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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 1525


Mr WINDSOR (10:50 AM) —As chair of the Standing Committee on Regional Australia, I rise to inform the House of a committee decision to relate certain areas of concern to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government.

On 9 February I wrote to both ministers conveying the concerns of all committee members which arose from a series of hearings and inspections we had undertaken as part of our inquiry into the proposed guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Specifically, the committee has sought that the ministers investigate three matters. The first relates to the impact of the so-called Swiss cheese effect of water buybacks on irrigation districts. We are of the view that the government needs to urgently consider a more strategic buyback arrangement that may be implemented. The second matter relates to the impact of the current taxation arrangements on irrigators as a result of water reform such as grants for investment in water efficiency. The third relates to the implications of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s consideration of overbank flows in their modelling of the water requirements of the environmental icon sites and, in consultation with stakeholders, opportunities for engineering alternatives.

These issues were consistently raised during a nine-day program of site inspections and hearings we held across the southern basin in January. I thank all members of the committee, some in the parliament at the moment, for the way in which they gave up a great period of their normal break in January to participate in the hearings.

The committee is concerned that the issues that I have just mentioned need to be addressed as a matter of priority. The committee is of a consensus view that these issues be brought to the government’s attention prior to the tabling of its report. The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities has since indicated that the government has commenced action on the first and second matters raised by the committee. The third matter, amongst other things, will be discussed at a meeting between the Commonwealth minister and his counterparts for state and territory jurisdictions scheduled in April.

The committee has now visited and taken evidence in each of the basin jurisdictions except Queensland. We are due to visit St George, Cubbie Station near Dirranbandi and Goondiwindi in that state in mid-March. We will conclude our evidence gathering by honouring a commitment to visit Swan Hill on 30 March. The committee had previously intended to go to Swan Hill in January but cancelled the visit due to the recent Victorian floods.

In concluding, I thank all members of the committee for their continuing strong support for the inquiry. As has been mentioned on a number of occasions, as we have travelled around various parts of the basin the committee has worked very well together. The fact that we have come up with some interim recommendations, two of which have already been accepted by the government, I think is recognition of the work that the committee is doing.

I also thank the many, many communities—whether they be entitlement holders, community leaders or just concerned businesspeople—who we have met during this period. We have had an extraordinary reception, in my view, from people many of whom were frightened by the initial ‘Guide to the proposed Basin Plan’ that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority put out. The way in which the committee members—Labor, Liberal, National and independent—have worked together in a semi-osmotic process suggested to people within the communities that we are serious about trying to resolve this and we believe that there may be other ways of resolving ways it than the fairly blunt instrument that the authority put in place. I think with community support there can be a solution that will be delivered later in the year or early next year.