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Wednesday, 13 September 2023
Page: 92

Mr STEVENS (Sturt) (17:19): In a few weeks time in this country we'll be having a vote on a referendum to change the Constitution. I certainly don't support that change, but I hope at some point in my life I get the chance to support a change to the Constitution that puts responsibility for interstate waterways in the hands of the Commonwealth government. It was certainly something that was attempted by South Australian delegates to the early constitutional conventions to draft our Constitution, but of course the bigger upstream states were not interested in the Commonwealth government having power over something like the Murray-Darling Basin, so we are where we are today, where this challenging circumstance of managing a national resource is still very complex.

It was under the leadership of John Howard that they passed the Water Act in 2007 and committed significant funds, $10 billion, from the Commonwealth towards the development of a plan that could manage some very complex competing interests. All of them are vitally important, including the environmental health of the river, first and foremost, and the agricultural production that relies on irrigation from the Murray. In my home city of Adelaide, 1.7 million people rely on the river Murray for the security of their drinking water. Prior to the passing of the Water Act, I remember well, as a young adult at the time, the water restrictions in Adelaide, just as there were water restrictions throughout the country in that period of the millennium drought. You had to shower with a bucket if you wanted to water your garden. There were extreme water restrictions that created hardships in metropolitan Adelaide and, just as much, in communities that didn't have access to irrigation water for their production. A very significant environmental toll was also taken on the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin.

So we had the passage of the Water Act, and that act, whilst not within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth, was negotiated and agreed by the governments within the basin: the four states and the ACT. They hold the powers over that water, and it was the Commonwealth, seeking their agreement and bringing significant funding—the $10 billion—that was able to, for the first time, bring together all the relevant governments in the basin in such a powerful and significant way to develop a plan that would see us sustainably managing that water resource. The Gillard government under Minister Burke, the now Leader of the House, developed the plan. That plan initially saw the need to recover 2,750 gigalitres of water, and, when the South Australian government negotiated to sign on to the agreement, an additional 450 gigalitres was negotiated, which is part of the debate we're having right now.

In the intervening time, I think it is very important to acknowledge the hard work that has been done and sacrifices that have been made, particularly by communities in the basin, for the water that's already been recovered. I think we're up to a little over 2,100 gigalitres against the initial 2,750. That is a very significant achievement, and, whilst we can't stop until the job is done, I think it's very important that we acknowledge and respect the fact that a lot of communities have made sacrifices and have done a lot of things to get us as far along this plan as we are.

In the election campaign last year, the now Prime Minister came to Adelaide and said that an Albanese government would deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full and on time. Let me explain what in full and on time is. In full is the 3,200 gigalitres, and on time is by 30 June 2024. That's what the plan that he was talking about then was and still is, regardless of the passage or not of this bill that we're debating now. There was no caveat around that. There was no suggestion that any measures, such as those that are in the bill before us, were necessary to deliver the plan. There was never a suggestion that failing to achieve it by the date of 30 June 2024 would be a problem. Since the Prime Minister made that commitment to the people of Adelaide in an election campaign, seeking their votes and their support for him to become Prime Minister, no new information of any significance whatsoever has come to light to justify breaking that promise.

Whatever view the now government has about the progress of the implementation of the plan, there is no new revelation regarding that progress. To be fair to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, they are very good at publishing and keeping up to date a whole range of metrics about the plan, about its implementation, about how it's going and about what the task is ahead. For the now Prime Minister to say to the people of Adelaide, 'I'll implement the plan in full and on time,' and break that promise is absolutely outrageous. What we are now told and what this bill seeks to implement is a whole set of new arrangements that are completely at odds with the commitment the Prime Minister gave to the people of South Australia during the last election campaign.

Since then we've got a new environment minister, and to be fair to this environment minister she did not have this portfolio in opposition. Through media speculation at least we can deduce there was a degree of discomfort from the now environment minister that she was being given this portfolio when she had the education portfolio in opposition, was very dedicated and committed to it and possibly had a reasonable expectation she would have it in government. I remember listening to the Prime Minister's press conference when he announced his new cabinet line-up after the election, and my ears did prick up when he talked about appointing the now environment minister as the Minister for the Environment and Water and singled out the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as one of the great challenger this minister would have in justifying why he was appointing her. For those of us that know the dynamic between the Prime Minister and the now Minister for the Environment and Water, it's very interesting to reflect on what the Prime Minister's view was about whether or not it was going to be possible to keep that promise he gave to the people of South Australia. In the person he chose to appoint as the minister responsible for either keeping that promise or, as has now transpired, breaking that promise, Minister Plibersek—perhaps the Prime Minister knew all along we would be in the situation we're in now. If that's true, then he went to the people of South Australia and made them a promise he knew he couldn't keep, and the people voting for this legislation today are voting to break a promise this government made to the people of South Australia.

There are some extremely concerning things in this bill, and I come back to the 450 gigalitres. There's a lot of talk about the 450 gigalitres and lots of different perspectives and opinions on the 450 gigalitres. Mine is unequivocally that that water was committed and promised to South Australia for environmental outcomes. The minister can correct me when she sums up this bill, because it is difficult legislation to deeply absorb and understand, but certainly it is my understanding, from reading elements of this legislation, that this bill will allow that 450 gigalitres to not exclusively come to South Australia. If anyone from South Australia votes for this bill and votes to allow anything less than 450 gigalitres to cross the South Australian border, then that would be absolutely shameful. I standard to be corrected if that is not the case, but the drafting of the legislation and my interpretation of it is that the 450 gigalitres will now be allowed to be used for expanded environmental purposes outside of South Australia. So a solemn promise made by the Prime Minister to deliver the plan on time will be broken by the passing of this legislation, and a solemn promise to deliver 450 gigalitres of direct environmentally beneficial water across the border into South Australia will be broken.

Now we see that we're removing the socioeconomic test for water that is purchased. I've very publicly said I am supportive of water purchasing where the socioeconomic test is applied and met, and I think about communities within South Australia, in the Riverland, and what this legislation could mean for them. On a pro-rata basis, nearly 40 gigalitres of water could be ripped out of the Riverland in South Australia as part of what this legislation enables and permits. I can go the local corner store in Adelaide and buy a carton of Nippy's orange juice made from oranges that were grown and freshly squeezed 200 kilometres away in Waikerie. I can go to my fruit and vegetable store and, largely speaking, almost every item of produce there is grown within a couple of hundred kilometres of Adelaide. It is one of the great things about living in Adelaide, the amazing fresh produce and local production that we have. Taking 40 gigalitres of water out of the Riverland will have a spectacular impact on that fresh produce with lost production from what we see as being vitally important for those communities and for our state's economy. It will also affect such a fantastic part of living in a city like Adelaide, which is having access to that unbelievable local fresh produce.

This bill essentially removes the socioeconomic test, and if this bill requires the necessary water to be acquired through these buybacks. That will mean the share of the expected burden of that on a community like the Riverland would be nearly 40 gigalitres of water. We have seen the Victorian Labor government's excellent work when it comes to assessing the socioeconomic impact of what some of these decisions would mete out in our communities. The impact would be in the form of lost production, lost jobs and potentially importing the fresh food and produce in the ridiculous circumstance where we could grow it ourselves, but we choose not to.

The plan is absolutely vital, and there are no winners in this plan. It is not about pitting irrigators against water consumers in metropolitan Adelaide or people with environmental views on what needs to be done, because we are dealing with the ultimate economic problem here of satisfying infinite demand with limited supply. The amount of water that is in the basin, which is obviously extremely variable, is the finite part, and we would love to use as much as we want for irrigation. We would love to have unbelievable flows permanently and constantly, ensuring the environmental sustainability of the basin. If you are from somewhere like Adelaide it's important that your drinking water supply is extremely reliable and secure, so we need to think laterally about some of the things that should be considered in achieving the full implementation of this plan.

We have a desalination plant in Adelaide, and a few years ago then Prime Minister Morrison went to then Premier Marshall and a deal was done to turn that desal plant on, to use the water from that desal to offset the Adelaide intake and to provide that same amount of water to grow fodder to feed stock during a drought. There are a lots of other lateral and innovative things that we can consider. There are a lot of projects, a lot of ideas and a lot of technology, and it is a very difficult and challenging task. But what this bill does to my home state and my home city is walk away from an election promise to deliver the plan on time, walk away from the guarantee of giving us 450 gigalitres of environmental water and potentially put irrigation communities like the Riverland in a situation where they lose 40 gigalitres of water and all that lost production from our economy in South Australia. I certainly will not be supporting this bill.