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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9154

Mr CHAMPION (11:31 AM) —The River Murray has been one of the life sources for Adelaide and South Australia since its settlement, and fears of its demise are nothing new. Almost 70 years ago, my only Labor predecessor in Wakefield, Sydney McHugh, asked a question of Prime Minister Robert Menzies about this and expressed his and other South Australian fears that the river might go dry because of irrigation issues. Back then, in response to development along the river, he called on the Commonwealth to ‘cooperate with the government of South Australia in augmenting the storage supplies’. I note that the member for Makin talked about Ralph Jacobi, the former member for Hawker, and the concerns that he expressed 26 years ago.

We know that there have always been tensions between the interests of the basin states, Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, and between farmers and irrigators, the natural environment, and the Commonwealth government. We heard the member for New England expressing his views about the Lower Lakes. That was an expression of that tension.

Fears of the River Murray’s demise are nothing new but the risks of real, irreversible damage to the river system have never been greater. We have reached a point in our history where the old management approaches to the river are demonstrably inadequate. The system is in real trouble and its governance is in need of urgent reform. We can no longer afford to carry on with the approach of the previous government, which was at best piecemeal and too little too late—a last desperate gasp of policy in the final year of the government. The previous government wasted 10 years appeasing sections of the National Party and other upriver communities. They allowed the River Murray to reach crisis point.

This bill will amend the Water Act 2007 to give effect to the historic Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform signed by the Prime Minister and the premiers of each of the basin states at COAG in July. It will end the bickering and the buck passing that is strangling the river system and allow the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to be brought together as a single institution.

This bill seeks to give the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority the responsibility of preparing a Basin Plan to ensure the health, prosperity and sustainability of the river, its users and the communities around it. It will be the first whole-of-basin natural resource management plan and will set out to protect the critical human water needs of people who depend on the river, as well as manage the allocation of water for irrigation and other commercial use.

We have to face the unpalatable truth that, over 100 years, our uncoordinated state based approach to the Murray-Darling—the irrigation and the establishment of locks and weirs—has led us to the point where only a clear and uniform national approach, as well as a serious concerted effort to look for alternative sources of water for communities, will save the river basin. A national independent authority is the only solution to manage the river basin and coordinate sustainable and capped water extraction, and that is why it is essential that this bill pass in the House. It is time for coordinated action and it is time to end the discord and self-interest that has dominated this issue since before Sydney McHugh was elected. This bill will allow decisions to be made about the future of our most important river system that are in the interest of the whole of the nation and the whole of the river rather than in the interests of individual states or individual communities.

An important aspect of this bill is that this legislation will strengthen the role of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and empower it to enforce a uniform approach to regulation; to extend 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 to provide 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. In other words, it will provide clear and effective regulation of the water market, ensuring that the public has confidence in the trade of water. That is something that is sorely needed.

There is a lot of talk out there in the community about the trade in water, and I have met with farmers in places like Rosedale who are very concerned about the consequences of water trading, particularly when it is married to managed investment schemes and the expansion of agricultural systems in their area. As members will be aware, this bill, in order to achieve its aims, will require individual basin states to refer specific powers to the Commonwealth in accordance with section 51 of the Constitution, and it will give the Commonwealth control of what is a national icon. It leaves the states with an important role to play but not a dominant role.

As a South Australian, I find that at the end of the river system the issue of water security is perhaps more urgent than anywhere else. Under the leadership of Premier Mike Rann and the Minister for the River Murray, Karlene Maywald, South Australia has been leading the way and is the first state to introduce legislation to refer its constitutional powers to the Commonwealth on the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. It is useful to note that it was also Premier Mike Rann who first demanded an independent and public source of advice to the minister and the federal government on the Murray River. He locked horns with the former Prime Minister on that, but I think it was in South Australia’s interests and the country’s interests.

The Rudd and Rann governments take water security very seriously, and I know that they are determined to work collaboratively on lasting solutions. In South Australia the drought, climate change, river regulation, and the overallocation of water upstream over a number of years have crippled the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and changed the ecology of the lakes and the Coorong. The Rudd government is already taking action to address the consequences of human settlement and development all along the river. With the support of the state government, the Rudd government is providing up to $200 million to support a coordinated response to environmental problems facing the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and is delivering up to $120 million for integrated networks of pipelines to service townships, communities and irrigators currently reliant on the Lower Lakes for their water supply, vastly improving their water security and the quality of water for critical human needs.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission is also developing and evaluating a range of short-, medium- and long-term management strategies for the Coorong and options to stop the acidification of the Lower Lakes. Make no mistake: if the drought does not break and if climate change continues, we may have to make some very tough decisions about the Lower Lakes and the Murray-Darling system. The choice may be between supplying Adelaide with drinking water and saving the lakes as freshwater lakes.

My fear is that in the longer term Adelaide will be forced to rethink its entire approach to water. We heard some of the comments made by the member for New England, and it gives you a bit of an insight into how people upstream think. I think that in the longer term Adelaide is going to have to consider additional water-saving measures, including a massive expansion of our re-use of stormwater and the use of treated waste water for critical human needs. The city of Salisbury has already basically got the technology in place to treat stormwater in that way; its council is a leading authority in this area. It has been joined now by the city of Playford to produce what will probably be the biggest aquifer storage recharge in the Southern Hemisphere. When we join up the Stebonheath Flow Control Park, which is currently under construction, with the city of Salisbury’s already fairly extensive wetlands facilities, we will have a world-quality facility there in the seat of Wakefield. I think Adelaide will have to look at changes in the design of its new suburbs and particularly to wean itself off the idea of the quarter-acre block with the lawn and the European-style garden. In the longer term it is simply unsustainable to have those sorts of gardens in South Australia. It is the driest state in the driest continent, and climate change will only increase the challenges that we face in that regard.

The establishment of the national authority to take control of all aspects of the Murray-Darling river system will be a step in the right direction. The bill before us today is a great start. It is an essential and urgently needed component of the Rudd government’s overall approach to water. It will complement the $12.9 billion Water for the Future plan. Of course, a critical component of that plan is the allocation of $3.1 billion over the next decade to purchase water to put back into the Murray-Darling waterways through the Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling Basin program. This purchased water will be used to address the problem of overallocation and to protect and restore high priority environmental assets in the Murray-Darling Basin, which will include the Lower Lakes. We have already completed the first ever water purchase program, putting back 35 billion litres into the Murray once that water becomes available. We have assisted the New South Wales government to purchase Toorale—I hope I have pronounced it to the member for New England’s satisfaction—which currently holds an entitlement to extract 14 billion litres of water.

The government should also be congratulated for announcing the first comprehensive, detailed and externally reviewed audit of both public and private water storages in the basin. I think that audit will go a long way to making sure that we do not have this constant upstream-downstream debate, which is pretty toxic and does not bring us together as a country; it divides us and means that there is a fair bit of finger-pointing around the place. The people of Adelaide really cannot afford that. We depend on the Murray for a good portion of our drinking water and our livelihoods, and we just want the system to work, to be fair and to be sustainable. This bill provides water security into the future, and I commend it to the House.