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Wednesday, 30 May 2018
Page: 4903


Mr BURKE (Watson) (11:46): I rise to indicate the opposition's support for the Water Amendment Bill 2018, which has been moved by the government. The purpose of this bill is to allow the government to bring forward again an instrument that was previously disallowed. When that instrument was disallowed, and Labor had supported the disallowance, I immediately came into the chamber and said that we were seeking to negotiate a series of issues with the government. I gave an immediate indication that if that negotiation ended up being successful then we were happy to revisit that disallowance motion.

In the normal course, the government would not be able to simply reissue that instrument. The Water Act 2007 doesn't allow it without going through a full, fresh process of consultation. Given that the negotiations ultimately were concluded in a positive way, Labor now stands ready to support this bill without amendment and to facilitate its passage through both houses. To that end, I'm not even moving a second reading amendment. This is something that is the product of a direct negotiation with the government and something that we therefore support in full, without compromise and without question.

I was listening to the speech from the member for Murray just before me. I do believe he has faithfully put forward views from his electorate. They are views that I certainly heard in a series of community meetings during the time that I was water minister, which were put with equal passion by members of his community and sometimes with language that was somewhat more forceful and, occasionally, using a series of adjectives that he referred to a previous water minister from a different state as having offered at different times. There's a reason why there's real passion on this issue. It's because the situation that Australia has found itself in, after 100 years of the Murray-Darling Basin being managed as though it were not connected, has meant there is no ideal solution for anyone or any interest up and down the basin. Every step forward has meant compromise. That is a reality of what is in front of us.

I've come in today with a copy of the Basin Plan. It was being quoted in the previous speech, and I said: 'Quick! Grab me a copy. I want to walk in with it.' If I were to write down my ideal solution for the Murray-Darling Basin, this would be not be it. If I put forward my ideal solution for how to deal with the Murray-Darling Basin, the simple answer is that we would have ended up without a plan, and we would have ended up without any national system to be able to get specific targets that we would work towards. This was not a document that I started with or that my department started with or even that the authority started with. We all remember the document that the authority started with. I'd been water minister for a couple of minutes, and the guide to the plan appeared, and I discovered that instantly I was being burnt in effigy all around the basin by different communities that had an understandably strong—

Mr Keenan: Sounds very sensible!

Mr BURKE: You used to be responsible for my safety! I'll remember that interjection. But the Basin Plan meant that, when we got there, it ended up quite different as a result of a series of community meetings, small meetings and consultation, where I don't think anyone would argue that the consultation was anything but real. People saw the document change as it went through and saw, effectively, the architecture of a critical compromise. Two parts of that compromise were, in fact, the subject of the different disallowance votes in the Senate.

There were three major moving parts. The first was the Northern Basin Review. I ordered that there be a Northern Basin Review, and I'll be honest: what the authority came back with were numbers that surprised me on the extent to which they changed what the earlier advice from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had been. It didn't surprise me, though, that the numbers had changed. When Craig Knowles headed up the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, we talked about it at some length. The south of the basin—and those members here in the chamber who are from basin seats all know this backwards, but I'll explain it for the benefit of the House—is highly regulated. For water to flow, it's being released from dams and weirs. There'll be an extent of flow, but largely we have in the southern basin a river system that is now, in many ways, a set of interconnected dams and weirs. That's largely how the water works. In the northern basin you have a much flatter system and a system where, when there's heavy rainfall, it flows and, when it flows, every time much of the water will flow in a slightly different fashion to how it did previous time. That is something that's seen in the southern basin when you get an overbank flow, but largely in the southern basin the water is far more predictable. That meant that, when we and the authority were determining for the purposes of the plan what the northern basin numbers should be, there was a high degree of uncertainty because, as the years of data build up, those numbers will always be subjected to new information and the water will continue to flow differently in the north. Therefore, when some people say, 'How could Labor ever support reduced numbers?' the concept of the original numbers in the north always relied on the best available data, but we wanted it reviewed because there were always going to be more questions in the north than there were in the south. That's the reason for the Northern Basin Review.

But, when I say the numbers came out differently to what I'd anticipated, why is Labor then supporting them? There is a really simple principle here: I believe having an independent authority is essential. We will never resolve anything in the basin unless we accept that the independent authority, when it makes a call, must not then be litigated gigalitre by gigalitre by this parliament. We've established an independent authority and, once we start litigating each gigalitre of the recommendations they come down with, it's effectively all over in terms of whether or not we'll ever have a plan for the basin and whether or not we'll be able to deliver those sorts of outcomes.

For that reason, it was important to accept that whether the numbers were what I thought they would be or not wasn't actually the point. We need to have an independent authority. They were the numbers the authority came back with, and my view was, and I made it clear, that in any negotiation with the government—I acknowledge the minister responsible, the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, is now at the table—at no point were we trying to alter what the authority had recommended.

Mr Drum: Why did you disallow it?

Mr BURKE: Without turning it into question time, although I'd love a world where I was in a position at the dispatch box to answer questions from the backbench—if you want to bring that on, I'm there for it. Why did we disallow it? As I explained earlier—you might have been reading, but you were here in the chamber, Member for Murray—because at that point the negotiation had not been concluded with the government and I came into the chamber, immediately after the disallowance vote, and reported to the chamber our willingness to deal with it again. It is only possible to deal with it again in the exact same terms by pushing this legislation through both Houses. We are here for that, with no amendment, not even a second reading amendment. Any further questions, I'll be here at two o'clock.

The next part is about the compromises, effectively, within the plan—you've got the Northern Basin Review, and then there were two other areas where the numbers that were put forward in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan were seen to have to possibly change in the future. One was the 450 up; the other was the 650 down. I'll deal with the 650 down first, because we had the disallowance on that not long ago. The plan specifically allowed for there to be an alteration of the numbers in the plan by up to 650 gigalitres if—if—states could put forward projects which, on completion, were viewed to deliver the same environmental outcome with less water. So when people have said, 'Well, where's the Labor Party on issues of getting the same environmental outcome with less water,' the entire 650-gigalitre flexibility within the plan was exactly that. It was put in that for that purpose. And when some from the environmental side said, 'How on earth could Labor not vote to disallow that regulation?' it was foreseen. We would not have had a plan if we hadn't put that in. I want to pay credit to Peter Walsh, who was the Victorian water minister at the time. His coming forward with this part of the plan was an essential part of brokering the entire agreement.

But make no mistake: you don't get identical environmental outcomes with these projects. You get equivalent outcomes, taking into account some very specific and limited definitions within the plan. The simplest example I can give is something like Hattah Lakes. It's a beautiful environment site—I've gone kayaking there; you kayak when the water is there, through the river red gums—and it's quite a spectacular place. It naturally would have got its water from overbank flows, overbank flows that occur much less regularly because we have irrigation districts and dams. That's why the overbank flows occur much less regularly. There are two ways of getting the water there: either you release Commonwealth environmental water from dams, a large amount all at once, and get the overbank flow on its way to Hattah Lakes—it floods every farm in the way and takes out whatever they might have had in the ground so that by the time it arrives at Hattah Lakes it's picked up whatever chemicals and nutrients were in the farmland and deposited that at the environmental site—or you use a much lower amount of water, still environmental water, and you pump it there directly. You get a similar environmental outcome—not identical; there will be small environmental sites along the way that get no water because it was piped—using a fraction of the water that would have been required through an overbank flow. They were the sorts of projects that were envisaged in the 650 gigalitres.

Only today, the Nimmie-Caira project has been reported. I have shared some articles. It was reported on the ABC last night, and I saw it in The Guardian today as well. The Nimmie-Caira project was advanced by New South Wales. A series of property owners wanted to get out, and they were happy for their land to be managed for environmental purposes. As a result, in the irrigation districts, particularly in areas like Griffith, it's made a significant difference. The water for the environment that is required will be much lower as a result of what looks like the particular success of the Nimmie-Caira project.

I will give credit to the former water minister for New South Wales, Katrina Hodgkinson. She brought this project forward. When she first brought it forward, there was some hostility from within the Commonwealth about it. I went through some extensive briefings with New South Wales. I thought there might be a way of making it stack up. I asked Commonwealth officials to look at it more closely. They went through it, and we've ended up with a significant project that has now been welcomed by environmental groups as well, regardless of all the hostility at the beginning. Also, I might add, the Nari Nari Tribal Council will now play a major role in the management of the property.

Within the basin, this will become an iconic environmental site, I suspect. It needs active management. I understand that there's been a significant problem with wild pigs in the interim while the management arrangements are being sorted out. These are the sorts of projects where the plan, through its entire structure and through that availability of 650 gigalitres being made through other measures, is allowing environmental outcomes in ways where you obviously still need some water but less water than you would otherwise need if you were only relying on overbank flows. So when people argue—and it's representative of what comes out in different communities—'Why is it only water that's being demanded?' it's not. That flexibility was in the plan. I might add that the plan allowed flexibility of up to 650. The regulation that has come back from the authority and signed off by the minister only took that to 605.

As to whether all these projects ultimately stack up, there's a reconciliation process that happens, from memory, in 2024 or thereabouts to determine whether or not the projects have delivered the outcomes that were envisaged. A lot of these are major engineering works, and all projects of this type vary during the time. Some of them may turn out with better outcomes and some of them may turn out with worse, but that verification will happen. If they end up falling short, I will be clear for the sake of transparency, and I've said it publicly before—and this is not a shared view across the chamber, but the plan allows this sort of flexibility anyway. If there is a gap—and there might not be—Labor would bridge that gap through buyback. The government would have, as I understand it, a different approach in bridging that gap. I think I've represented everyone's positions accurately on that.

The other area of flexibility is the 450 gigalitres up. I previously described the 650 down. We would not have got the agreement from the irrigation communities or the upstream states were it not for Peter Walsh advancing that. In the same way, we would not have got the agreement from South Australia were it not for the additional 450 gigalitres of what's often referred to as up water. Even though we disagree on the simplicity of the clause, I was pleased earlier that the member who preceded me, the member for Murray, read out the full clause, because often the Basin Plan has been misrepresented in this place and people have said that the only test is that, if you want to get this extra 450 gig, you need to do it in ways where there are no social or economic downsides, whereas the plan is quite specific in adding that if you do it through the voluntary participation of irrigators in improving their on-farm infrastructure—if that's the method of acquiring the water—then that will be taken as evidence that there were no social or economic downsides.

That was put there for the 450. The 450 has been in doubt for some time. In dealing with Australia's minister for water, I made clear that we did need to be able to see progress on the 450, because, just as there would have been no plan without the 650 down, there would have been no plan without the 450 up. And a sensible way through on this always involves that challenge—which this building historically hasn't been great at and probably over the last decade has been worse at than it used to be—which is finding an outcome where everybody accepts some compromise, because we know that's better than having no outcome.

I want to pay full credit—I won't overdo it, because it won't help him—to the minister for water. There have been compromises for each of us in working this through. But what has happened is that we have now faced the moment where the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was ready to fall apart and we have made sure that it didn't. That is a critical thing and something that will be a lasting legacy for the work that he does as a minister.

I should take the House through some of the elements of that agreement and I should let the minister know that, before he got here, I said, 'We're not going to move any amendments, and I'm not even moving a second reading amendment—not the normal sledge that we put in; there is that much cooperation. But a lot of the elements of the agreement won't otherwise come before the parliament unless they're explained, and I think a lot of this happened in the minister's second reading speech as well. Six areas are covered: strengthening of protection of environmental flows, strengthening compliance with basin water laws, improving confidence in northern basin review data, strengthening the SDL adjustment mechanism, improving outcomes for First Nations Indigenous people, and addressing the social and economic impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Firstly, on strengthening the protection of environmental flows, this wasn't really questioned in a big way until the Four Corners revelations last year. These were revelations that alarmed pretty much everybody except those who were responsible for them, because water theft isn't just doing the wrong thing by the environment; it's doing the wrong thing by your neighbour. It's doing the wrong thing by all the irrigators up and down the system who keep to the rules. The allegations we saw were serious allegations of water theft. The Australian taxpayer has spent an extraordinary amount of money on environmental water. It now stands as a very significant Commonwealth asset—a very significant asset. The concept that what was designated environmental water to be flowing down the system was being pumped back up into someone's dam alarmed everybody who believes in keeping to the rules. And I include the vast, vast majority of irrigators in that. But it did put forward a demand, as these negotiations went through, that we needed to be able to provide that confidence.

The whole plan is underpinned by what came before it. I wouldn't want this speech to presume in any way or for people to think that all of this began somehow with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan being put in place. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan wouldn't have been possible were it not for the Water Act. The Water Act was brought through by a water minister who's now Prime Minister of Australia, during the time of the Howard government. That wouldn't have been possible had there not been years of negotiation with the states through a ministerial council that was established under the Keating government. This issue was raised in the Federation debates. Only then, the South Australian issue, when they were raising it, wasn't for the purposes of the environment; it was actually a navigation issue, because they could no longer get the vessels upstream. All of this work has a very long history to it, but it's all now underpinned by the concept of there being a water market—a market where you can trade back and forth and you know what you have purchased. When the Commonwealth purchases environmental water, it knows that it will be used for environmental purposes, not be pumped back into somebody's dam.

The agreement includes mechanisms to protect those environmental flows, and I've had good meetings with the New South Wales government and their minister, Minister Blair, in seeing progress there. There is still more work there, but there is significant progress in goodwill, which I want to acknowledge. There is also the establishment of a Northern Basin Commissioner, which I know the minister has been continuing to work on and which will allow there to be an independent person. Why do we need this in the north and not in the south? For the reasons I referred to previously: the extent of regulation in the south means that what we saw in the north—well, I certainly can't imagine how somebody would be able to do something like that in the southern basin, but a Northern Basin Commissioner makes sense.

Strengthening compliance with basin water laws: the government will implement the key outcomes of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's review of compliance and enforcement. New South Wales has committed to the implementation of the Water Reform Action Plan and we've got the development and delivery of a Basin Compliance Compact. The new Northern Basin Commissioner will also monitor and advise on implementation and compliance commitments. The government is also committing an additional $20 million, which will help with monitoring, metering and measurement. I think a lot of people in the southern basin were astonished at how many things that had just been part of living in the southern basin were yet to be there in the north because of the hydrology, because it's so flat and because it's not a regulated system in the same way.

If I were to point to anything being a key weakness that I would have liked to have secured in the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan and that I failed to secure—that I wasn't able to deliver on—and which I've got to say will be to the credit of this minister and this government in securing, as a principle, it is about First Nations people in both the northern and southern basin. For a long time they have been arguing that they didn't only want to have a right to land in different sites but the land didn't have its full meaning unless there were also some rights to flow—some rights to water. The government has done this for the first time. I'm not sure about the extent to which other countries have done this yet internationally—I don't know the answer to that. But this is certainly groundbreaking in our history, and I suspect, globally, that it's not something that a lot has happened with.

The concept of cultural water will now exist, and money has been put forward for various groups to be able to have their own entitlement to water. It won't be owned by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, it will be owned by them and used by them, and they'll make decisions about how annual allocations are used. I won't know how; I'll find out after the event. They'll make their own decisions on that, as they should. But it is a fundamental shift for those groups. Some groups, even with this, are reporting it as though it were trying to buy them off and sign them up to the agreement. It was never conditional—never conditional from the government and never conditional from us. It does mean that a step has now been taken in a direction which is groundbreaking, and I give full credit to everyone involved, including those opposite.

If I read out this whole thing, I won't give anything else to the speech, so I will mention, then, point 4:

Improving confidence in the Northern Basin Review data.

Where I said earlier that the numbers surprised me, part of the agreement is allowing much more penetration of that data, which is important and which I think will only benefit the authority as well—that sort of transparency and sunlight.

The SDL adjustment mechanism is being strengthened in different ways, and, in particular, the government is now commencing the work on accumulating that 450. People needed that show of good faith that it was starting, and it will start. Exactly how it's got to what the projects are I don't think will ever stop being an issue of contention in different directions. But, given it had been put into doubt about a year and a half ago, having that back on the table and starting is critical.

In saying this, I've spent more on the negotiation than I have on the outcomes. I want to make clear that it is understood—and I don't want to be accused of brushing over any of this—that none of this is easy for anyone. Even though a whole lot is being done to try to make the adjustment have as little impact as possible, none of this delivers a zero-impact outcome. For many communities that has already meant significant hardship and different challenges which communities have responded to in different ways. The alternative is unthinkable, because eventually the river turns up at the negotiating table. We might all think we're uncompromising, but it wins when it starts negotiating back. We need to have a healthy working basin. It will never be a 100 per cent natural system again. I think anyone who wants to argue that it should be a completely natural system at the lakes at the end has to argue for a natural system the whole way up, and I've never met anyone who then wants to go to that next stage of the argument. It will be a regulated system, but it can be a healthy system. It will be a system that works for the environment and for the communities that depend on it. We've now got to the moment where that was in jeopardy, and parliament is showing its capacity to deal with it, so I thank the minister.