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Wednesday, 24 August 1983
Page: 201


Mr BRUMBY(5.11) —As has been adequately indicated by a few speakers, the purpose of the River Murray Waters Bill is to approve and provide for the Commonwealth's participation in a new Agreement with three States-New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria-for the control and management of the water resources of the River Murray and its tributaries. The management of the waters of the Murray has been a matter of dispute between those three States since well before Federation. Indeed, since 1840, when the Port Phillip district was defined, the States of Victoria and New South Wales have legally fought over the ownership and use of River Murray waters. Imperial legislation, proclaimed some 15 years later in 1855 which established the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria, declared:

The whole water course of the said Murray River from its source to the eastern boundary of the colony of South Australia is and shall be the territory of New South Wales.

In fact, New South Wales claimed exclusive right to the use of Murray River water with overbearing possessiveness. Even downstream use of water in South Australia, which at that time was and still is geographically irrelevant to New South Wales water use, was jealously guarded, as a letter from Sir Henry Parkes, the New South Wales Premier, to the South Australian Government indicated in 1890. I quote from that letter to show how jealously that water was guarded. In 1890 Sir Henry Parkes said:

We are of course fully aware that the Murray River from the point where it enters your territory belongs to South Australia. I desire however to intimate that it is held by this Government that South Australia cannot use the waters to such unreasonable extent as would interfere with the normal level of the river without committing a breach of intercolonial obligations.

I think all attempts by South Australia to negotiate the issue with New South Wales were resisted for many years. In 1914 the River Murray Waters Agreement was finally signed. There have been a large number of amendments to that Agreement since that time. Many would argue that the conflict over the use of the waters of the River Murray in fact heightened the rate at which we achieved Federation.

That Agreement created the River Murray Commission with limited powers to implement water sharing agreements between the States. Since that time the problem of water quality-in particular the concern over the increasing levels of water salinity-has grown. Those water quality concerns in South Australia instigated a review of the 1914 agreement. That review, which was undertaken in 1973, was called for by the then Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam. Ten years later the River Murray Waters Bill which is before this Parliament formulates a new Agreement which, to a very much greater degree, directly addresses the issue of water quality in the Murray, its tributaries and the River Murray Commission' s storages. The River Murray Commission will hold responsibility for the monitoring of the quality of the water in the Murray.

As honourable members very much agree that the new Agreement is long overdue, I know from listening to the debate this afternoon that many honourable members have argued that the Agreement should be much stronger and the role of the Commonwealth much firmer. I think there is no doubt that the Agreement before us will provide a much needed context for the development of effective and long term water management strategies. Drought has shown the vital importance of water conservation, and the ever-widening effects of salinity demand urgent attention to agreed water quality objectives and land development water requirements. But most importantly this Agreement will ensure a greater equity in the distribution of water resources between the States.

In light of the extensive and shared use of the river's resources, it is obviously relevant to consider the Murray-Darling river system as a whole. To restrict our focus to the main stem of the River Murray ignores the vital contribution of its tributaries to the water quality and quantity of that region . In New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia usage of water from the Murray-Darling system is widespread and substantial-a point made by previous speakers this afternoon. Figures from 1981-82 show that New South Wales consumed 5,721 gigalitres of Murray-Darling water; Victoria consumed 3,661 gigalitres; and South Australia used 519 gigalitres for irrigation, domestic and industrial purposes. All in all, each of the three States is significantly dependent on the Murray-Darling river system for water for domestic, industrial and agricultural puroses.

I should also take this opportunity to highlight the national water resources program initiative announced by the Treasurer (Mr Keating) in last night's Budget. In 1983-84, $46m will be allocated via this program to the States for approved projects. That is a welcome increase of more than 19 per cent on the actual expenditure of 1982-83 under the previous Government. I have listened to the honourable member for Mallee (Mr Fisher) claim that the increase is considerably smaller than that on the allocation of last year. But I think it is pertinent to point out that what is relevant is the amount that is there for spending. I have no doubt that amount will be spent and that we will see an increase in effective Commonwealth contributions to water programs in excess of 19 per cent. I think that one of the reasons, of course, that the previous Federal Government underspent to such a degree under the previous national water resources program was that through its policies it starved the States of vital funds over a period of years. In many cases the States simply did not have the funding to come up with the appropriate level of financial support for the projects. I shall also add that the $2.5m allocation to the Murray Valley salinity and drainage program will very much strengthen the Murray Valley region 's determined campaign to halt the salt and will greatly assist in developing effective drainage strategies.

In my own electorate of Bendigo and, of course, in adjacent areas, the development of adequate water resources has been of paramount concern for some time. In particular, local efforts have been made towards securing the Wimmera- Mallee pipeline to enable more efficient distribution of existing water resources and to boost supply to under-resourced areas. While I agree entirely with the remarks made by the honourable member for Mallee in terms of the importance of this project to the people throughout north central Victoria, I take exception to his remark that it is a deliberate policy of this Government to scrap that pipeline proposal. I think it is clear to all honourable members that the money for the so-called supplementary water program that was introduced by the previous Government to the value of $300m and which was announced by the then Prime Minister in January simply was not there to be spent.


Mr Jacobi —It was a political gimmick.


Mr BRUMBY —The honourable member has indicated that it was a political gimmick. I think that is probably a fair way to describe the program that was introduced in a Press release by the then Prime Minister on 23 January, six weeks before the Federal election campaign in which the Liberal and National parties were so seriously decimated by the people of Australia. Although the previous Government set aside $200m for its five-year national water resources program, the simple fact is that with less than a year of that program to run only slightly more than half the actual money allocated had been spent by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth simply did not have the initiative or the money to spend on that program, let alone announce an additional program to the value of $300m on 23 January-as I said, six weeks before the election-with, of course, projects being targeted under that program to seats of political sensitivity which would assist the then Government.

This Government has had to make decisions in the light of fiscal responsibility . The Budget announced last night represents the approach that has been taken by the Government. It is a sound approach to economic management. It lays the groundwork for sustained economic growth. With that growth the Government will be in a position to provide additional and vastly increased resources for projects in the future. I certainly hope that one of the projects which will be eligible for funding will be the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline. I have certainly pursued funding for that program vigorously with the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Walsh). Only two weeks ago I was in Canberra with a deputation of members of the pipeline committee in an endeavour to speed up funding for the project. The Labor Government in Victoria recently allocated $450,000 for a full feasibility study of that project. The Federal Government will be reconsidering its position on the basis of that study.

In concluding, I again express my approval for what I see as the very positive and long overdue provision of the new River Murray Waters Bill. Water quality monitoring, environmental protection, flood control and recreational uses are all-important river management concerns which may be addressed by the new terms of the River Murray Waters Agreement. Notwithstanding the positive measures set out in the Agreement, the River Murray Commission's new responsibility in water quality control will of course require even greater co-operation between the States and management of the river system. While the States will have greater equity in the allocation of River Murray resources, most of the diverse activities in the enormous catchment area of the Murray are under State control. No doubt, different interests tied to different activity bases in each State will, on occasions, emerge.

Therefore, I welcome the assurance from the Minister for Science and Technology (Mr Barry Jones) in his second reading speech that this Government will maintain a very close interest in the implementation of the new Agreement and, if need be , approach the three States regarding means of strengthening that Agreement. Large parts of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales will benefit from the Agreement. I hope that in the future, when funding is provided for the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline, that project will be able to utilise the very valuable water from the Murray. As the Minister has noted, this agreement-as was the case with its predecessor-depends very much on the good will of the contracting parties for its success. I am confident that with Labor governments in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales goodwill will be forthcoming. I commend the Bill to the House.