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Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Page: 7631


Senator DAY (South Australia) (14:37): My questions is to Senator Colbeck, the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources. Annual allocation of water, known as temporary water, is now being sold in Australia's food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, at prices as high as $300 a megalitre out of the Goulburn-Murray water area and $240 a megalitre in the South Australian River Murray. That is double what the price was this time last year, and around three times the average over the last three years. The number of drought affected areas in the Murray-Darling Basin is expanding, and much of Queensland is still drought declared. Can the minister tell the Senate when the government will clear up responsibility for the water portfolio?

Senator COLBECK (TasmaniaMinister for Tourism and International Education and Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment) (14:37): I thank Senator Day for his question and for some notice of the question.

I have had the good fortune to spend a little bit of time over the last couple of years in the Murray-Darling region. The price of water is something that is obviously of significant concern to the growers in that neck of the woods. You talk of the price of $300 or $400 per megalitre now; at the height of the last drought it got to $700 per megalitre. That is the way the market works. Two years ago, dairy farmers and producers in the basin were paying something like $30 a megalitre for temporary water, and last year it was $120. The market is fluctuating.

As I said in answer to questions from Senator Wong over the last couple of days, the responsibility for water is quite clear. It is held within the agriculture portfolio, and we are very fortunate to have two people within the water portfolio who have extensive knowledge of the water portfolio: Minister Joyce and Assistant Minister Ruston. So we have an excellent team who will look after the roles and responsibilities around water with great capacity, and I have every confidence that it will be managed well.

We have the plan in place. Our objective is to deliver the plan on time and in full. In the hands of the two very capable ministers we have in place in the water portfolio—

Senator Kim Carr: What about the administrative orders?

Senator KIM CARR: Senator, I hope you have looked up the administrative orders. I hope you have had a look at them so you do understand where things sit. (Time expired)

Senator DAY (South Australia) (14:40): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. This season's El Nino event is predicted to be one of the worst on record, and is likely to persist until at least next year. Poor spring rains confirm this likelihood, and the Bureau of Meteorology's projections based on the last 12 major El Nino events indicate El Ninos like this one hit the Murray-Darling Basin hardest. How is this being reflected in basin water allocations?

Senator COLBECK (TasmaniaMinister for Tourism and International Education and Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment) (14:40): Senator Day is right; the projections from the bureau are for a very tough season with El Nino. The change in the indicators from the Indian Ocean earlier looked like they might be mitigating what was happening in the Pacific, but it looks like being quite a tough year.

In the southern connected basin, water storage levels are currently at 53 per cent, which is below average for this time of year. I think that is what is being reflected in the price of water that you described in your primary question, Senator Day.

The state and territory governments are responsible for making seasonal water allocation decisions. They take all that information from the Bureau of Meteorology into account in making those decisions—as they would. That is part of the basin plan. That is why John Howard, when he was Prime Minister, established this process—which has received bipartisan support I might add—and it really does not matter who— (Time expired)

Senator DAY (South Australia) (14:41): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Minister, people who live in Albury-Wodonga—like George and Corrie Hoogendorp, who are in the gallery today—rely on River Murray water for the social and economic health of their region. Remembering that the Prime Minister is a former water minister, how will the government assure basin communities, like Albury-Wodonga, that it is preparing for basin water shortages to minimise social and economic impacts?

Senator COLBECK (TasmaniaMinister for Tourism and International Education and Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment) (14:42): I thank Senator Day for his further supplementary question. That is fundamentally the reason for having the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in place; so that all those requirements of various members of the community—and particularly so resources that are required for household use and requirements along the basin—are actually met. That is the purpose of the plan. That is why it was put in place. We had 100 years before the plan came into place of bickering and arguing over water. The whole purpose of the plan was to ensure that the essential purposes of water are actually met; so that there is appropriate water for agriculture and for town use—and additional water for the environment. And also, when there is spare water, that can also go into productive use.