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Tuesday, 12 September 2023
Page: 61

Mr LITTLEPROUD (MaranoaLeader of the Nationals) (18:12): I can say categorically that in no way, shape or form could the coalition support this bill, the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. This is a breach of faith with Murray-Darling Basin communities and it is a breach of faith with this parliament. This legislation was brought in under the previous Labor government in 2012, when the member for Watson was the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. What they are doing is tearing down the very legislation that they put in place and opening up basin communities to the trauma that they faced in 2012. These communities had stoically moved on and were prepared to accept their lot to be able to say that that was the end of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But, in one of the nastiest and most callous pieces of legislation, this government wants to reopen the trauma for communities right up and down the basin.

In 2012 there was a Basin Plan that asked to recover 2,750 gigalitres in a bipartisan way. That bill was agreed to by both sides of parliament. In addition to that, after the agreement of 2,750 gigalitres, the then minister, the member for Watson, who is now the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, added an additional 450 gigalitres to be recovered for the environment. He did something very smart and something I very much respect—he made sure that the additional 450 gigalitres had a social and economic neutrality test. Even the member for Watson at that point knew intrinsically what would happen to basin communities if you ripped another 450 gigalitres out of the consumptive pool—you'd tear away their economies and you'd destroy their very essence. We already saw that with what 2,750 gigalitres would do.

Proudly, we have recovered over 2,100 gigalitres, and we are on track to recover the full 2,750 gigalitres. And, proudly, we had an agreement with all the states to find a way to have that neutrality test that the now industrial relations minister put in place to give protection to regional communities. That was agreed to by all the states and the Commonwealth, and this has been torn up by one of the most callous governments that couldn't care less about regional Australia. This will destroy regional communities. The fact that there is not even an acknowledgement of the recovery of over 2,100 gigalitres and the impact that that has had on the regional communities up and down the basin shows the callousness and the nastiness of this legislation.

This is actually going to go even further than that original 2,750 gigalitres, and we agreed, in extending the time lines. I've got to say that that bipartisanship that was struck in 2012 was extended when I was water minister in 2017, and I worked with the member for Watson to make sure the legislation that he put in place was finalised. One of my biggest parliamentary achievements was to make sure that the SDLAM was put in place and that the Northern Basin Review was legislated. What that meant, particularly for the SDLAM, was that we could use infrastructure, rather than the blunt instrument of buybacks—a lazy, blunt instrument that destroys regional communities—to recover water.

You know what? Everyone sits there and goes, 'The farmer gets the money.' That's well and good, but the farmer toddles off to the coast, and what's left behind are the regional communities that were once there to support them. It's about the machinery dealers, the agronomists and the irrigation shop. It's actually the cafe and the hairdresser that also lose. That's what happens when you have buybacks. It's a blunt instrument that does nothing but destroy regional communities. What the member for Watson and I were able to strike with the SDLAM mechanism meant that we could recover that water with infrastructure. That's common sense. That was a bipartisan approach that we were able to put through this parliament to make sure we gave protection to those communities.

I'm proud of the fact that, before me as water minister, the then water minister, the member for New England, was able to put in place another safeguard mechanism, which was a cap on the number of buybacks that could be taken up—up to 1,500 gigalitres of the 2,750 gigalitres. That gave protection and that meant that there was investment confidence in putting in infrastructure for the recovery of water for regional communities, rather than using the blunt instrument of buybacks. That is how parliament should operate: by understanding what happens out there in the real world, not the ideology of what happens in here.

I paid tribute to the member for Watson, while I stood on that side, for the bipartisan way that he worked with me in making sure of the SDLAM and the Northern Basin Review, and they mean that, in my part of the world, in Queensland and northern New South Wales, we only had to recover 320 gigalitres, rather than 390 gigalitres, because the science said so and because we had the common sense to use the infrastructure to be able to deliver that water back to the environment. We worked together as a parliament. The now minister for water was in this parliament in 2012 and voted for the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan, for the SDLAM and for the Northern Basin Review. She sat in here, with bipartisanship. Now, in laying basin communities at the political altar of the Labor Party, the minister is prepared to tear all that up and tear apart the livelihoods of people up and down the basin. What sort of government governs for just one part of this country and just thinks about the capital cities and how this may look?

The practical reality is that this will decimate communities. In fact, the government doesn't even understand the practical realities of delivering this water. An additional 450 gigalitres on top of the 2,750 gigalitres is near impossible to deliver without environmental damage. There is this little thing called the Barmah Choke, and it's what they call a physical constraint. It's a physical constraint in how you deliver water down the Murray, down to South Australia. If you put too much through that Choke, what happens is this thing called a flood. What happens is that it destroys the environment where that water floods out over. In fact, when I was water minister we had trouble with the Commonwealth water holder letting too much water out, with perverse environmental outcomes, across the Barmah Choke.

This is where common sense and reality don't meet the ideology of what this government is doing. This is all about ideology. The additional 450 gigalitres are really in essence what we are arguing about. What we are arguing about is honouring an agreement, honouring what we sat in this parliament and agreed upon. But to turn your back on that and to turn your back on basin communities is something that is all about politics rather than the care and understanding in what this is going to do and what you signed up to. Where is the integrity of this government? In fact the Prime Minister was also here and signed up to the Murray Darling Basin Plan 2012. He signed up to the amendments that I put in place to ensure that the Basin Plan could be completed in time. But now they want to turn their back on that and walk away.

We agree with elements of this bill around extending time for the delivery of the Basin Plan. There's been commentary from the Minister for the Environment and Water saying that the National Party and the Liberal Party have been sabotaging this plan. Well, 2,100 gigalitres have been recovered, and, yes, they recovered most because they used the blunt instrument of water buybacks. They couldn't care less about regional communities, so what we did was put a cap on it and then we went to infrastructure. That was the sensible way that has got us to 2,100 gigalitres and will get us to 2,750 gigalitres if we give the states time. But let me tell you about the sabotage piece. The infrastructure hasn't been completed. I don't know where the environment minister has been, but there was this little thing called COVID. Unfortunately, what happened was much of that infrastructure couldn't be built.

The states couldn't build it, although the money had been set aside and projects had been brought forward. There is an acknowledgement that some of those projects haven't gone all the way through to fruition. We appreciate that, but the states have been collaborative in their efforts to continue to bring forward new projects to deliver the 2,750 gigalitres. That is the magic number, and that can be delivered with infrastructure. We are saying we need to give the states more time to build that infrastructure. It has been delayed because of this little thing called COVID, even though that seems to be an oversight in the politicisation of this by the environment minister, who happens to live in Sydney and has very rarely gone anywhere near a basin community. When she does, it is by invite only, which goes to show the actual transparency of this and actually embracing of basin communities. Their livelihoods are going to be ripped apart, but we had a members in speeches in the previous debate talking about people being exploited for wages. Well, this government is exploiting regional communities.

This government is exploiting the livelihoods of regional communities by taking away the very tools they need to make a living. But yet, with a smile on her face, they are prepared to take away their livelihoods because we are just political collateral. What sort of government does that to their fellow Australians? What sort of government cares that little about regional Australians and the tools that they need, despite the amount of heavy lifting that they have done for this environment in putting 2,100 gigalitres back through the mouth of the Murray? No congratulations, no thanks, but just, 'We want more.' What sort of government does that to their fellow Australians? What sort of government wants to tear away at a nation's food security? What sort of government wants to continue to drive up food prices because our farmers don't have the tools to produce your food and fibre? Yes, you can turn up to Coles and Woollies every Friday to do your shopping, but there might not be as much on the shelves as there was because we don't have the tools to be able to produce it. How can the government understand an agricultural production system if they are not prepared to get out of Sydney and sit there and listen to basin communities, sit there and listen to the supply chain companies about the challenges they are facing? Instead, we have an environment minister that tucks herself away in Sydney, hides away and won't even talk to basin communities. What sort of government does that to their fellow Australians?

There is a commonsense way through this, and I had a bipartisan way with the member for Watson. We worked collaboratively to get that legislation through, and I am very proud of the 450 gigalitres. I'm also proud of what he did when he was minister to understand that we needed a safeguard mechanisms for the 450 gigalitres, the extra water, to make sure that regional communities won't hurt. He did the right thing by this nation, and he did the right thing by basin communities by putting in place a social and economic neutrality test. I'm proud to say that in December 2018 I got every state to sign up to that test. That was akin to getting peace in the Middle East. South Australia signed up to the neutrality test. They understood that not only South Australian communities but communities right up the basin to Queensland were going to be impacted if we didn't put that in place. So they gave us that commitment, and we worked together.

Now we have a government that is going to breach that confidence with the states and with us and what we achieved in a bipartisan way. Our parliament should be better than this. Our parliament should understand the impacts for every Australian. It's not about a political headline. We were able to get that neutrality test, and the environment minister walks in here and says we've only recovered two gigalitres of it. That's because you have to prove the social and economic neutrality test. If the environment minister put the energy into delivering the infrastructure to recover the full 2,750 gigalitres that we all signed up to, we'd all agree to sign up to that. This parliament did that.

To come back and change the goalposts and change the rules for these basin communities—what sort of government does that? It's a government that doesn't care, that doesn't understand and that is prepared to put them on the altar of political expediency. That's an Australia that we should not be proud of, and we can be better than that. So let me make this clear: the coalition can't support this political facade that is going to destroy communities. Study after study after study—economic studies everywhere—has shown the economic impact on our regional communities, and the minister comes in and says, 'Well, I'll give you some sort of economic package.' She can't even quantify it. She can't even justify it. But we don't want it. We just want you to deliver the plan, the 2,750 gigalitres, and get out of our lives.

The 450 gigalitres, the neutrality test, should stay to give that protection. But then to open up buybacks to achieve those 450 gigalitres plus what's left of the 2,750—they don't like what the states have done—means it could potentially be in excess of 700 gigalitres. The minister can't even quantify how much that's going to cost the Australian taxpayer. It's somewhere between $5 billion and over $20 billion. Who's going to pay for that? The Australian taxpayer is going to take it in the neck, and then they're going to take it in the neck the second time around when you rip away agricultural production and up goes your food price. Those people sitting out there today in the cities who have the comfort of going to Coles and Woolworths are thinking things are tough at the moment. Well, wait until you rip away the very tools that we need to produce your food and fibre, because you'll pay. You will pay and you should pay because this government has got it wrong, and farmers shouldn't have to bear the cost. You'll bear the cost, and that's because of an ideology that doesn't meet the practical reality.

The environmental outcomes of this can be achieved with common sense and infrastructure, not with buybacks. We are waiting for this government to come back to the table in a bipartisan way, as I did in 2017 with the member for Watson and as we did in 2012 to let this through, which was one of the hardest decisions—I wasn't here—I would suspect any coalition government had to sign up to. We had the courage to say that we needed to do something and we needed to use the common sense and the solutions that would protect our regional communities. Never in our wildest dreams would we think that, one day in the future, a government that is still riddled with the same members who put this in place would walk away from the very piece of legislation that they put in here.

Where are their values? Where are their morals for them to do this to regional Australia? Those who sat in those chairs on the Treasury benches and designed this legislation and put this through in a bipartisan way then come and change the rules. Where are they? Where is the minister for environment? Where is she to come up and to justify her decision about changing the very legislation that she passed in 2012? You've got to ask where is the ticker. This is more about politics than anything else. So we can't support buybacks on the 450. We can't support removing the buyback cap on the 1,500 gigalitres. It will decimate communities. I've seen it myself in Dirranbandi and St George.

When I was a bank manager out in St George, the first job I did was a mortgagee in possession for the local council. They were selling the last block available in Dirranbandi. It sold for $500. I was there for two years. Water developments were going on. Cotton was coming through. When I left two years later, the last block in Dirranbandi sold for $15,000. That's not a lot to you people in the city, but to the people in Dirranbandi that was big. It was investment in a new motel. The pub got redeveloped. A machinery dealership turned up. An irrigation shop turned up. And then, in 2012, along came the Labor government. It was riddled with the same people as this one. Dirranbandi went down. It had 500 kids in the school and that went down to 100 overnight as soon as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan came in.

So don't you think we've taken the pain? Don't you think that the hurt that you've inflicted already is enough? Don't you think that we deserve a fair go? Don't you think that regional Australians, those in the basin, should have the same opportunity to get up in the morning, make a living and be given the tools to be able to do it and not have them taken away because of some ideological whim? That's not the Australian way.

The Nationals and the Liberals can't stand anywhere near this. This is a line in the sand. It is a line in the sand for regional Australians. We've had a gutful. Ever since the Albanese government got in, we have been in their firing line, whether it is taking away live sheep, whether it be what we could see in the new cultural heritage laws about our ability to go about and produce your food and fibre or whether it be about the biosecurity tax. We have a government that are going to tax their very own farmers so that their foreign competitors can bring their product in and put it on the shelf to compete against Australia farmers. How do they make this stuff up? This is the ideology that has come through.

The most disappointing, most callous and nastiest thing about all this is that everybody on that frontbench that sits across from me was here and asked for bipartisan support in 2012, and they got it. Now they've come back and just ripped us apart. What sort of party does that? That is how regional Australians and those up and down the Murray-Darling are feeling tonight. There's no confidence. People up and down the basin are scared. What government makes their own people scared? They don't see a future, because they have gone through this before. They don't deserve to go through it again—not because of a government that set the rules originally. How can we ever trust them to even cut a deal to be bipartisan in any way if we know that one day they'll come back and change the goal posts. That speaks volumes about the Albanese government.

To make this clear, we have had a gutful. Victoria have already said, 'We're out.' I hope that Queensland has the courage. I hope my lot in Queensland in October next year when they get rid of Annastacia Palaszczuk say, 'We're out too.' This takes political courage, but, more importantly, this takes national leadership. Every state should say to this government, 'We're out.' If you really care about where your food and fibre comes from, if you are worried about the price of living, if you are worried about food security, you should be out. This isn't just for us. Every person in this country, no matter where they live, is going to cop this in the neck. If you take away our tools to produce your food and fibre, you'll have to pay more and you should pay more. Farmers shouldn't do that, but our communities shouldn't have to foot the economic and social bill for it.

To make it clear, this is one of the most callous things I have ever seen in my seven years here. It is disgraceful to think that we have a Prime Minister and a water minister that asked for bipartisan support in 2012 and now have just ripped the guts out of us. That is not the Australian way.