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Thursday, 16 October 2008
Page: 6276

Senator BIRMINGHAM (6:08 PM) —It is my pleasure to speak on the report by the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport on the Coorong and Lower Lakes situation. I speak in light of the remarks that were made by fellow senators in relation to the report, which was tabled earlier this week. This report is critical to my home state of South Australia. Senator Fisher, who is in the chamber, has already made a strong contribution on this. The government’s stance on this report conflicted with the stances taken by the senators of the coalition and the Greens, and also Senator Xenophon, who participated in the inquiry and offered comments at the end. Unfortunately, it seems the government has waved the white flag on the future of the Lower Lakes. The government is unwilling to commit to saving those lakes through to the end of next year.

Senator Sterle —There’s no water—it’s as simple as that. It’s got to rain.

Senator Fisher interjecting—

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Senator Sterle says there is no water. Well, the government has been provided with an opportunity, a little bit of time. As Senator Fisher rightly points out, there certainly is water. There is not enough water to do everything, and we recognise that, but the challenge becomes one of prioritisation and doing what is achievable. What is achievable is for the government to guarantee and commit to securing the future of the Coorong and the Lower Lakes at least until winter 2009—and that is possible.

It became quite evident that was possible from the evidence that was presented during this inquiry. The government was provided with a get out of jail card during this inquiry. When it started, the prognosis for the river system was grim; it was dire. The likelihood was that we were talking, in a worst case scenario, of hundreds of gigalitres being required to avoid the risk of acidification of the Lower Lakes. But as time went on, and as rainfall in the Mount Lofty ranges in South Australia proved a little more favourable to the Coorong and Lower Lakes than had been expected, we suddenly saw the opportunity to save those lakes. That expectation of hundreds of gigalitres has progressively come down, and the worst case scenario, on the last evidence provided by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, is that 10 to 50 gigalitres is required. That is right: the department now says only 10 to 50 gigalitres would be required to ensure acidification of the lakes does not occur between now and next winter.

It beggars belief that, for want of 10 gigalitres or so, the government will not make a commitment to stop acidification. It beggars belief that they would risk taking decisions such as building a weir and flooding these lakes with seawater for want of 10 to 50 gigalitres. It beggars belief that they would potentially risk permanent damage to the ecology of the lakes and to the surrounding farmland—that they would put all of that at stake—for the want of a very small amount of water to maintain the required level of the lakes. If we look at the evidence that was tendered to this inquiry, that could be achieved by a range of different ways that do not appear to have been even considered by the government.

It could be achieved through a minimal lowering of the weir pools. Evidence tendered by other witnesses suggested that a lowering by between 100 and 150 millimetres of the weir pools in the lochs in the lower Murray system could actually provide around 50 gigalitres—at the maximum end of the 10- to 50-gigalitre range. Other evidence suggested that, because you are talking about such small flows, it would be possible to have a ‘shandying’ effect. In fact, you could add a small volume of seawater at present just to keep the level up. You would not have to flood the lakes because, as you admitted freshwater—the 350 gigalitres of dilution flows that are already guaranteed for the lakes—you could shandy them with a little bit of seawater to maintain the required level.

Did the government commit to pursue any of these options—options that would not hurt upstream irrigators and would not take further rights way from those who are struggling to guarantee the food supply of Australia? Did the government offer to look at those options and guarantee that they would use them as a last resort this year to secure the future of the lakes? No, they did not. The government said it was all too hard and seemed to want to concede the future of the lakes at the first possible opportunity. It seems as though they wish to get the problem of the lakes off their hands. They wish to wash their hands of the problem. They know that the sooner that tipping point is reached the sooner the difficult decision to flood the lakes can be made—and no longer will we have this debate about how to manage their future.

That will make life a whole lot easier for them in all the other decisions they have to make. Bugger the consequences, and the environmental and ecological damage that could be done be damned! They do not bother considering the relevance of history, which says that at best those lakes have been an estuarine environment with occasional saltwater incursions that have been flooded out by regular freshwater floods from an unregulated river system. We now have a very regulated river system. Freshwater floods will not reach those lakes again any time soon, if ever. Flooding them with seawater would be a permanent decision, and therefore a permanent change to the ecology of those lakes that would cause ongoing damage.

On top of this failure of the government to guarantee the short-term future of the lakes, we can look at their failure in the longer term as well. They are proposing a plan that would take 75 to 110 gigalitres out of the Murray-Darling Basin catchment area and supply it to Melbourne. Once again, that is a decision that defies logic and beggars belief for anyone who looks at this situation. At a time when the government is buying water entitlements from irrigators—entitlements in the main that do not actually have any water allocation attached to them—and at a time when the government is considering flooding the lakes for the want of 10 to 50 gigalitres, they are proposing to build a pipeline in Victoria that would take another 75 gigalitres out.

In South Australia, the state government is being held to account at present to try to take Adelaide off the Murray as much as possible. That is why they have been pressured—pressure that they have resisted—into committing to build a desalination plant. That is why they have been pressured with Liberal Party policies in South Australia to commit to stormwater harvesting. There is enormous pressure in South Australia to reduce the reliance of Adelaide on the River Murray. Yet at the same time we have the Labor government in Victoria and the federal Labor government doing some type of dirty deal behind closed doors to commit to taking a minimum of 75 gigalitres out of the river and sending it off to Melbourne.

We are going to put another city that is outside of the basin catchment area on the river system just at the time when we are trying to get the major city that has been reliant on the river to reduce its reliance. It is a nonsensical approach. The biggest challenge that this government should take up is the challenge of stopping that pipeline. It needs to say to its Victorian mates: ‘We’re not going to accept a deal for a pipeline to take more water out of the catchment. We expect that Victoria will play ball on this and pursue the infrastructure and the water saving methods that they have talked about and return that water to environmental flows.’ The water should not be shifted to Melbourne through some pipeline but be returned to environmental flows.

This report was a great disappointment for many South Australians, because it failed the challenge of securing the short-term and long-term future of key environmental sites in our state. We know that there will be much further debate as this committee goes on to look at the longer term management of the lakes and at the Water Amendment Bill 2008 that has been introduced into this place. Those will be opportunities for us to hopefully hold the government to account and deliver proper long-term management. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.