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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9181

Mr GARRETT (Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) (1:35 PM) —The Water Amendment Bill 2008 before the House is a much needed, long overdue reform in governance that will put the Murray-Darling Basin on the right footing to face the challenges that lie ahead. I thank the members who have spoken on this bill and recognise the significance of this reform. Let us consider that some 94 years ago in 1914 New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Commonwealth signed the River Murray Waters Agreement and established the River Murray Commission, which later became the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. The resulting governance model required the agreement of all basin jurisdictions before anything could be done by the commission. These arrangements have remained largely unchanged to this day, have been an obstacle to reform and have encouraged decision making that was not in the interests of the basin as a whole.

The overallocation of water resources in the basin, combined with record low inflows and the onset of climate change, was not envisaged at the time the River Murray Waters Agreement was signed. In the Water Act 2007 a key element is the preparation of a whole-of-basin plan by the independent, expert Murray-Darling Basin Authority and in the context of clear accountability of the Commonwealth minister. The Basin Plan will also include an environmental watering plan, coordinating management of environmental flows including the additional environmental water that is recovered by the Commonwealth in the basin. Central to the Basin Plan will be sustainable diversion limits on surface water and, importantly, groundwater use 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.

Further to the Water Act, the Water Amendment Bill 2008 introduces governance arrangements for the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority that take account of the need to work closely with the states. These reforms are needed to ensure a governance model that is responsive to the current and future challenges facing water management in the basin. The reforms in the Water Amendment Bill 2008 are needed to ensure the viability of the basin’s water dependent industries, to ensure healthy and vibrant communities and to ensure the sustainability of the basin’s natural environment. Importantly, these reforms reflect a new era of cooperation and collaboration between Murray-Darling Basin governments for basin-wide water management.

This government was elected on a platform of ending the blame game between Canberra and the states and territories and we have invigorated the Council of Australian Governments with a major reform agenda underpinned by more effective working arrangements. In May 2008, government took a major step forward with a memo of understanding on Murray-Darling Basin reform, signed by the Prime Minister, the Premiers of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland and the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory. In July 2008, as promised, an intergovernmental agreement on Murray-Darling Basin reform was signed by first ministers, which built on the principles of the memorandum of understanding. In the intergovernmental agreement, governments committed to a new culture and practice of basin-wide management and planning through new governance structures and partnerships.

The historic governance reforms in the Water Amendment Bill 2008 are only possible because basin state governments have agreed to pass legislation providing for a referral of certain powers to the Commonwealth in accordance with section 37 of the Constitution. As the Water Amendment Bill 2008 is being debated here, bills to refer powers to the Commonwealth have entered all the Murray-Darling Basin state parliaments and each parliament is progressing this referral. Indeed, in New South Wales, the referral has been passed in both houses and has been given royal assent. I wish to again sincerely thank the governments and parliaments of the basin states for acting promptly in progressing the referral of their powers and I look forward to the finalisation of the referrals by the Victorian, Queensland and South Australian parliaments so that this bill can be considered in the other place. The referrals will commence in a matter of weeks, subject to the completion of these legislative processes.

I thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate in this House over the last two days. I note from the debate the long-term interest that members on both sides have had in the health of the Murray-Darling Basin and, in particular, from my parliamentary colleagues in the Labor Party, an awareness of the need to have a concerted national approach to dealing with the issues of water health in the basin in the long term and including those of environmental flows. The level and breadth of this debate shows the importance of the reforms which are being delivered and on behalf of the Rudd government I want to recognise and appreciate the support of the opposition on this bill.

This bill delivers on our election commitment to bring the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission together into a single body by transferring the current powers and functions of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. This ensures there will be a single body, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, responsible for overseeing water resource planning in the Murray-Darling Basin. A key role for the independent, expert authority will be the preparation of an enhanced whole-of-basin plan upon which the Commonwealth minister will be the decision maker. The ministerial council of basin governments will provide advice on the plan to ensure it is the best possible plan.

The first Basin Plan will be finalised in early 2011, and the Basin Plan will put the national interest first by providing a new, sustainable diversion limit on water use, taking account of past overallocation in the basin. For the first time ever we will have an enforceable, scientifically-informed limit on the amount of water that can be taken out of our rivers and groundwater systems across the basin. Also, this bill strengthens the role of the ACCC by providing for the water charge rules and the water market rules to apply to all water service providers and transactions. This means that all users will be assured of a uniform approach to regulation irrespective of the structure of their water service providers. The bill also extends the current powers of the ACCC to determine or accredit determination arrangements for all regulated water charges. This will promote a uniform approach to the regulation of rural water charges to the benefit of water providers and users.

The Commonwealth government recognises the severity and urgency of the current condition of the basin. We are complementing this governance reform with our $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. In delivering Water for the Future we are setting a new standard in national leadership and cooperative relations with state and territory governments. In July 2008, when the Intergovernmental Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform was signed, the Commonwealth announced investments of close to $3.7 billion for significant water projects in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. These projects will improve irrigation efficiency, raise the productivity of water use and return water to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. Australians want action in the Murray-Darling Basin. This government is responding with immediate practical measures to take the stress off the rivers of the basin. For the first time in the history of Federation, the Commonwealth is buying water entitlements from willing sellers in the water market to tackle overallocation in the Murray-Darling Basin so that rivers and wetlands will get a greater share of water when it is available.

In relation to buying water entitlements, the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts is conducting a review of these purchases. An independent assessment of the purchase program was recently completed and results will be released shortly. This assessment considered the issues raised by stakeholders, including price transparency and the impact of the program on the water market and regional communities. A stakeholder consultative committee provided direct input into this assessment. Eight regional workshops were also held to obtain feedback from the wider community. The independent assessment and the department’s review will guide the way future water purchasing is conducted by the Australian government.

The reforms in this bill formalise the new culture of cooperative and accountable governance arrangements agreed at the Council of Australian Governments meetings in May, March and July this year. The government has committed some $200 million to the South Australian government towards an enduring solution to the problems of the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and $120 million for piping works to connect towns, communities and irrigators currently relying on the Lower Lakes to a higher point on the Murray. It appears that those opposite may not be aware of these commitments, given that an amendment to the second reading was moved by the opposition to provide just $50 million to the Lower Lakes and the Coorong.

The cooperation of basin states is an integral element of this reform and the effective implementation of the Water Amendment Bill 2008. This is an historic moment for the Murray-Darling Basin, a turning point that will ensure the long-term future health and prosperity of the basin and safeguard the water needs of the communities that rely on its water resources. The Water Amendment Bill 2008, along with our $12.9 billion Water for the Future package, provides the capacity to meet the future challenges facing water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, one of this nation’s great natural assets. With climate change a reality, these reforms are vital to ensure vibrant communities while maintaining a healthy natural environment. I commend the bill to the House.

Question put.

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr Hunt’s amendment) stand part of the question.