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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 9021

Mr TREVOR (7:02 PM) —I rise to support the Water Amendment Bill 2008. The purpose of this bill, of course, is to amend the Water Act 2007 to give effect to the Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform, the IGA, signed by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and first ministers of each of the basin states—New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory—at the 3 July 2008 meeting of the Council of Australian Governments. I take this opportunity to commend my government, the Rudd Labor government, on showing outstanding leadership on this issue.

The reform IGA has also resulted in the negotiation of a revised Murray-Darling Basin agreement which will come into effect at the same time as this bill commences. The bill will enable water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin to be managed in the national interest, optimising environmental, economic and social outcomes. This bill relies on the Commonwealth’s constitutional powers and the referral of powers to the Commonwealth by New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland to enact certain measures. These include the transfer of the current powers and functions of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, as set out in the former Murray-Darling Basin agreement to the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The Water Amendment Bill 2008 will also strengthen the role of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission by extending the application of the water market rules and water charge rules to cover, respectively, all bodies that charge regulated water charges and all irrigation infrastructure operators and by providing for any state or territory to opt in such that the water market and water charge rules apply to water resources outside the Murray-Darling Basin. This will enable the Basin Plan to provide for critical human water needs.

How important the Murray-Darling Basin is to Australia for social, cultural, economic and environmental reasons is shown by the statistical profile which can be found at the Australian Bureau of Statistics. According to the ABS, the basin covers some 1.05 million square kilometres or 14 per cent of Australia’s land area. Australia’s three longest rivers, the Darling, the Murray and the Murrumbidgee are found in the Murray-Darling Basin. The 2005-06 ABS census found that 84 per cent of the land in the Murray-Darling Basin is owned by businesses engaged in agriculture. However, alarmingly, in 2005-06 temperatures recorded in the Murray-Darling Basin were up to two degrees Celsius hotter than average. Almost two-fifths of Australia’s farmers resided in the Murray-Darling Basin, totalling 61,033 farms in 2005-06. In 2005-06 this area contained some 65 per cent of Australia’s irrigated land.

The bill complements the Commonwealth government’s $12.9 billion Water for the Future plan announced by the Minister for Climate Change and Water on 29 April 2008. This $12.9 billion worth of funding under Water for the Future is not specially addressed in the bill. However, this funding supports governance and water resource management reforms and includes establishing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, improving water information, sustainable rural water use and infrastructure programs, and purchasing water to improve the health of the rivers and wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin.

I pay tribute to the Burnett Catchment Care Association in my electorate of Flynn who since 1995 have toiled to improve agriculture and catchment health across 33,000 square kilometres of the Burnett and associated river systems—the Kolan, Elliott, Isis and Gregory. These river systems border the Murray-Darling Basin catchment area to the north, in southern Queensland. I acknowledge the contribution of the chairman, Councillor Paul Lobegeier, and his committee for their purpose and passion. It would not be correct to say that the basin begins in Flynn, as it really begins across the length of the top and eastern borders, where a number of rivers spring and then drain down. However, you could say that the northernmost tip of the basin lies in the Flynn electorate, near the localities of Tambo and Chinchilla, the latter being in the member for Maranoa’s, Bruce Scott’s, electorate, which borders the electorate of Flynn.

The Burnett Catchment Care Association’s Better Burnett team, led by Dean Power, are achieving outstanding on-ground results. In this last financial year their support has covered over 42,000 hectares of grazing country improved by on-ground activities. This hard work not only benefits those grazing families involved but also improves biodiversity and water quality for the in-stream habitat of the Burnett as well as the vitally important receiving waters for the Great Barrier Reef lagoon—not to mention, of course, considerable farm-level improvement in partnership with leaders in the cane and horticultural industries. Better Burnett activities put real, local, on-ground progress to state and national recovery plans. Perhaps the most noteworthy work that the Burnett Catchment Care Association has diligently undertaken is the management since 1999 of aquatic weeds in their river systems.

In October 2008, Senator the Hon. Penny Wong, Minister for Climate Change and Water, announced a $6.3 million dollar contribution out of our Water for the Future funds for the stormwater project that is being undertaken in conjunction with Salisbury City Council. This project will enable the delivery by 2012 of six billion litres of water, reducing the take on the River Murray by five billion litres and enabling the injection into the aquifers, which are used for storage of 1.3 billion litres worth of environmental contribution. This project just shows how communities can show leadership when it comes to water reuse, water recycling and water conservation.

Another initiative of the Rudd Labor government’s commitment to and leadership in helping manage Murray-Darling Basin water resources, which Senator the Hon. Penny Wong, Minister for Climate Change and Water, announced last week, is the provision of $6 million to the eWater Cooperative Research Centre for a new hydrological modelling tool to help manage the surface water and groundwater of the Murray-Darling Basin. This project will accelerate the development and trial of a new computer model, known as RiverManager, to help make water allocation and use over coming decades more sustainable. RiverManager will clearly be an important tool to assist the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to implement the proposed Basin Plan, including a new limit on water use. It will help the authority evaluate the costs, benefits and trade-offs of different water management options in the basin.

This bill will give effect to a key outcome of the reform IGA, bringing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission together as a single entity, to be known as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. This means the authority will have some additional functions, powers and duties conferred by the revised agreement and bill. These functions were previously undertaken by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. The authority will implement decisions made by a new ministerial council and the basin officials committee, both to be established by the revised agreement, relating to matters such as state water shares and natural resource management programs. The authority will also prepare a corporate plan annually for approval by the ministerial council in relation to these functions.

The new ministerial council will be established by the revised agreement and will have an advisory role in the preparation of the Basin Plan by the authority. The authority will provide the proposed Basin Plan back to the authority once for reappraisal if it disagrees about certain matters. When the Basin Plan is first made, the authority must also advise the council on the socioeconomic implications of any reductions in the sustainable diversion limits in the proposed Basin Plan.

The current act provides for a Basin Plan for the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin. The bill expands the mandatory content of the Basin Plan to include arrangements for critical human water needs for those communities dependent on the waters of the River Murray system, excluding communities dependent on the waters of the Edward-Wakool system downstream of Stevens Weir, near Deniliquin in New South Wales. The Basin Plan will specify the volume of water required to meet critical human water needs in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, the conveyance of water in the River Murray system required to deliver critical human needs, the conditions under which special water-sharing arrangements are implemented and the process that will apply in times of low water availability.

The amendments provide for a uniform approach to regulation by extending the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s regulatory role within the Murray-Darling Basin. The water market rules and the water charge rules provided for in the act will apply to all water service providers that charge regulated water charges and their transactions, not just those entities and transactions within the scope of the Commonwealth’s constitutional powers. The water charge rules will be able to provide that the ACCC determines or approves all regulated water charges in the basin, other than charges relating to urban water supply activities beyond the point at which the water has been removed from a basin water resource.

The establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority means that for the first time water planning in the basin will be undertaken by an independent, expert based body. The new authority will develop and oversee the implementation of the Basin Plan and will assume responsibility for the current tasks of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and implement the decisions made by the new Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and the Basin Officials Committee. Central to the Basin Plan will be sustainable diversion limits on water use in the basin to ensure the long-term future health and prosperity of the Murray-Darling Basin and to safeguard the water needs of the communities that rely on its water resources.

The Rudd Labor government is committed to restoring the health of our rivers by investing in more efficient water use and delivery, by locating new sources of water and by purchasing back water entitlements from willing sellers to return water to the environment, rivers, lakes and wetlands. The health of the Murray-Darling Basin is in decline and the environment which relies on water flowing through the basin’s rivers and tributaries is under enormous strain due to the overuse of water resources for irrigation and other uses. The situation is more than likely going to worsen as rainfall declines due to climate change. Without enough water the basin’s delicate system will continue to deteriorate, threatening many species of birds, fish, frogs and flora that need the Murray and Darling rivers to survive. Without proper management of the system the viability of agriculture, cities, towns and communities will also deteriorate. It is essential that immediate action is taken to address these problems.

Under Water for the Future, overallocation for consumptive uses and declining river health are urgent priorities and these are to be addressed immediately by the Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling Basin program. The goal of Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling Basin is to acquire water entitlements from willing sellers and use the water allocated to them for the environment. This will improve the health of the basin’s rivers, wetlands and floodplains. The Australian government’s initial $50 million water buyback in the 2007-08 financial year will secure entitlements to approximately 35 billion litres of water for the Murray-Darling Basin rivers.

Robert Freeman was appointed as Chief Executive Officer of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Mr Freeman commenced in September this year and he will act as chief executive and chairman for three months or until amendments to the Water Act that separate the roles of chairperson and chief executive come into effect. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission will continue to operate as normal until transition to the new authority. The authority will then assume the current functions of the commission.

It is vitally important that government balances the needs of the Murray-Darling Basin for farmers, communities, water consumption and the health of the river system itself. I commend this bill to the House, and I commend the Rudd Labor government for its leadership on this issue.