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Tuesday, 26 November 1985
Page: 2272

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK(6.06) —I refer to the first item of the estimates for the Department of Resources and Energy, item 520.3.01, concerning the River Murray Commission, and also to the second item concerning water research. I would like to make some comments on both of those in tandem. I do so against the background that taxation legislation lies within this Parliament which could be very relevant to those items. It is well known that over a year something like one and a quarter million tonnes of salt pass down the River Murray into South Australia and that salinity as well as turbidity are of enormous consequence in South Australia. It is well known that this happens because, basically, the River Murray course, particularly in Victoria, is an old, dried up seabed and salination enters the water table from that seabed.

During the years of the Fraser Government the River Murray agreement was rewritten and brought up to date, and a key element was put into it; that is, that the Commission would have authority to deal with the qualitative as well as the quantitative nature of water. That was a very major step forward. Also, a whole series of matters relating to the Maunsell report were carried out in order to help to overcome salinity. A key feature of the Fraser Government's program, and one which was to be part of the bicentennial program, was a feasibility study to be undertaken by the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation-SMEC. There are two real needs for the River Murray. One is to deal with salinity, to stop the water table rising and bringing up salt. The other is to provide at the upper reaches of the Murray a large extra storage area supplementary to the Dartmouth Dam so that a flush can be provided into the system and overcome the disabilities.

The Fraser Government, in its last year of office, set out a wide ranging series of water programs and one was, as I say, a feasibility study to be carried out by SMEC of an upper Murray storage. That is the key to any long term management of the River Murray. Unless more fresh water can be stored at its headwaters and flushed down in times of drought and high salinity the problem of salinity will not be overcome and irrigation along the whole course of the Murray will not be able to be provided. It is to the eternal discredit of the Hawke Labor Government that one of its first actions was to cancel that feasibility study that would have been done by the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation which has the expertise derived from building the whole of the Snowy Mountains project. We had a body of expertise readily available, and a relatively small amount of money was needed to apply the skills to provide information on the proper site and the cost and development of a new headwater storage system. But that study was cancelled.

Anybody approaching the problems of the River Murray must first of all ensure the continuation of qualitative analysis and qualitative control and, above everything, that something is done to provide upper Murray storage. The previous Liberal Government intended to undertake that task, but it has been set aside by this Government.

One of the reasons that the salt has been lifted from the dry seabed and put into the River Murray has been the habit of orchardists and others along the Murray of using flood irrigation-in other words, simply taking water by flood channels into their developed areas, soaking the ground using far more water than necessary, and the water dissolving the salt, thus lifting it up and putting it into the Murray. I have to say, without any prejudice to Victoria, that this happened very largely along the Victorian edge of the Murray.

The aim, in order to overcome this problem, is to teach the agriculturalists, the orchardists, along the Murray two good practices-first of all, to give them the desire and the incentive to get expertise in and to use laser levelling and, secondly, to change from flood irrigation to spray and drip irrigation. Indeed, a Federal-State working party was set up by me to devise means by which this could be done. The working party produced a report which advocated tax incentives. What this Government is doing in its current taxation legislation is to kill those incentives. By two steps this Government has done more to damage the River Murray than has been done in all of history. It has decided to reject any idea that there should be an upper Murray storage system and it has set out to provide a disincentive for people to go into proper laser levelling and spray and drip irrigation.

This Government has also wasted enormously valuable time. If there were things to do wrongly in water conservation, water storage and irrigation, the Hawke Labor Government did them. First of all, it cancelled the whole of the bicentennial water program, which would have conferred an enduring benefit on the whole of Australia. It set out systematically to wreck what had been put in place because it had some idea that it ought to pursue an institute of freshwater studies. For a year or more it set aside a fundamentally valuable institution, the Australian Water Resources Council, which comprised top ranking experts from the whole of Australia; each of the key States had some of their best experts on that Council. It had been established when I was a Minister in the Fraser Government. The Water Resources Council with its State representatives said: `We do not want an institute of freshwater studies. It would be wrong. We want to continue with a national water research council'. But this Government thought it knew better; so for a year or more it had an inquiry to establish whether there should be an institute of freshwater studies. What did the inquiry say? It said that there should not be such an institute. So for the whole of that period the land was further degraded. The inquiry said: `You should have a national water research council'. Consequently, one of the good things has been restored.

Australia is the most arid continent on earth. Whereas the average world annual rainfall is 26 inches, Australia's is 16 inches. We are the driest continent on earth. We have virtually every physical mineral resource that one can name. What limits us in agriculture, in population and in industry is water. One would therefore expect that running through Budgets would be a program to help to build up water supplies. But any hope of that has been dissipated.

The fundamental thing is to use those areas which can best be used. We have only one real river system in Australia of any comparable international standard, the Murray-Darling system. That system has been polluted and salinated over the years. Yet not only were the fundamental things that ought to have been done not done but also negative influences are now being put to work.

Australia faces massive problems with its adverse balance of trade and international debt of an enormous magnitude. We need to earn more and more money to become competitive, to be able to apply our resources. But stagnation is what is occurring. The future of the River Murray is based upon a good new agreement which, whilst not totally perfect, is a great advance forward. It is an agreement that I am assured is working. The States are reporting to the River Murray Commission any major or significant qualitative changes upstream from the Murray. The computer model of the Murray is now working. All these things were put in place in years past but the two fundamental things necessary are a huge storage system in the upper reaches and the provision of incentives to move away from flood irrigation. But these have been set aside, which is a major tragedy.

We have had three reasonable seasons recently but we had four years of drought before that. We ought to know that Australia is a drought country and that in the years ahead we will have more and more drought. The Government ought to know that to control its major waterways it will need headwater storage. We do not know what would be the best site or what is the optimal nature of a headwater storage. We should know that. We have all the expertise of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation. We have the ability, with all the records of run-off from the Snowy Mountains, to put together a picture of how we can use the Rivery Murray to better advantage. The River Murray is a difficult river to handle because it does not have deep banks. It is shallow and it either runs nearly dry or floods out over the land. It is a very difficult river to manage throughout its course.

I make a plea to this Government. It is not too late. There is no real money involved in putting the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation to work. The Government is very proud when it presents the annual report of the Corporation and tells us what it has done in some 22 countries overseas. I for one congratulate Mr Doug Price and his team on the marvellous job they are doing. The back of the Corporation's annual report lists State after State seeking its information. But the Federal Government which controls the only real water storage system, the Snowy Mountains scheme, available to us with, incidentally, an ability to add extra hydro- electricity for the States, is doing absolutely nothing about it.

If, as the Zeidler Committee of Inquiry into the State Electricity Commission of Victoria recommended, and the Fraser Government foreshadowed, the south-east Australian electricity grid is built, from Victoria to South Australia-I understand that the Hawke Government is belatedly considering this-then all the more reason to get another headwater storage and more hydro-electricity. The solution to the problem in South Australia is new headwater storage and proper tax incentives so that we do not get salination downstream.