which was seconded by me, to include a $50 million rescue package for the Lower Lakes. This is $50 million spent to help people dependent on the Murray Lower Lakes, who I believe are entirely worthy of inclusion in this bill. It would assist them with water carting, turtle rescue and business compensation and would help farmers to make adjustments for the future. We have a Prime Minister in this place talking about an unimaginable place called the ‘Coorong Lakes’—which does not exist. It is ‘the Coorong’. They are not lakes. They are hypersaline, so they are not lakes. The best they could be called are ‘lagoons’. In the Prime Minister’s rush to say he has been there he talked about the ‘Coorong Lakes’ when there is no such place. There is the Coorong, there is the Lower Lakes—Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert—but there is no such thing as the ‘Coorong Lakes’. That shows his absolute ignorance about what is happening down there. He had a 10-minute visit to get a picture opportunity, and that is his whole experience with the Coorong and the Lower Lakes. He talked to a few people—whoopy-doo! He has not achieved anything for the people of the Lower Lakes. We believe that the money should be spent to help those people who, through no fault of their own, no longer have the ability to even have a shower with clean water. You imagine sending your kids off to school in that sort of situation. I support the bill.