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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 965


Mr DREYFUS (Cabinet Secretary and Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency) (4:15 PM) —I also would thank the member for Murray for bringing forward this matter of public importance today. Like the minister, I wish to use it as an occasion to invite the opposition to reflect on how this debate about a matter which is undoubtedly of national importance is to be conducted. By that I am referring to the need for the bipartisan spirit that was reflected in the legislation that was passed by the Howard government, by the Liberal Party and the National Party when last in government, in 2007. I invite the opposition to reflect on how that bipartisanship brought to bear on an issue of national importance can now be recreated. It has been sorely lacking in the last few days since the release by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority of the Guide to the proposed Basin Plan—which is what it is.

We have had all sorts of what appear to be wilful misreadings of the legislation that was passed by the Howard government and, I regret to say, a great deal of fearmongering, a great deal of misreading or misrepresentation of what this guide to the proposed plan actually is, and indeed the spreading of misinformation about the process. This MPI helpfully raises the process for implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin plan and it is worth bearing in mind just how we came to be in the present situation where, on 8 October, this guide to the proposed plan was released by the authority.

I take it that very many factual matters about the environmental state of the Murray-Darling Basin, about the preciousness of the basin as one of our most important environmental assets and about the status of the basin as the food bowl for the nation are simply beyond question. They are not in dispute between the major parties in this country. I take it as a given that there has been poor management and the lack of a national plan—certainly up to the passage of the legislation in 2007—and I take it as a given that the health of the basin reached a critical point over the past decade, that there has been devastation of precious wetlands, that many of our irrigators went out of business, that we have had algal blooms and acid sulphate soils that make much of the water unusable to farmers and destructive to the environment and that the way in which we have been sharing water in the Murray-Darling Basin is not working to support the long-term viability of rivers or of rural communities.


Dr Stone —And we’ve had the worst drought on record for the last 10 years.


Mr DREYFUS —The member for Murray mentions the fact—and everybody in all of the basin communities is aware of it—that we have had the worst drought in recorded Australian history over the last 10 years, and that dreadful drought has of course massively reduced the availability of water to irrigators throughout the basin. Indeed, it has reduced the availability of water to irrigators throughout the basin to a far greater degree than any of the proposed reductions that are mentioned in the guide to the proposed plan that is presently under consideration in communities.

Of course there is concern in the basin communities. Of course there is concern about any proposal which might see, through governmental action, a reduction in water allocations, just as in those same communities—and this was referred to by the member for Parkes, representing his communities—there has been concern about the lack of water that has been caused through the recent years of drought. I take all of these environmental concerns and indeed all of the concerns about continued viability of basin communities to be a given and, indeed, as having led to the passage of the legislation which established the process which is now being carried out.

We have a proposed plan that is being prepared by an independent authority. It is not a proposal from the government; it is a proposal from an independent authority. The way in which the authority is going about this process—a process envisaged by the legislation passed by the Liberal and National parties when in government—will provide an additional opportunity for consultation and engagement. It is actually in addition to the statutory process and is going to inform the drafting of the proposed plan.

Public community consultations for the guide will run until mid-November. There are over 12 months to run in this consultation before the minister is presented with the plan at the end of 2011. We have had an announcement from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that it will commission work on the socioeconomic impacts of possible sustainable diversion limits, and that work is scheduled to be completed in March 2011. We have had the commissioning of the parliamentary inquiry, which is going to be chaired by the member for New England, and that of course is an inquiry that will be able to seek input from regional and small towns throughout the basin. It will have a strong focus on understanding the legitimate concerns that everybody in these communities have about proposed changes to water allocations. It is appropriate that the member for New England, whose community is in the basin, is chairing this particular parliamentary inquiry.

To go back to the process which is the one that is now in train, the authority will release its proposed basin plan next year. I repeat: the legislation that was supported by Labor in opposition and passed by the Liberal and National parties in government provides for 16 weeks of consultation following the release of the proposed basin plan next year, and the process continues. Every single one of these steps is an opportunity for everybody affected—for everybody in this place, for everybody throughout the Australian community and particularly for everybody in basin communities—to comment on and to participate in what will come to be the final plan.

The next step is for the authority to present a final plan to the ministerial council, which includes representatives from each of the basin states, and that ministerial council will then consider the proposed plan. At that point, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities can ask the authority to reconsider issues or make some changes. The minister then is required to sign off on the final plan. But that is not the end of the process. As the minister made clear in question time earlier this week, after signing off on the plan the minister tables it in the parliament, where of course it is a disallowable instrument—it may be disallowed by either house. In order to become the final plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, it needs to be signed off—and it will certainly be after debate—by both houses of this parliament.

It is hard to imagine a process more carefully designed—and this is why Labor supported it in opposition—to give every possible opportunity to basin communities and everybody throughout Australia who is concerned, as we must be, about the environmental sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin and the continued economic viability of basin communities. It would be hard to imagine a process that gives more opportunity for consultation, more opportunity for participation and more opportunity to ensure an end to what the member for Murray, speaking not on the matter of public importance but just before question time on the address-in-reply when I happened to be here at the table, referred to as ‘governance failure for decades’. I take that to be an accusation she levels not only at Labor governments of the past but also at Liberal-National party governments of the past.


Mr Burke —Mainly.


Mr DREYFUS —Mainly perhaps, but that is only because there have regrettably been more Liberal-National Party governments over the last century than Labor governments. This is what we are dealing with. In less than a century, water extraction from the rivers in the basin has increased by 500 per cent and the governance failures are sought to be overcome by the legislation that establishes the framework. I repeat the call that I started with. I call on members of the opposition not to engage in a wilful misunderstanding of this process, not to engage in hysteria and not to engage in misinformation, because these are complex policy questions which are best resolved in a measured way.