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Tuesday, 25 November 2008
Page: 7195

Senator FARRELL (4:11 PM) —I rise in support of the Water Amendment Bill 2008. There are few issues that South Australians are more passionate about than ensuring a sustainable future for the Murray-Darling Basin but in particular the River Murray. While the government, together with the South Australian government, is taking action to reduce Adelaide’s dependence on the Murray for drinking water, the river is part of the essential fabric of our state and supports not only agriculture and tourism but also almost all economic activity that occurs in towns located near the river.

In the financial year 2005-06 the Murray-Darling Basin constituted 65 per cent of Australia’s irrigated land and 39 per cent of the gross value of Australia’s agricultural production. The Murray-Darling Basin is not merely urban Australia’s food basket; it is the system that hundreds of thousands of Australians rely on for their livelihoods. As a result of overallocation of water and mismanagement of the river over decades by successive governments, the environmental management of the Murray-Darling Basin has become one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation. The final report from the CSIRO Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Yields Project was released yesterday, and it highlights the challenges that we face. The CSIRO found that the amount of water flowing through the Murray mouth had fallen from an average of about 12,200 gigalitres per year to just over 4,700 gigalitres per year. If the worst case scenario rainfall projection comes to pass, in 2030 fresh water might only flow through the mouth of the river in three out of 10 years. We cannot allow this to be the future that our children face, and that is why the government are taking serious, responsible long-term action to tackle the challenge that the basin faces.

Unfortunately, rather than taking real action to fix the Murray-Darling Basin, the previous government’s treatment of the Murray-Darling Basin was a case study in its approach to federalism. The CSIRO report released yesterday is hardly the first warning sign that the Murray River was in trouble. Rather than take real action, rather than make the tough decisions, the previous government huffed and puffed about how they were not at fault more than John McEnroe at Wimbledon and then announced a flawed plan written up by John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull on the back of an envelope just months before the last election.

The people of Australia called their bluff and elected a new government with a commitment to end the blame game over the Murray River. The negotiations and processes in the lead-up to this bill show how the Rudd government’s cooperative approach to federalism is bearing fruit. Rather than bluff and bluster and then blame the states for inaction, like the previous government did, the Rudd government did the hard yards nutting out the issues with the states and came to an agreement that was acceptable to both the states and the Commonwealth.

In the spirit of cooperative federalism, the bill gives all basin states a seat at the decision-making table through the creation of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and the Basin Officials Committee. In the intergovernmental agreement, the states agreed to refer legislative powers to the Commonwealth to enable the authority to assume powers previously held by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. While the new ministerial council will retain a role in determining specific functions that will be moved from the Murray-Darling Basin into the new authority, I applaud the states for referring the powers required to create one agency responsible for the management of the entire Murray-Darling Basin.

Since the first constitutional conventions were held in the 1890s, South Australia has advocated for Commonwealth management of the Murray-Darling Basin, to ensure that the basin is managed in the national interest rather than the particular interests of individual basin states. However, it is no surprise that this outcome came from constructive negotiation and working together with the states rather than the creative constitutional interpretations favoured by the previous government.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which was created by another act, is charged with the development of the Basin Plan, the first ever single basin-wide water resource management plan. The Basin Plan will include limits on the amount of surface and ground water that can be taken from the basin on a sustainable basis; identify risks to the water resources within the basin, such as climate change, and develop strategies to address those risks; include an environmental watering plan to optimise environmental outcomes for the basin by specifying environmental objectives, watering priorities and targets for the basin water resources; and include a plan to improve water quality and salinity management and rules about the trading of water rights in relation to basin water resources.

In addition, this bill will require the consideration of critical human needs in the development of the Basin Plan. It will also require consideration of the amount of conveyance water that will be required to deliver the water for critical human needs, and consideration of the water quality and salinity trigger points at which water becomes unsuitable to meet those needs. Critical human needs are an essential consideration in the management of the river and I am sure that the authority will consider the issue seriously in the finalisation of the Basin Plan.

The bill includes new measures to give the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission the power to enforce the same water market rules with regard to all water service providers, regardless of how those providers are legally structured. This means that all water users and sellers will be subject to the same rules and provide for greater certainty for participants in the water market. The bill is part of the government’s suite of measures focused on tackling Australia’s water challenges, which include the $12.9 billion Water for the Future plan that provided funding for more sustainable rural water use and infrastructure programs, as well as the purchase of water from willing sellers to increase environmental flows into the basin. This plan is not a plan for next year or the next election; this is a plan to secure a sustainable, environmentally responsible river for the future. I commend the bill to the Senate.