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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9150

Mr WINDSOR (11:11 AM) —I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on the Water Amendment Bill 2008. Water is possibly the most complex issue that parliaments can deal with. I was in the New South Wales parliament when the Water Act 2000 was passed, and a lot of the same issues that are arising from this bill were also reflected in that legislation. The issue of water seems to be simple to everybody, and it is obviously a requirement for life. It may be surpassed in complexity when we drift into the emissions trading system that is currently being developed. Water is a very important issue and, being so complex, it is very easy to politicise it and try to simplify it. I think there are some oversimplifications in many parts of this legislation.

I was interested to listen to the member for O’Connor, who has left the building for the moment. I thank him for swapping speaking spots with me. I do not think any of us totally agree with the member for O’Connor on some issues, but I do think that we should listen to some of the things he had to say today, not only with respect to this legislation, the four-state agreement and the COAG process that has been entered into in relation to the Murray-Darling system but also with respect to comments that he made about the northern parts of Australia and the potential impact of climate change on rainfall. We are told there will be more rainfall in some parts of Australia, and we have to decide whether we are going to take advantage of that. There are a number of issues intertwined in that debate and in this legislation which send mixed messages, and I would like to spend a bit of time on those.

We have the carbon debate, the water debate, the food security debate, the global crisis and the carbon footprint in transporting food to other nations and in bringing energy from other nations to this nation. A whole range of economic jargon is developing on emissions trading. I think we have to put in place a narrative on this that actually tells people where we want to go. If the agenda is to feed the world, you have to put in place certain policies to drive that agenda. If the agenda is to cut back on water use, that is different. We cannot run the two agendas at the same time and expect any meaningful policy outcomes to come from that.

To highlight what I am saying, just look at the Murray-Darling system for a moment. We have a dam at the end of it. We have the lakes at the end, and the opposition is moving an amendment to put some money into those communities. The Lower Lakes, Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, I think, hold something like 2,850 gigalitres of water. That is an unnatural system. The dam’s water goes back about a hundred kilometres to the Murray Bridge—completely unnatural. A lot of this bill is about driving water into that system so that those people at the end can have some water and so that Adelaide can have some water. Adelaide has a lot of water; it just happens to have salt in it. They could do what Sydney is doing and take a bit of the salt out. If we believe the message of climate change, which I do, there will be more salt water around our cities, so the net effect of desalinating some of it to give some water to our city populations and to our coastal people will not be felt.

We have these barrages at the end of our system. They have caused enormous environmental destruction in that area. The water table has risen. The salt has risen. There have been government funded schemes to try and drain some of the country to get the water table down. There are a whole range of things. I have visited the area a number of times now. I went to one particular property, which I will always remember, that was farming fish in tanks; it used to be a dairy farm and they used to grow lucerne. I said, ‘Where do you get your water from?’ The answer was, ‘Saltwater fish.’ Out in the backyard, they had dug a hole about a metre deep and had a Davey house pump pumping salt water out of the ground into the system where there was once a dairy farm.

I do not have any sympathy for what is happening at the end of the Murray system because I think it is a disgrace what we have done down there. For people to come in here and argue that we should send more water down there so it can be evaporated in a pond at the end of the system, in the way it is now, is just adding to the hypocrisy and the mixed messages that are going on in this place. Those lakes are 22 times the size of the electorate of the former Minister for Environment and Water Resources Malcolm Turnbull. It is a massive area. I am told that about a thousand gigalitres of evaporation takes place. The cotton industry in New South Wales is condemned by people as one of the great maulers of water; there is this mythology out there. The cotton industry uses about a third more than the evaporation from that system, about 1,350 gigalitres of water, yet 1,000 gigalitres is evaporating from a system that we have dammed up at the end of the Murray. We have the Menindee Lakes, where enormous evaporation takes place. There are a whole range of things. These bills do not go to some of those issues, and that is the point I am making in terms of the member for O’Connor. Some of those efficiency measures and other measures that he spoke about should be looked at very closely, because there is innovation out there, and part of the process should be to encourage people to move into some of those innovative areas.

In terms of the message, we have to determine what the problem is here. I raised the issue of climate change with the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago in question time. I raised it with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. I still have not received an answer. I am told by the Prime Minister’s office that they will be replying in writing. Climate change threads through these bills. I personally believe there has been overallocation in some of the Murray-Darling system—not in all of it, but in some of it. In my electorate, there has been massive adjustment to some of those overallocation issues, particularly in the groundwater systems, where some people have accepted a 90 per cent reduction in their extraction. This was the question to the Prime Minister: if climate change is creating the problem, how many gigalitres of water are not occurring or will not occur into the future as inflows into that system because of climate change—humanly caused reduction in inflows into that system?

I have seen documents that say it is between 2½ thousand and 4½ thousand gigalitres. I do not know what the true number is; the Prime Minister said he would get back to us on that. But if that is the case, if that is the issue, that is going to have an enormous impact on those people, including me, west of the range in the Murray-Darling system. If that is the case—and in other areas, we are also told that there will be more water because of climate change—why are we not looking at replacing some of the climate change impact portions impacted by climate change with water from other systems? The argument in the past has always been that, if you bring water in by diverting it from the Clarence or from North Queensland or wherever, you will impact on the water table and the saline levels in the system. If we believe in climate change—the minister apparently does and I do—that argument is refuted, because all you would be doing is replacing the humanly caused climate-change component of the reduction in inflows with water. The member for O’Connor made a very important point: there is no less water now than there was a million years ago and there probably will not be in another million. There are ways and means of overcoming some of these issues. If we want food production in that system and there is a way of doing it through efficiency gains et cetera, the parliament really has to add some water—and this relates to the climate change component and presumes that global communities do not come in on emissions reductions—to the system.

There are a number of things that I would like to mention. The bill talks about communities and the human need for water and the priority over it that they would have. There are two circumstances in the electorate of New England that I would like to mention. One is the upgrade of Chaffey Dam, which is the water supply for the major town in the electorate of New England—that is, Tamworth. Tamworth very nearly ran out of water a couple of years ago. Rainfall has added water to that system and there is currently a proposal before the Commonwealth and the state to upgrade it. I pay credit to Minister Wong for the way in which she has conducted this debate so far in terms of the Chaffey Dam issue. It has to be part of the process, and this bill is part of that process, with the Basin Plan and other issues in terms of the caps on valleys et cetera. I believe there is an opportunity and I think Senator Wong believes there is an opportunity. The bill relates to the need for communities to be safeguarded in terms of their water supply, so I mention Chaffey Dam.

Another much smaller community in my electorate is the town of Barraba, which is located about 20 kilometres from the Split Rock Dam. Barraba has had enormous problems with long-term water security and is looking to pipe water from Split Rock Dam, a very large 800-gigalitre dam, to the community. That can be done through the transfer of licences et cetera, but obviously the missing link there is money. So I put on the public record—and I have in terms of Infrastructure Australia—that they are two significant areas where communities are at risk of running out of water and we have to look at upgrading their storage facilities within the Basin Plan, of which the structure is put in place in this particular bill.

Another issue that I would like to raise is the amendment that I will move during the debate. It relates to the exploration of coal or subsidence mining activities on alluvial floodplains. I know this is happening not only in my part of the world but also on parts of the Darling Downs in Queensland. The amendment effectively, in terms of this bill, is putting in place a Basin Plan based on certain numbers—gigalitres of inflows et cetera—and certain reductions because of climate change and other issues. I believe that you cannot have a firm document of inflows unless you fully understand the contribution the groundwater systems make to the surface water system. I have heard Senator Heffernan and others talk about this in the past. No-one seems to have a definitive knowledge of how much we are talking about in this bill and in a lot of the other documents that are out there and how much of the system is being replenished by groundwater systems and how great the interconnectivity of those systems is.

The former Prime Minister, John Howard, and Minister Turnbull, as he was then, both said in this chamber that we really do not understand and that we need more research. On the Liverpool Plains, for instance—the Namoi Valley system, which is in part of my electorate—we have an interconnected groundwater system of about 20 systems. We think they are all interconnected. We believe that they are connected to the Murray-Darling system. If they are not, there are some holes in this bill. The assumption is that they have some connectivity to the inflows into the Murray-Darling system, but we have very little scientific knowledge about what the impact would be of subsidence mining on the land above those sorts of systems not only on water flows but on the quality of that water.

My amendment calls for a fully independent study. Senator Wong is well aware of this, as is the New South Wales government. The former Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Malcolm Turnbull, was as well when he duped a group of people just prior to the election into suggesting that he would fund this particular independent study and then failed to give the appropriate advice to the department. He left Senator Wong with this particular issue sitting on her desk and me nagging about it. This is an important amendment, and I will be very interested to see how former Minister Turnbull, now Leader of the Opposition, votes when this amendment is put to the test in this parliament. It calls for an independent study into the impacts of subsidence mining on the groundwater systems.

To carry out that study you really have to understand the interconnectivity issues. You need to understand those interconnectivity issues not only with the various water systems but also with the surface water. The Namoi system in itself—and it is one of six alluvial valleys in New South Wales; I am not fully conversant with Victoria but I do know a little bit about some of the Queensland parts of the Murray drainage system—covers 350 kilometres. If you upset the hydraulic nature of those systems and the way in which they relate to the river systems, what happens? What happens to this document? What happens to the Basin Plan? I do not know. Senator Wong does not know, Malcolm Turnbull did not know. John Howard did not know. I do not think Prime Minister Rudd has a clue. None of us know.

We have not carried out those activities in that sort of system anywhere in the world without a disastrous impact, and I would suggest—before Senator Wong and others come back and say, ‘That’s a state issue; the granting of exploration licences is a state issue’—that that process is flawed. It is flawed because the environmental impact and planning processes of the state mining licences are based on a localised impact: you buy your 10,000 acres, dig it up, put a bank around it and do not affect anybody outside. You can effectively mine land. I am talking about these interconnected systems that are part of the inflows into this system that everybody is saying is so stressed. I urge the government to look very closely at that particular issue.

The other issue that I want to raise is the issue of Toorale. People have been calling it ‘Toorally’; it is called ‘Tooral’. I know that property reasonably well. I have shot a lot of pigs on it. I have done a lot of helicopter work over the top of it. I do not have a problem with them acquiring the water if that is what they believe that they should do. But they should not acquire all the land. I would urge Senator Wong and the Prime Minister to sit down with people up there—not the people who are playing political games with this—and talk through the issues to do with that land. Anybody with any understanding of the nature of that particular property—and it is highly productive for grazing—knows that it is a honey pot for feral animals. I have shot a lot of them out on that particular country. That particular land will be destroyed if it is left to the New South Wales national parks to look after it. That will have added impacts on the Bourke economy.

Bourke is not in my electorate, but I have spent a lot of time on that river with my sons on various holidays et cetera. That particular property should be looked at very closely. Take the water and take a small part of it. I believe that there is an option to do that. Take a small part of it that does have some unique features and include it in a national park. Sell the rest back into the community so that the economic benefits remain there. Otherwise, you send a mixed message and make a mockery of the idea that we want to produce food to feed the starving millions and that you cannot have biofuels because you would take food out of the mouths of the starving millions. Toorale is a highly productive property and has been for many years. Buy the water and stop the cotton if that is the nature of the game. But do not acquire the land. Let the land return to the productive activities that have been carried out on it for well over 100 years.