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Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Page: 7661

Senator GALLACHER (South Australia) (16:13): I too rise to make a contribution on this matter of public importance. I think it is worthwhile just recapping in the short time we have available what is actually at stake. We know that, as far back as July 1997, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council introduced a permanent cap on the volume of water which could be diverted from rivers for uses such as irrigation. In 2007, the Commonwealth intervened to address the overallocation and established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority That had the charters to develop and implement a Basin Plan to include sustainable diversion limits. CSIRO advised the MDBA about the future climate scenarios for use in modelling future water use and yield from the catchments in the Basin Plan. Under the Water Act 2007, the MDBA is responsible for planning the integrated management of water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin. Then we know that on 22 November 2012 the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was signed into law.

If it is true that Mark Twain said, 'Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over,' then that was a culmination of a decade or more of pretty strong negotiations involving governments of all political persuasions, involving state and federal responsible entities to get something into place that we could sit down and put into practice. Of course, there is the rub. The challenge of whoever looks after water will be to put into practice—on the best advice possible—the agreed position and to manage the environment, return some water to the river and manage the social cohesion and economic fabric of those irrigators right along the river. South Australia is to be credited, and amongst the best advice I have had is that they initiated drip watering and took responsible water positions. Despite advice to move up the river, they decided to stay and just get more efficient. What we clearly have here is a political situation involving the termination of a first-term Liberal Prime Minister—the first time in the history of that party that they have taken such an action.

Senator Williams: You've got a bit of history on it!

Senator GALLACHER: Our history is on the record, Senator Williams. I was just merely making the observation that you have not got a lot of history on it.

Anyway, in the event that you did have to do a deal—some of you had to do a deal to save respective parts of your electorates—basically we want to know: have the Nationals been given control of water? Answers to repeated questions to the good Senator Colbeck indicate that it is work in progress. The best summation of the three or four questions that he has attempted to answer is that it is a work in progress and that we do not know who has got responsibility for water. But we do know that if it has been traded off in a factional deal—despite the fact that you do not have any factions!—to keep the largest faction, the Nationals, in the tent and they have got power over water, then we would like all of the agreed positions, from 1997 all the way up to 2012, not only to be honoured but also to be implemented.

I said the other day, in taking note of answers to questions without notice, that Dr Horne made the comment that we know very clearly that there is a lot at stake here. I just want to put on the record what is at stake. James Horne, the inaugural chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Officials Committee said:

… merging the two portfolios—

agriculture and water—

could have several important implications.

Dr Horne said the job of implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan would fall to Joyce as agriculture minister, and that would be 'anything but straightforward'.

It involves implementing water planning in a comprehensive way that has never been seen before in the Basin. This planning is a key element to ensuring an end to the environmental degradation seen in many areas of the Basin in recent decades.

There we have the issue: is one of the best conservative politicians in Australia, who, on occasion, has been known to say whatever in respect of his constituencies—in his time in the Senate he was not shy about actually voting against the position that his government held—to take a position on behalf of the whole Murray-Darling Basin and manage it in accordance with the agreed position, or will he take a short-term view to please his constituents?

We have seen very clearly in areas of rural Australia that there has been concern about coal seam gas mining, there has been concern about the mining of coal—the Shenhua mine comes to mind—and we know there have been very strong, deeply felt and widely held positions in rural communities about this. Any minister in this space is going to be unpopular somewhere. The challenge for him or her is whether they can put the best interests of the Murray-Darling Basin—the environment, the sustainability of the river, the social cohesion, the economic opportunities—together and take the best position for Australia, not in a short-term political way or a partisan political way. That is going to be the challenge for whoever takes up this position and responsibility for water. And, as I said, if it has been traded in a factional way for short-term advancement so that someone could become Prime Minister or someone could be ousted as Prime Minister, then I am not sure that is a good indicator of how this extremely important issue of Australia's national policy will be.

I was part of the debate where the party further to our left advocated for greater flows—when we did the analysis the people in the Riverland may have had to move to higher ground on occasion—and I know that these are really difficult issues. They need bipartisanship, if we can get that. They will need strong and clear leadership. It must be abundantly clear to the Prime Minister that someone needs to be given the responsibility of water. They need to uphold the agreed position of the states, uphold the agreed position of the federal government, work to improve environmental sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin—our part of it and the whole of the Murray River—and, importantly, the agreed position also needs to deliver a fair and just outcome for South Australia. We will fully be up to the task of keeping whoever the water minister eventually gets to be up to those challenges.