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Tuesday, 25 November 2008
Page: 7196

Senator FISHER (4:18 PM) —I am very pleased to have this opportunity to rise to talk about the critical issue of water, but I am rather disappointed that the occasion comes about through this bill, because this bill—the Water Amendment Bill 2008—falls significantly short of what it needs to do to implement the necessary reform for water across the country. Many of my colleagues have already spoken in large part about significant numbers of the shortcomings, and we will be addressing those in the committee stage. To that extent I clearly support and endorse their comments.

I want to focus on two aspects of this bill: the first is so-called critical human water needs and the provision of the bill that relates thereto, and the second is the failure of this bill to prevent the construction of the north-south pipeline, and the fact that this bill offers this government the opportunity to do just that—to stop the construction of the north-south pipeline.

Firstly, I will address the terminology ‘critical human water needs’ as used in the bill. Why does this matter? This matters because, once water is designated for critical human needs, it is excised from the system. The user to whom that water is given is able to enjoy the use of that water as a first priority user. In short, they get to go to the front of the queue. The evidence provided to the Senate committee inquiring into this bill was overwhelming. It was overwhelming about the need for a definition of the term ‘critical human water needs’ and overwhelming in its agreement that the bill failed to provide a definition of ‘critical human water needs’. The bill failed to provide a definition that was clear, transparent and equitable and that gave all water users in Australia a fair opportunity to work out how you get to the front of the queue. Instead, we have a bill that talks about critical human water needs, core human requirements and non-core human requirements. It talks about human critical water needs having first priority and then in the next breath—

Senator Chris Evans —I just remember ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ from somewhere before.

Senator FISHER —Yes; it has been used in the government’s legislation. Having talked in one paragraph about critical human water needs attracting the highest priority, in the next breath it then talks about conveyance water therefore attracting first priority. Is there a difference? If so, what is the difference? It talks about non-core human water being given the status of critical human water needs, where the failure to provide water for those purposes would cause prohibitively high social, economic and national security costs. Witnesses were overwhelming in their evidence about not knowing what this definition was intended to mean or what would be rolled out by the government or the new authority in implementing this definition.

The consequences of this are significant and profound and must not be underestimated. Indeed, yesterday the CSIRO released a report on water availability in the Murray-Darling Basin. It found that groundwater use, under existing state government plans, could double by the year 2030. This would effectively halve the flow of water through the mouth of the Murray. The CSIRO report warned that future levels of use of water were unsustainable and, in referring to that report, Minister Wong reportedly has urged state governments to enforce tighter controls on farmers’ and miners’ use of underground water. How has this come about? The minister has focused on one aspect of the use equation—farmers and miners—at the same time as presiding over a bill that spectacularly fails to set out what the human use component will be. It spectacularly fails to set out who gets access to water for critical human needs and for what purpose they get access to such water, whilst allowing those people and those users to have first crack. Yet the minister has used the CSIRO report as an opportunity to have a crack at farmers and miners.

‘Human critical water needs’ has been used, and is continuing to be used, by the government as an elastic term to allow them to give water where they find it expedient, in a political sense, to do so. I come now to the second opportunity for the government in this bill, the north-south pipeline. There is little better example of this than the north-south pipeline. We have heard technical arguments that the north-south pipeline is not critical human needs water under this bill because the north-south pipeline is coming from something that is not defined by the bill as being part of the Murray-Darling Basin. How offensive is that? It is simply not acceptable to attempt to carve Melbourne and its water needs out of the Murray-Darling Basin and at the same time allow Melbourne to go on the teat to take from the Murray-Darling. We are in the midst of a debate about the necessity to wean a city like Adelaide off the River Murray. We have state and federal Labor governments that refuse to commit to the wisdom of weaning Adelaide off the Murray—let alone setting a target date for the end point of a weaning process which, by definition, is gradual and which should have been started long ago. We are in the midst of a debate about weaning Adelaide—a capital city—off the Murray. It is a capital city that is not even on the Murray, yet from time to time it relies on the Murray for 80 per cent of its water use. We are in the midst of a debate about being more responsible with backyard Adelaide in its collection, storage, use and reuse of water, and at the same time we are going to put yet another city on the teat that is the Murray. And this is at a time when there is simply not sufficient water. So says the government.

The government seems to think that they can answer, ‘There is not enough water; what can you expect us to do?’ This bill must be amended in order to set out very clearly how you get to the front of the queue in terms of human critical water needs. Instead, we have an agreement extracted at the time of COAG to construct a pipeline, the north-south pipeline, to feed Melbourne, an agreement made during discussions that were supposed to be about putting water back in, not taking it out. The evidence from witnesses to the Senate committee was, again, overwhelming. No-one thinks construction of the north-south pipeline is common sense. It would appear that the only ones who agree with it and support it, aside from some probably well-intentioned but rather misinformed Melburnians, are Penny Wong, John Brumby and Mike Rann.

Opposition senators—Peter Garrett!

Senator FISHER —And Peter Garrett. Aside from the politics, it is clear that no-one can agree with the construction of the north-south pipeline because it is just plain wrong. It must be stopped, and this is this government’s opportunity to stop it.

Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the water that will fill the pipeline is not going to be part of the critical human needs definition of the bill because it somehow does not come from the bit defined as the basin. Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that Melbourne is therefore entitled to have some sort of carve-out separate from the bill. Once water designated for human needs—as it will be for the city of Melbourne—wets that pipeline, what Victorian Premier of any political persuasion would risk political suicide to let the pipeline dry out? It simply will not happen. Once the pipeline is built and once it is wet, Melbourne will be on the teat. It should not happen; it is wrong.

If this bill is so clear in defining human critical water needs then how is it that we have a minister, in Minister Wong, on Adelaide radio, as she was last week, saying to the effect that human critical water needs are for drinking water? I challenge the minister to show me, us, the Australian public and the stakeholders in this debate where the bill says that. It does not.

To say that moving amendments to this bill—particularly amendments around the human critical water needs definition—will delay the bill and to say, as is intimated in the majority report, that the so-called definition is the result of many months of negotiations and is, after all, the subject of some common sense is an indictment on the negotiation process thus far. It underlines the extent to which characterising the management of the plan through negotiation with state governments is compromised and hamstrung from the start. It simply has not done the job. It will not do the job.

To suggest that the term is capable of a common sense definition again sidesteps and obviates the argument. Where is that common sense definition in the bill? How is it that witnesses before the Senate inquiry were able to suggest that an abattoir could be given first priority for human critical water needs? In the words of Dr Buchan from the Australian Conservation Foundation, it could be used to justify spray irrigation of a regional golf course if that were necessary to support the social and economic needs of the community. They are all very important water uses, but how do you get to the front of the queue? The bill needs to be amended in that respect, and we will be proposing that during the committee stage.