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Tuesday, 26 May 2015
Page: 4554


Dr STONE (Murray) (16:14): The National Water Commission (Abolition) Bill 2015 is, as far as I am concerned, a no-brainer. We are not going to abolish all the functions that the commission once had. We are simply sending them across to other agencies, like the Productivity Commission, the Bureau of Meteorology and ABARES. We are saying that what it used to do was important but we do not need to have a stand-alone entity to undertake the monitoring of Australia's progress on water reform. So I think it is a good move. If it saves us $21 million over the forward estimates, that is a good thing. If it saves us a few extra bits of regulation, red tape, that is to be applauded. I therefore want to move beyond this contest about whether or not we should have abolished the National Water Commission to talk about the significance of water itself: why we didn't simply put an axe through this agency and walk away; why we in fact retasked other important agencies to do the work.

Before getting to that point, I want to correct a few things that a previous speaker, the member for Bendigo, said. I know she is new to Bendigo. She is my neighbour in the electorate next door. I am very pleased that she is now engaging with this water issue. She has been north beyond Bendigo and has visited my irrigators. I applaud her for doing that. She quoted Kagomi as saying that their biggest problem was the management of water in the system and therefore they want to keep the National Water Commission. No. I have to make that clear. Kagomi's report—which I too have a copy of, and I have spoken at length to their MD—makes the point that they no longer have enough access to water in the Goulburn-Murray Water's system, which is part of the Murray-Darling Basin. Their access is now very much restricted, given half of the water has been removed from the irrigation system. The price of the water in the temporary market is often beyond what their tomato growers can pay. That is the No. 1 issue for this company, which is in fact one of the biggest tomato manufacturers in Australia. We are so pleased it is based in Echuca, employing great people and, even better, growing some of the best manufacturing tomatoes in the world.

I have to say, too, that the member for Bendigo kept stressing that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is all about the environment, that the No. 1 thing is the environment. No; in fact, it is not. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the Water Act stresses that the plan is a triple bottom line effort. It is the environment, the community and the economy. If you do not get the economy or the community right, for example, if you destroy the livelihood of the farmers, who are the backbone of the basin economy, and you drive them off to the point where they cannot produce food and fibre, they cannot do the job of managing the environment, which is what good farmers have to do to stay sustainable. So, no; it is a triple bottom line approach, which is enshrined in the Water Act itself and which has been repeated again and again as the objective of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We have to make sure that it is always remembered because it is an integrated triple bottom line. You cannot have one element without the other. We all love the environment and we depend on it—the soil, the water, the biodiversity and the air quality. It has to be a triple bottom line approach, or we all go out backwards.

Water is the life blood of northern Victoria. The Deputy Speaker himself, member for McEwen, knows that. His own electorate is dependent on water. The economy of most of my electorate is within the Goulburn-Murray irrigation area. That is why the density of my population is as it is. It is not like Jerilderie or the dry parts of Dubbo; it is a closely settled area. We would not have had all the food production, manufacturing and abattoirs built in most of our small towns unless we had this water supply. The Goulburn-Murray water irrigation system covers an area bigger than Tasmania. Without this huge irrigation and water supply system, we would not have, as we have, Australia's biggest registration of heavy transports—that is in Shepparton—outside any capital city. We would not have some of the biggest stock feed producers or, in fact, the biggest dairy farms, biggest orchards, biggest tomato growers, biggest piggeries, biggest mushroom farms, biggest olive groves, biggest poultry farms, the best independent wineries and the biggest workforces in food manufacturing in regional Australia. All of those are the case in my electorate of Murray and they are all dependent on a secure irrigation system, which is called Goulburn-Murray.

We thought this massive gravity-run irrigation system had drought proofed us—and it did for a century, for 100 years. But the Millennium Drought saw Eildon, Eppalock, Dartmouth and Hume dams that supplied this system fail. It failed to a point where, for example, at the height of the drought, the Campaspe irrigators agreed to close down their irrigation system permanently. They sold their 6,409 high-reliability megalitres of water to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. They now try and survive on a stock and domestic supply only. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is now the largest owner of water entitlement in Australia. It has 2,275 gigalitres of water, which is equivalent to 4½ times the volume of Sydney Harbour. All of this water was previously used for food and fibre production in the Murray-Darling Basin—every drop. About one quarter of this water, or 554 gigalitres of high security water, was taken from the entitlements of my Goulburn-Murray water system farms. You might ask: 'Why on earth did they do that?' The trouble is that they were at the height of the worst drought on record. Can you imagine the cruelty of an official act that said to farmers suffering from the worst drought on record, where farmers' debts to their lenders had doubled: 'I will offer you, as the minister for the environment, Senator Penny Wong, $2,400 or so per megalitre for your high security water and your banks will be pleased'—and they were. They stood on the necks of those irrigators and half of the water of my Goulburn-Murray water irrigation system was sold during that period to the Environmental Water Holder. Before the drought we had 1,900 gigalitres. Five years later, in the middle of the drought, we were down to 1,600 gigalitres. Today we are down to 900 gigalitres.

I want to remind you that for every 100 megalitres we have one job—that 100 megalitres supports one job—and there are 1,000 megalitres in a gigalitre. So do your maths. You can see the social and economic impact of this huge loss of water access for my region's food producers. Tonight SBS TV is going to feature the 25 per cent youth unemployment in the city of Greater Shepparton. I am hoping they will be kind to us, because we cannot help it. We have lost so many jobs. I guess you can imagine how devastated I was at, again, the official cruelty of the South Australian government that moved into my patch—my irrigators market—and offered up to about $2,500 per megalitre. They had, we understand, about $16 million to spend and they wanted eight gigalitres of high security water off my irrigators. Why? For their urban water users in South Australia. They have mothballed their $320 million desal plant in South Australia—and the money for that came from the federal government, of course. They have realised it is cheaper to raid the irrigators market at $2,500 a megalitre than to try and crank up reuse systems or harvest stormwater in Adelaide, Port Augusta and all those towns and cities outside the Murray-Darling Basin that have our precious food production water piped across the plains. In fact, the South Australian government's tender closed on Wednesday last week. The traders went from farm to farm and said: 'Come on—this might be your last chance to sell your water. You know you are in trouble financially; your dairy prices are not all that good, mate; you still owe money.' I am horrified and distressed to say that water was sold.

When you sell your water permanently to someone like the South Australian government to flush down the toilets in the city, to wash the concrete, to save the government enforcing water restrictions or conservation practices on your populations in the cities, then you have farmers who become dependent on a temporary water market. That temporary water market price was at about $50 about three years ago; last year it was about $70; this year it is up to $135; and two days ago water traders were saying it was $150. A dairy farmer can only pay about $90 maximum to make money off that one megalitre of water. Do your sums again, everybody, and work out how many of my dairy farmers—half of whom are now totally dependent on temporary water because their permanent water is gone—are going to survive. They are meant to be part of the 'dining boom' that is going to take over from the mining boom. Oh fantastic! The only problem is that their main means of production, their water, has been sold away.

It is so ironic that, while the South Australian government was raiding my irrigators market for what for them was cheap high security water, we here in parliament were working out how to get a cap introduced on any further buyback of irrigators' water through legislation—a cap of 1,500 gigalitres on any further buybacks. We have already found most of that water, but we are so aware now in this parliament, at least on this side, that further buybacks off irrigators are so ruinous to the Murray-Darling Basin economy that we want to cap any further buyback. Meanwhile we have the South Australian government in our irrigators market going as hard as they can to buy what is left of our high security water. I find that unconscionable, I find it immoral, and I have to say to the South Australian government: look to your own urban water conservation policies; stay away from food and fibre production water—buying that back is not right. When we have the next drought, it is going to be an extremely tragic situation. It will also be a bit sad for the urban water users of South Australia, because the water they bought will also be subject to the drought restrictions that will be part of the Eildon, Hume and Dartmouth dam allocations.

That is what we have had happening in our part of the world. In the teeth of the drought in 2006 there were 2,721 dairy farms in Murray—we are down now to just 1,100. The numbers have halved. But we are a magnificent area, as I said—we have still got the biggest and best of everything; all we need is a fair go. We are not getting a fair go from the federal government at the moment and will not until we have that 1,500 gigalitre cap put on further buybacks. I beg the opposition to join us in supporting that. At the moment the Environmental Water Holder's regulations require that when it trades water it spends every cent it earns from that trade on further water buyback. We have got to support the independent Australian Water Act review recommendations and say, 'In the future, when the Environmental Water Holder trades its water it must spend every cent of that trade on environmental works and measures investment—not on further buyback.' We have agreed that more buyback kills the economy and communities in the basin—and we are supposed to be pursuing a triple bottom line outcome. If you kill your farmers, you kill your environment. You have got to have the triple bottom line balanced. So we have to have the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder's regulations changed, as recommended by the independent report, so that they spend their traded outcomes—their financial gain from that trade—not on water buyback but on environmental works and measures. That would be a good thing for the environment; it would help with those regulators in the Barmah Forest or on Pental Island or the Menindee Lakes. It would be a good thing. I ask that the opposition support that piece of legislation. It is a small change, but an important change.

In Victoria we also have to address the horrific malpractices of Goulburn-Murray Water, the Victorian state-owned monopoly now employing over 800 full-time public servants who are mismanaging that great irrigation system. In their most recent three-year EBA they have given their huge workforce a pay rise of three per cent each year; it was a four per cent rise per year over the life of the last EBA. Imagine if their customers could get that level of increase in their farm earnings—but they cannot. They cannot pay the water prices that Murray-Goulburn Water is putting on them but, worst of all, they cannot stand by and watch Goulburn-Murray Water halve the irrigation system by deliberately taking water away from the spurs, the supply channels, leaving it only in the mains. This is part of the so-called foodbowl modernisation plan. I beg the Victorian government to have a royal commission into the mismanagement of Goulburn-Murray Water. The Ombudsman's report into the Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project—NVIRP—found it so badly managed that it was abolished. We have to have Goulburn-Murray Water similarly investigated. Nothing less will do, because it is itself killing the enterprise in this great irrigation system. If that does inquiry not happen, I will be deeply concerned about our future.