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Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Page: 7665

Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (16:31): In 2012, after more than a century of interstate disagreement on how to manage Australia's Murray-Darling Basin, the Labor government finally won support for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which will restore balance to our river system as long as the plan is allowed to be implemented.

The plan is in fact a very hard fought agreement and, if it is to be implemented, it will ensure that we maintain not just a healthy river but also strong regional communities and sustainable food production. In 2012, it looked like, after many years of interstate brawling about the future of the Murray-Darling Basin, we had finally resolved a plan that would take us forward and give certainty to river communities and indeed to my home state of South Australia about the future of the Murray. But now, as a direct result of factional promises and deals in the new Turnbull coalition government, in the space of just a few weeks since he became Prime Minister, Prime Minister Turnbull has thrown the future of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan into chaos. We know that Mr Turnbull gifting the National Party the water portfolio is not going to be beneficial to anyone except the National Party and Mr Turnbull.

As a former minister for the environment and for water during the Howard years, Mr Turnbull knows exactly that, but he wanted to be Prime Minister more than he wanted to protect the river for the future. So he struck a deal that would give the Nats what they have always coveted and in return he got something that he has always coveted, which, of course, is the prime ministership. So the deal was not anything to do with the future of the river. It was not a deal about the sustainability of the river, it was not about securing the livelihoods of the many people who live in the regional towns along the river and it was not about the future livelihood or the security of the two million people that rely on the Murray-Darling. Instead it was a typical selfish, narcissistic political pact to make sure that Malcolm Turnbull could overthrow Mr Tony Abbott and become the Prime Minister of Australia.

As a South Australian living at the bottom end of the Murray-Darling Basin, I am very worried about this pact and what it will mean for the future of South Australia. Mr Barnaby Joyce being placed in charge of water has sent shock waves through the South Australian community because we full well know what Mr Joyce's position on water is. We will never forget when he infamously told South Australians, 'If you do not like living along the river Murray in its southern reaches, up stumps, pack up and move to the northern states.' It was certainly characteristic of Mr Joyce that he would have such disregard for the people of South Australia and, importantly, for the Riverland communities in South Australia along the Murray. Of course, we know that Mr Joyce's concern in this fracas that is going on between the Nationals and the Liberal coalition partners is all about Mr Joyce shoring up his seat in northern New South Wales because he has a bit of a threat on his hands at the moment. He will do whatever he can to hold onto that at the expense of downstream basin states like my state of South Australia. Given Mr Joyce's policy legacy in this area and his oft stated views about water, particularly about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, when it comes to balancing the economic, social and environmental interests of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the health of the river will always end up last under his watch.

We have the internal brawling in the coalition to worry about, but earlier today I was particularly worried to see six of the eight Senate crossbench senators come out and attack the future of the Murray-Darling. Through what I can only presume is the influence and manipulation of Mr Joyce as he desperately clutches at straws to maintain control of the water portfolio for his own self-interest, crossbenchers have apparently been used as bait to grab the Prime Minister's attention. They have been used as bait to persuade the Prime Minister to keep his promise and give water to the National Party. In the press conference this morning, the crossbench senators claimed that we need to choose between farmers and the environment. This is not an either/or situation. We do not have to choose between agriculture and the environment. The advancement in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to date proves that we are making progress. Indeed, the whole context of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was to ensure a balance in allocation of resources for the river, for agriculture and for sustainable communities.

It concerns me most that, amongst those crossbenchers this morning, I saw Senator Bob Day, a South Australian senator. Surely, of all the crossbenchers, Senator Day, from South Australia, would know how catastrophic it will be for South Australia if Mr Barnaby Joyce gets control of water. But of course we know that Senator Day likes to play politics with the river. I was also disturbed to see this morning that, although there is a Senate select committee afoot to consider the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the crossbench senators—who are both chair and deputy chair of that Senate select committee—seem to have predetermined what the outcome of that Senate committee process will be. They seem to have predetermined what the outcome of that Senate committee process will be, for political gain.

You have to ask: what is the dodgy deal that Senator Bob Day has done with the coalition or with Mr Barnaby Joyce that would make him go out there and attempt to undo more than a century of work that has arrived at the Murray-Darling Basin Plan? Why is he kowtowing to the representatives of upstream states in this issue? And why does he want to stop the plan in its tracks? To do so will bring back to South Australia the uncertainty and confusion about the future of the River Murray. We do not need any more uncertainty. The plan was hard fought. States and, I have to say, all of the parties in this Senate worked very hard to get that plan finalised and through the Senate. We saw again bipartisan support for the Water Act amendment just a little while ago.

The future of the Murray absolutely depends on bipartisanship. Once we have the situation where senators who have the balance of power, if you like, in this place start playing politics with the river yet again, the only people who will benefit from that will be those crossbench senators. We do not know what they got in return for the position that they articulated today, but what we do know is that the people of South Australia will get nothing in return for that. We will go back to the bad old days of interstate fighting over allocation of water from the Murray-Darling Basin system, and the state that will miss out as a result of that infighting will be South Australia. I urge the crossbench senators to think very carefully about what they are doing in using the river as a political bargaining chip.