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Water Amendment Bill 2008

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Pattison —I am the irrigation spokesperson for Plug the Pipe, and we come here in that capacity.

CHAIR —Thank you. Mr Pattison or Mr Harrison, do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Pattison —I would, Chair. Thank you very much for your indulgence in allowing us to come and present some further evidence here. I also thank the committee for its comments in the findings it made in its previous inquiry into the Coorong. Clearly, through all the reports and your questioning of the witnesses here today, you are well aware of and are attempting to tease out this issue of 75 gigalitres leaving the Murray-Darling Basin.

We are not encumbered by any job security or job future other than going home to our farms and hoping we have a future there with irrigated agriculture. We have exhaustively examined the issue of where the savings are coming from and have provided you with a copy of our PowerPoint presentation. I will ask Chris Harrison to run through those graphs briefly. We say that they are substantiation documentation of what we presented to your committee a month and a half ago. They clearly demonstrate that the ability to save this water is not there. I will ask Chris Harrison to explain those graphs and the amount of resource that is promised out of all this food bowl procedure.

Mr Harrison —Firstly, as the print-outs are very difficult to read, I might just speak about them briefly. In Victoria itself, there are currently 520 gigalitres of water-savings projects for funding. Some of those have been directed towards the Living Murray, the Snowy Rivers and, just recently, the food bowl modernisation projects.

To cut things fairly short, in 2006, 545 gigalitres of water were lost from the whole irrigation system. Clearly, the target savings do not match up in that year. You would have to say that basically 100 per cent of it was lost. In 2007, the situation worsened even further; only 380 gigalitres of water was lost in total from the irrigation systems of the food bowl—and again I remind you that the total targets for irrigation savings are 520 gigalitres. This year we expect the total water loss from the Goulburn Murray Irrigation Systems to be down at below 300 gigalitres.

It has been interesting to hear people here, today, talk about averages that may not be applicable over the longer period or from one area to the next. But, in essence, the basis from which the Victorian government has derived its target water savings is fundamentally flawed, because it has used targets that no longer exist.

I will wind up very quickly. One of the things that have occurred over the last 20 years out of these districts is water trade. In effect, we have lost from GMW 1½ irrigation districts. Water well over 200 gigalitres has left our system and been sold to other districts, which has further reduced the ability to actually save this water. In essence, with a decline having occurred in the resource because of drought and the sale of water entitlements, it is just ludicrous to think that the water savings plans are able to meet targets that were based previously on 115-year computer-generated averages.

CHAIR —Thank you. We will go to questions.

Senator XENOPHON —Can I ask either or both of you about the process of your comments as to the rigour or otherwise of the Victorian government’s process in determining that there would be water savings with this pipeline? Firstly, could you comment on that briefly? Secondly, if you are not happy with that process, what processes would you like to see to determine the extent or otherwise of any savings?

Mr Pattison —We regard the rigour attached to the so-called qualifications of the savings as being highly suspect. We are well aware of the figures being doctored and manipulated. Even in the annual report released last week, they are claiming savings from part of the use of the return flows to the Goulburn River. As far as concerns the environment and irrigators, clearly food and fibre production is being targeted so that this water can go to Melbourne. It is difficult to find independent people, because all the names that you can think of are engaged in these various projects.

Senator XENOPHON —Surely there must be an independent process though to determine—

Mr Pattison —In fact, Professor Young referred to the possible independence of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, as it currently exists. But the ground rules that you put on the audit of these savings are essential. The rules for the audit are such that you know the answer before you start. If the return flows to the river, the spillovers from one channel to another and all these things that are giving core savings are not correctly identified as being depletion or non-depletion losses to the system, you will have water being taken away for this pipeline.

Senator NASH —In your view, what is the impact on communities of taking that water out of the basin, through the pipeline, down to Melbourne?

Mr Pattison —A massive social impact is occurring because of the drought. Everyone does not necessarily agree with what a government does; but, given the severity of the drought and the allocations in the Goulburn system of 14 per cent, there is a social implication now. However, the social implication goes much further than that because our graphs show that the trade out of our gravity irrigation districts is at four per cent and Minister Wong strongly suggests that she will not provide moneys to the state unless that is lifted to six per cent. If you shift water from the gravity irrigation districts and trade it out permanently, it is impossible to make a saving on a megalitre of water that is no longer delivered into that district. In fact, as shown by low-allocation years, the efficiency of the district drops. You cannot lift it up to make the savings.

So there are social implications of this massive buyback. Professor Young has said that you really have to sort one thing out from the other. Senator Heffernan has indicated clearly that you are likely to throw away a massive amount of money if you modernise a system and find that the water has been traded away by government buybacks or traded out of the district. The proposal that the Victorian government is putting forward is flawed and needs to be addressed by amendments, and it is not for me to know what the amendments would be. But Professor Young, in carefully putting his answer, said that it was not good enough. Your committee, in its findings, has virtually indicated that it is not good enough, and that is the challenge that I know a lot of people are working on.

Minister Garrett, in the four paragraphs of his reasons, says that Minister Wong questions the validity of the savings. The majority report questions the validity of taking the water out of the Murray-Darling Basin at this time. The Auditor-General absolutely bucketed the diligence of the savings. We can provide masses of information, if you want it—although we cannot do it here and now—that says what is going on is a charade.

So we would like to see you make recommendations that, before the bill is passed, you get these provisions right so that the Murray-Darling Basin, under the Commonwealth Water Act, moves forward in the way that is so desperately needed; we do not dispute that. But we do dispute that this project is flawed and there are other options that they should pursue. We would like to see Minister Garrett call the food bowl project in—in his reasons, he says that it is a separate part—and that the pipeline works be stopped while this is done.

Senator NASH —Would you say that, even if there were water savings to be found, it would be more appropriate to keep those within the basin rather than to pump them out to Melbourne, given the nature of all the work—indeed, this entire bill is predicated on it—that has been done in trying to make the basin sustainable?

Mr Pattison —Clearly, the river needs 700 gigalitres of water just to get the first megalitre across the border into South Australia. It will be required to be taken either from environmental ‘run of the river’ flows or off irrigators. Of course, there will be some savings. If you throw enough money at something, you can get something out at the other end. Any savings that are made, we would say, would be far better left in the Murray-Darling Basin for the health of that basin. Haven’t we gone far enough down the track in the development of this country to draw a line in the sand—which is what you are trying to do with this Commonwealth act—to say, ‘There are better ways for Melbourne to get its water; we really have to address the issues of the Murray-Darling Basin and the future of the communities and the environment of that basin.’

Senator McGAURAN —Can you explain what is on your second slide? Is that state government money towards water savings?

Mr Harrison —Yes. ‘Central Goulburn 1234’ refers to a channel, which is in one of the businesses of Goulburn Murray Water, in the central Goulburn area. That program, known as total channel control, was created I think about four years ago.

Mr Pattison —Yes.

Mr Harrison —The water savings for that are to be taken by the Living Murray.

Mr Pattison —The Living Murray and the Snowy Initiative. Funding commitments have been given already from the Commonwealth and from New South Wales. They are to be kept in the Eildon Reservoir to run the pipe in the first year. They cannot even make sufficient savings to meet the pipe.

Senator McGAURAN —So these are previous government savings that have been completed.

Mr Pattison —That is right. Another 25 gigalitres of reconfiguration, a $50 million project, has been committed already to the Living Murray initiative.

Senator McGAURAN —Completed or committed?

Mr Harrison —No, it has not been completed yet.

Mr Pattison —Not completed, no.

Mr Harrison —Shepparton Modernisation for about $200 million is generating 52 gigalitres. That is also an environmental program funded by the Living Murray and the Snowy. GMW Reconfiguration, a program that is about four years old, is generating 25 gigalitres also for the Living Murray savings. Essentially, on that chart, about 270 gigalitres out of the 519 gigalitres are directed towards environmental flows. The key issue that we have is that, if these targets cannot be achieved, a decision will have to be made as to who get the water savings that exist; that is one of our essential arguments. On our calculations, we believe there will be a net loss to the environment and to irrigators as a result of Melbourne’s involvement.

Senator XENOPHON —You have made reference to your calculations and the work that you have done on this. Would it be possible for you to provide those to the committee as a matter of some urgency?

Mr Harrison —Yes.

Senator XENOPHON —Obviously, I do not want hundreds of pages but just relevant calculations and the basis on which you have made those calculations.

Mr Pattison —We can substantiate those graphs. We have tried to put the graphs in a—

Senator XENOPHON —But perhaps you could provide it in the form of a written document with any of material—

Mr Pattison —Yes.

Mr Harrison —Yes.

Senator McGAURAN —You are a very high-profile group in Victoria and you have had some high-profile clashes with the state government. Has the state government, if you like, come back into your area with some sort of salesmanship or propaganda to try to sell the project?

Mr Pattison —The state government has actually spent millions of dollars in attempting to promote the benefits of this win-win-win outcome, where 75 gigalitres will be available out of the Victorian Food Bowl Modernisation Project. They have gone to ordinary lengths to try to sell this. Tragically, the seasons and so on have just continued to deteriorate and more and more people, even Melbourne people, are beginning to realise there is a crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin. It has become a news item and anyone who is thinking about it is saying, ‘Well, really this is not a good idea.’ So the government have come back at us, and we do not want to fight with the government. I have asked to see Senator Wong and Mr Garrett. We are prepared to work with the government of the day. That is what people elect—

Senator McGAURAN —Will they see you?

Mr Pattison —I do not know. We drove up last night, we are here now and we will be going home Friday. So, if anyone can help us there, we would appreciate it.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Have you met with either of them before?

Mr Pattison —No.

Senator WILLIAMS —Would you request to meet with the—

CHAIR —Senators! Mr Pattison, we hear what you are saying and I am sure there will be voices out there listening. We do not have to go into a political—

Mr Pattison —No.

CHAIR —Not you. I do not think we need to waste the committee’s time on senators having a political kick-fest. Senator McGauran, you were half way through your question.

Senator FISHER —Yes, get back to your question.

CHAIR —Senator Fisher, I do not need smart comments like that, while we have a nice lid on it and everyone is happy and we will get through on time.

Senator McGAURAN —I raised that issue of the propaganda war against you, because it is quite obvious from the language used by the Premier down there that he greatly dislikes you and is attempting to intimidate your group. Would you say that is correct?

Mr Pattison —I am getting into Professor Young’s area now and I acknowledge the chair’s report. We have had huge things mounted against us. We come up at our own expense and we appreciated the committee’s help last time. We are voluntary people, working because we believe this decision is fundamentally wrong. We have provided evidence to this committee that we believe demonstrates that—

Senator McGAURAN —Are you getting support from farming groups, such as the NFF and so on?

CHAIR —I am sorry, Mr Pattison and Senator McGauran, but we have to go to a division in the chamber.

Proceedings suspended from 5.20 pm to 5.30 pm

CHAIR —I do apologise, Mr Pattison and Mr Harrison. You were halfway through answering a question, and I am relying on your great memory to remember who you were answering the question to.

Senator McGAURAN —I was just painting the background that this is a voluntary group, a David, if you like, against the state, a Goliath; the state has definitely got it in for this particular group. As you have said in a previous answer, the state is waging a propaganda war against you. I guess my question in a nutshell is: are the local councils and farming groups supportive of your group?

Mr Pattison —VFF policy is totally opposed to the pipeline going from the Murray-Darling Basin to Melbourne. Seventy per cent of councils in the Local Government Association have not supported the pipeline in the forum in which they meet. Two polls in the largest newspapers, the Herald Sun and the Age, both recorded a 95 per cent objection to the pipeline proposal taking water out of the Murray-Darling Basin. We have to resort to many, if you like, stunts to get publicity and media attention. We are here today presenting you with what we say are the facts. We would hope that the committee would go away and say, ‘These people have come to us with these graphs and charts that are just going down. They say that the savings cannot be achieved.’ I would like the committee to ask those from whom you can get this information whether we are right or wrong.

We believe 100 per cent that we are right. We have worked on figures that are available in the annual reports of the water authority. We are familiar with the process that they are going through to modernise and attempt to make these savings. Guardedly, Professor Mike Young, in answering a question from you, said that you have to take it off somebody else, because water in the hydrological cycle, unless it is flowing into the sea, is not lost. It is used in one form or another, and we sure know that it is not running into the sea. We think this bill and having a National Water Initiative is a huge step forward. What we are saying is, ‘Don’t spoil that initiative by not having the resolve to get this issue right, as we said last time we were here, at this 12th hour.’ You need to get around this issue.

You are asking these questions continually of all the witnesses—and I know that you are uncomfortable with this. We have to get above politics. This is the Murray-Darling Basin and we have to get a better outcome. Really what we have come here to tell you is: work this through and get the answers. What happens if the bill does not get passed in the last week of the sitting? Unless it rains a torrent, everything else will continue on. There is no water out there today. Unless the Commonwealth government buys water on the temporary trading market and decides to put it down the river into the Coorong, there will be no water. You can buy all the entitlements in the world. There is the Goldfields super pipe. They bought their water entitlement and what do they have? They have 14 per cent, which is exactly the same as me. They had to go into the temporary water market and buy water out of the Murrumbidgee system, which will be supplied from the Goulburn, to meet the needs of Bendigo. We do not wish to inflict suffering and hardship on the people of Bendigo. They are our communities. That is where I do my business and where my kids went to school; so we understand that. But that is an example of just buying entitlements; it does not necessarily get you the water when it is not there. So we are urging the committee to work through the bill and to stop the pipe, because we think it is fundamentally wrong at this stage of the development of this nation.

CHAIR —On that, Mr Pattison—and I think in all fairness to my colleagues on this committee—I would not like to let you walk out of this room thinking that we have the ability to stop the pipe. I think it would be very irresponsible of us to sit here nodding our heads while we let you go.

Senator McGAURAN —Mr Garrett does have some authority over the matter.

CHAIR —Excuse me, Senator McGauran. I would like to use the words of Mr Pattison: let us get above the politics.

Senator McGAURAN —We cannot avoid the politics, I am afraid.

CHAIR —Let us get above the politics. As chair of this committee, I think it is my duty to inform Mr Pattison that—

Senator McGAURAN —Will Mr Garrett see these people?

CHAIR —Senator McGauran, if you will let me finish, I will be happy to answer any question you may put to me, whether it is in this room or out in the hallway, for that matter. But, Mr Pattison and Mr Harrison, to let you walk out of here thinking we have that ability would be irresponsible. On that, we are going to try to stay above politics. When this has finished, I will be having a conversation with Mr Pattison and Mr Harrison about something else that has nothing to do with appearing here today.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Obviously, there is a gross and a net extraction and yours is a net extraction of 75 gigalitres. In the figuring that you have seen for the planning of the river, do they actually go to the gross figure, where something like 110 gigalitres would be the equivalent of getting the 75 net if you had the normal extraction with ‘return to the river’ system? Do they put that in the figuring? To get that 75 in the way they are getting it would be the equivalent of you on your farm pumping 110.

Mr Pattison —I think Professor Young answered that. When you put it down the pipe, it is just straight—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, I understand that. But, in the figuring that you have seen, does the government include that? I mean, I am aware of it.

Mr Harrison —The treatment of losses basically is quite simple. With the food bowl, anything that is not used as irrigation is treated as a loss or a potential saving.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But I am saying that this 75 gigalitres is probably the equivalent of 110 for food bowl purposes because there is no return to the system.

Mr Harrison —Yes, and that has not been figured at all.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The answer to that is that the bloody thing is flawed. Don’t nod; just say yes.

Mr Harrison —Yes.

Senator WILLIAMS —If this pipeline to Melbourne were plugged, what would be the situation in Melbourne? Would they survive without the water, as they have done for decade? What sort of predicament would that put Melbourne in?

Mr Harrison —Currently, Melbourne would have a 1½-year supply of water. So it would have to not rain a drop for a year and a half before Melbourne was deleted of water. In 1995, our dam was around 80 per cent full.

Senator WILLIAMS —Our dam?

Mr Pattison —The Eildon Dam.

Mr Harrison —The Eildon Dam, which is currently fully committed. We are going to have the lowest allocations for irrigators on record and the lowest environmental flows from its sources on record. Basically, we have nothing left.

Senator HEFFERNAN —If there is no rain until autumn and winter, aren’t you going to have a river failure?

Mr Harrison —Yes. We have failure now. Thirty per cent of the channels in the irrigation districts are set down—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Adelaide is going to get its water via emergency purposes around through the Murrumbidgee.

Mr Harrison —Yes. We are looking at a potential disaster of unimaginable proportions.

Senator NASH —Given the arguments that you have put forward, which certainly seem to be very valid, sound and reasonable, for why the pipeline should be stopped and not go ahead, why do you think you are not being listened to by the decision makers that have the ability to stop this going ahead?

Mr Pattison —The plan is part of a state water grid; that is my understanding of what the Victorian government is attempting to set up. There is the Goldfields Superpipe to Ballarat and Bendigo and there is the pipeline to Melbourne. In the future the government will be able to say, ‘We’ve set the infrastructure up; we don’t have to build another dam.’ If someone in Melbourne wants to buy a megalitre of water, they will go to Melbourne Water, come into the marketplace, buy a megalitre of water and deliver it. Coliban Water this very day is delivering water to Bendigo on behalf of the carwash firms of Bendigo. They have bought water and it is being delivered by the pipeline system to Bendigo to wash cars. That is just a simple example of how a grid will work, in our opinion.

Senator NASH —The second part of my question was: why do you think you are not being listened to?

Mr Pattison —A group of people in the Goulburn Valley saw this as a way of getting money for infrastructure. What they have not counted on is what we have shown you in the graphs: continuing trade at four per cent going to six per cent means that the resource is evaporating out of the system and our ability to make savings and generate efficiencies is being destroyed.

Mr Harrison —I would like to add something to that. I think we are not being listened to because water has become so political that any opposition to a plan is seen as a political rebuff. We are prepared to negotiate with anyone and we are prepared to save. But, in reality, we have no negotiation powers. We are just a group that says, ‘Hey, this is fundamentally wrong; you should really look at this. There is great suffering out in the country and this will cause substantial environmental impacts.’ Water is highly political and we just cannot get good outcomes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —With the suffering that exists in virtually every irrigation district throughout the basin and also in the environmental resources of the basin, do you think there is any justification for any additional urban centre to be attached to any part of the basin in terms of its water supply?

Mr Harrison —I think Melbourne has other options. It recycles little and has stormwater harvesting and many, many other options. This is about taking water out of a highly stressed system like the Murray-Darling Basin when it is facing its worst time almost ever in human history. The effect of that will be environmental, social and agricultural. Seventy-five gigalitres might not sound like a lot of water in terms of the total that is available to irrigators, but this year it will be a massive percentage relative to environmental flows—and that is the whole point. If it was really, really wet, it really would not matter too much; we would not even notice. But things have changed so fundamentally. In 1994, 190 per cent of water was allocated and that, I think, is over 200 megalitres.

Mr Pattison —Two thousand gigalitres.

Mr Harrison —Two thousand gigalitres. This year we will be down to hundreds of gigalitres in terms of its delivery. So the availability of the resource has just changed so much. That is really what has given the impetus for this national legislation to occur, because it is a really serious situation. I hope that answers your question.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The 100 gigalitres gross that the 75 net represents is 12½ per cent of the inflow last year.

Mr Harrison —Yes.

Mr Pattison —You have asked a lot of questions today about critical human needs. A previous finding of your committee was that attaching Melbourne to the Murray-Darling Basin will increase the commitment to critical human needs by 21 per cent. That is a staggering amount that you are asking the Murray-Darling Basin system to meet—because such needs are critical. I think Adelaide have demonstrated extremely well their harvesting of stormwater and their ground-water aquifer accessions. The Eastern Treatment Plant in Melbourne would provide 100 gigalitres a year and it could be fast-tracked and put in place into one of those Sylvan reservoirs. Even if it were used for secondary uses, it would free up potable water—and at a fraction of the cost. But it is not our role to tell Melbourne how to do it. We are trying to bring to the attention of the committee something that I believe you are aware of already, and that is how critical the situation of the Murray-Darling Basin is. We want a water act that will take politics out of it so an authority can get on with the work and try to sort out how we manage it better into the future.

Senator FISHER —My question follows on from your response to Senator Heffernan. You have scratched the human critical needs issue—I would argue—sore under this bill. Mr Pattison, you gave the example of the diversion of water for car washing. Do you think that is being characterised as critical human needs water?

Mr Pattison —It is an outcome.

Senator FISHER —It is a serious question.

Mr Pattison —It is an outcome of putting a water grid in and having a market facility that we are unable to compete with. We cannot and will not be able to compete with Melbourne. It does not matter what production we have in rural and regional Victoria or in the Lower Murray-Darling Basin; we will not be able to compete with Melbourne when water is short.

Senator FISHER —Do you think your needs are critical human needs?

Mr Pattison —My family’s critical human needs are exactly the same as—

Senator FISHER —Exactly. Do you think that your critical human needs, even to that extent and to that fundamental and necessary extent, will rank with those of others under the bill? Do you think bill looks after your family’s critical human needs?

Mr Pattison —It depends on whether there is an infrastructure system in place that will be there into the future for my family.

Senator FISHER —It does depend, doesn’t it? You cannot tell—

Mr Pattison —We have grave reservations about the infrastructure that our pioneers put there, in fact, being taken away.

Senator FISHER —The Goulburn to Melbourne pipeline could be used to continue to wash cars for so-called critical human need instead of looking after, for example, your family’s critical human needs. How will the bill stop that?

Mr Pattison —I have recognised your questions all day and, clearly, critical human needs are inside the house for basic human life.

Senator FISHER —You might think that but, if you can point me to that in the bill, you are doing well.

Mr Pattison —I think that is a process on the way through. As Professor Young said, I do think it has to be addressed. The bill is attempting to address that issue and that will be working—

Senator FISHER —Water is already being diverted for those purposes.

Mr Pattison —Absolutely.

Senator FISHER —Once diverted, it cannot be used by anything else.

Mr Pattison —The Victorian minister has the ability to call in and qualify rights under the Victorian Water Act. Melbourne could be excluded from any water from the pipeline, if they build it, but he will qualify rights and put the water down there anyway. There needs to be a better way and we will talk about that.

CHAIR —Mr Pattison and Mr Harrison, perhaps you could hang around for a little longer, please. We have appreciated your time; thank you very much.

[5.50 pm]