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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9148

Ms OWENS (11:02 AM) —I am not quite sure what the member for O’Connor was saying, but I think he was saying that the fate of the Murray-Darling River is not about climate change. We have yet another climate change denier on the opposition benches.

Mr Tuckey —I am totally convinced about climate change!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. AR Bevis)—The member for O’Connor was generously heard in silence. He will remain silent or I will deal with him.

Mr Tuckey —That’s fine—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I will remove you from the chamber if you want to persist.

Mr Tuckey —I will do you the favour. I’m not going to be attacked by someone that I didn’t attack.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Walk now or I will remove you.

Ms OWENS —The Water Amendment Bill 2008 is very much about working together as a nation to solve one of the great environmental disasters in Australian history: the near death of our great Murray-Darling river system. Parramatta, my electorate, is nowhere near the Murray-Darling, and yet I know how concerned people are about the state of our rivers and the Murray-Darling in particular. We do not feel it the way people on the land do; we are far away. I walked in the bed of the Darling just two years ago, when circumstances were nowhere near as bad as they are now, and I was shocked by the condition of the land and the condition of the mighty Darling, which I had heard about so frequently in school. Even back in 2004, some four years ago when I was doorknocking prior to the 2004 election, water was one of the most commonly raised issues among my constituents. We as a community were not fully informed of the circumstances in other parts of the country, but we knew it was a major problem. The idea that we could lose such an iconic river system to self-interest and a lack of action beggars belief in my community, as it does around the country.

This bill is special not because of what is in the bill itself but because it comes about due to a change in attitude and a willingness to work together to save what is a magnificent river system. It gives effect to the agreement on the Murray-Darling Basin reform signed by the Prime Minister, the premiers of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia and the ACT Chief Minister at the 3 July COAG meeting. The bill enables the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to be brought together under one institution, to be known as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and it ensures that the Basin Plan process can address the provision of water for critical human needs. It strengthens the role of the ACCC by extending the application of the water market and water charge rules to cover all bodies that charge regulated water charges and all irrigation infrastructure operators. The bill will enable water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin to be managed in the national interest, optimising environmental, economic and social outcomes.

The bill is a real example of the ending of the blame game and working cooperatively with the states. The bill requires enabling legislation to transfer power from the basin states to the Commonwealth. Already legislation has passed both houses of the New South Wales parliament and has been introduced in South Australia. We are now waiting on Victoria and Queensland. It is a historic agreement for the long-term reform of water management in the Murray-Darling Basin. It well and truly introduces a new era of cooperative arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states so that governments, industry and community can face head-on the challenges of water scarcity and water security. Conflict over water entitlements has been long-running in the Murray-Darling, with conflicting interests between states slowing down the process of reform for many decades. The new Murray-Darling Basin Authority will have the autonomy to prepare a basin plan, the first ever single, basin-wide water resource management plan.

In July the government announced investments of close to $3.7 billion in the basin states to improve irrigation efficiency, raise productivity of water use and return water savings to the rivers. The federal government is, for the first time in history, buying water entitlements from willing sellers to tackle overallocation. The Australian government has already completed the first-ever federal government water purchase program, which will put 22.6 billion litres into the Murray when water is available, with a further 5.5 billion litres expected to be settled soon. Recently, the Australian government also assisted the New South Wales government to purchase Toorale, a cotton station near Bourke, which currently holds entitlements to extract 14 billion litres of water. The Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Penny Wong, last week released guidelines for groups of irrigators wanting to submit proposals to sell combined water entitlements in ways that deliver simultaneous benefits for farmers, irrigation water providers and the environment.

It is worth while, particularly for those of us who are so far from the Murray-Darling, considering the sheer size of the system and the problem that the nation faces—and this is a problem for the nation, not just for those who live along the banks of the Murray-Darling and draw their water from that system. The area comprises 1,059,000 square kilometres and has a population of over two million, according to the 2006 census. In 2005-06 temperatures recorded in the Murray-Darling Basin were two degrees hotter than average. The Murray-Darling Basin receives over 530,000 gigalitres of rainfall each year, of which 94 per cent evaporates or transpires, two per cent drains into the ground and four per cent becomes run-off. Eighty-four per cent of the land is owned by businesses engaged in agriculture, with 67 per cent of the land being used to grow crops and pasture.

Fifty-two per cent of Australia’s total water consumption is used by industries and households in the Murray-Darling Basin. There were 7,720 gigalitres of water consumed for agriculture in 2005-06—20 per cent for cotton, 17 per cent for dairy farming, 17 per cent for pasture and other livestock, and 16 per cent for rice. The Murray-Darling Basin produces 100 per cent of Australia’s cotton, 95 per cent of its oranges, 62 per cent of its pigs, 54 per cent of its apples and 48 per cent of its wheat. The gross value of agricultural production was worth $15 billion in 2005-06. This great river system that we learn about in primary school and in high school is more to Australia than a great river system; it is well and truly the food bowl of our nation.

The Water Amendment Bill is a cooperative effort with the states and stakeholders to manage our natural resources, these extraordinary natural resources, in the national interest. The 1995 cap on diversions of surface water from the Murray-Darling Basin was based on historic levels of use. Thirteen years on, with climate change and droughts, those levels are no longer sustainable. Our rivers are stressed and overallocated and we need a whole-of-basin approach to combat the problems that have arisen over the years. A properly functioning water market will be essential to help irrigators manage future reductions in water availability. It is a responsibility of the whole nation to assist our farmers to manage the changes that they will need to make with climate change. We have lived on the back of our farming community for decades and it is now time for us to be there when they need us.

The reforms this bill will bring in are in the medium- and long-term interests. The first Basin Plan will start in 2011. The Rudd government has a $12.9 billion Water for the Future program, which has four priorities: tackling climate change, supporting healthy rivers, using water wisely and securing our water supplies. It is well and truly time for us all to get behind the farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin, to get behind the Murray-Darling river system itself and to make the changes that we need to make to save this astonishing river system.