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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —I now welcome representatives of the Murray River Group of Councils and the Greater Shepparton City Council to today’s hearing. Do you have any comment to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Councillor Cox —I am the Chairman of the Murray River Group of Councils.

CHAIR —Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have received your submission and we thank you for it. Is there any other additional material that you would like to present, or would you like to make some opening statements and then be questioned by the committee?

Councillor Cox —I think we will make an opening statement and go through a document we have in front of us, and go from there.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Councillor Cox —Firstly, I welcome you, in view of your busy schedule, Mr Chairman, and that of the committee, and thank you for rescheduling this meeting; we know that the previous one was postponed. The Murray River Group of Councils consists of Mildura, Swan Hill, Loddon, Gannawarra—and I would like to acknowledge the Mayor of Gannawarra, Max Fehring, who is here today, and the chief executive officer, Rosanne Kava—Campaspe and Moira. On this very important issue, the City of Greater Shepparton has joined forces with us.

Just to give you a bit of a snapshot, Mr Chairman, the total population of this group is 209,000 people, the area is just on 50,000 square kilometres and our unemployment rate in that whole body is about 5.1 per cent. Our economic figures are about $8 billion for the region, which is for quite a significant part of northern Victoria, and we have 1,100 kilometres of frontage to the Murray River.

The Murray River Group of Councils is extremely concerned about the need for a plan to be developed in the context of a vision for the Murray-Darling Basin as a whole, and I will touch on the vision a bit later. The core issues that we see are: environmental issues being placed ahead of people; the Guide to the proposed Basin Plan placing little consideration on the drastic effects that proposed cuts to water allocations would have on communities; the social and economic impact assessments being made on large-scale unrealistic models, not on rural small communities; water savings already achieved through improved infrastructure, innovation and sustainable farming practices not being adequately recognised—and we see that as a big one.

All of the above have placed additional stress on communities already vulnerable from years of drought. Considering that this Guide to the proposed Basin Plan has been drawn up basically during a drought period, with the resultant mental stress that has placed on our communities, an announcement of additional research into social and economic impacts commissioned by the authority is welcomed. However, this should have been addressed prior to the development and the issue of the guide. Finally, while the authority has urged that the science be challenged, the community and even local government are not well positioned to do this.

The group asks, as a group—and we have a couple of add-ons to this as well, Mr Chairman—that the authority acknowledge the impact the plan will have on our rural communities. Social and economic impacts on the community relating to the proposed sustainable diversion limits should be clearly identified and included in the proposed draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Water savings already achieved through improved infrastructure, innovation and sustainable farming practices should be recognised as contributing to improved environmental flows and included in the calculation of any sustainable diversion limits. Innovative infrastructure and practices should be used to manage environmental assets and deliver environmental flows aimed at achieving the required outcomes for the environment with the least amount of water necessary, thus minimising the need for buyback schemes.

The authority should recommend to government that water buyback schemes be strategically planned and conducted so as not to disadvantage remaining farmers and irrigators. This requires strategic coordination with local government planning, schemes, irrigation system investment and water buyback programs. The authority should commit to establishing a consultative process that rebuilds community involvement and ownership of the outcome through the process, and a process that affirms that the science be established that involves state government departments and catchment management authorities in particular. This should leverage and integrate work done to date, such as the northern Victoria sustainable water strategy—and we have a copy of that here.

Just on that last one, the northern Victorian sustainable water strategy: as a community, we were not happy about the outcome, but at least we were part of the process to get to it. I can say that, as a community, we are probably 80 per cent happy. So it is a lot different from just getting a plan or a guide to a plan that is just dumped on us and being told, ‘This is what you’re going to have to put up with.’

On a couple of the other issues, I do have a bit of a solution to all of this, as a government, but I would like to think that there is an overall vision for the future by state, federal and local governments. What is the vision for the future of the federal government for the Murray-Darling Basin? What do they want to see or what do they want the community to be left with? That has to be a coordinated approach.

As a group, we do not want to see any short-term political gain for basically long-term community pain. We all know that we are short term in our roles here, but the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin are certainly going to be here long after we are gone. So we want a plan that is going to be a plan for our future.

Food security has probably been touched on everywhere you go. With recent world events, it is critical to note that, as the Murray-Darling Basin, we are a food supplier to the world. Support our industries and our being a green and clean environment and we will have a wonderful future, instead of relying on imports that we have no control over as a community. If we just have to say yes or no at the supermarket shelf, at the end of the day, we do not know what conditions crops are grown under or anything like that.

I have two last points. Basically, as a group we think that a new process should be started altogether, after the first plan to release the guide to the plan has been such a disaster. Start all over again. What is the hurry? This is for the future of the Murray-Darling Basin. As I have said, there is no short-term fix for this. Finally, as a group, prime irrigation areas that do have a future within the basin should be recognised—I am sorry but some areas are in prime irrigation areas. Funnel the resources into those areas and adequately compensate the areas that will be left out of the loop so that everybody walks away with pride and dignity. Those opportunities are there and available. Perhaps my colleague Councillor Neil Pankhurst, the Mayor of Campaspe, would like to make some comments.

Councillor Pankhurst —Thank you, Councillor Cox. I would like to reinforce a couple of points—Councillor Cox’s comments about making sure that we get it right. I think the rain in recent months gives us the opportunity now, with full storages, to make sure that we have the settings right for the plan. It is not that long ago that people were saying that the rains that we have seen in the last six months were never going to happen again and storages were never going to get water in them again; someone upstairs obviously knows more about it than we do. I think we need to take that opportunity, since having those rains, to make sure that we have got the settings for the plan right.

It is no accident that the investment that has occurred in northern Victoria has happened, particularly in manufacturing and on farm as well. It is a fantastic area for producing food—and good quality, clean food. As Councillor Cox mentioned, we need to make sure that, for the good of all in the country, we protect the economic benefit that is generated in the region. We have manufacturers up here in northern Victoria. Murray Goulburn is one; it is the largest containerised exporter out of the port of Melbourne. It is big business and it is very important to the whole of the country, so we need to make sure that we are getting that right.

Another thing with the removal of water from the area: it is not just the impact that it has on individual businesses but also the sustainability of local government. Obviously, as water is taken away from the area, it reduces the value of land. Local government relies on that rate base for generating income, and it is difficult enough already for local government to generate the funds required. So, if we are doing things that will impact and make it more difficult, it is obviously a concern to local government as well.

CHAIR —Gary or Keith, do you want to comment? Just bear in mind that we only have a short period of time in which to ask questions.

Mr Arnold —I am happy to answer questions.

CHAIR —I have a question and I am sure that others have questions as well. Just in terms of ‘getting the settings right’, what do you actually mean by that? We are getting mixed messages, in a sense. In some areas we get the feeling that, if nothing happens to the entitlements but the river health improves, everything will be okay. Mr Mayor, you suggested a moment ago that some people are identifying other areas that are less sustainable and that those communities should be impacted for the greater good of other communities. What do you actually mean by ‘getting the settings right’?

Councillor Pankhurst —I was saying that obviously the plan is being developed to restore the health of the environment and there has been a range of figures bandied about as to how much water the environment actually needs. My point, in making the comment about people saying that it was never going to rain again and there was not going to be the water in the system to provide a healthy environment, was this. We have had these rains and significant flood events since September. I feel that we need to make sure that the water is being identified as needed for the environment. The plan was developed during a drought period when there was very little water for the environment. So, given the fact that natural events will still occur, we would need to make sure that the water that we are seeking to get back for the environment is actually needed.

Mr Baillie —Related to that is a systemic issue that the committee might want to reflect on: we need to make sure that the environmental needs are well understood, and there is the premise that environmental works and management techniques should be exhausted before any water is taken from irrigators. So the systemic issue is: how will that be affirmed? How will we know that the environmental works have been exhausted? I think that knowledge is in the states and in the catchment management authorities. How, between them, will the Commonwealth and the states collaborate so that all of that subject expertise is brought to bear in a way that affirms for the community that that has occurred? It is going to be very difficult to get the state departments and the Commonwealth to be on the same page. But I think that is required; otherwise the community will not have the confidence that all of the environmental works have been exhausted.

CHAIR —Questions?

Mr ZAPPIA —Thank you, gentlemen; thank you for your submission. My question to you is: does the region that you represent have a coordinated infrastructure needs plan that you believe would add security and certainty to the future prosperity of your region?

Councillor Cox —No, we have not.

Mr Arnold —Our Murray River Group of Councils covers two regions in Victoria. In the case of Moira, our council has been part of the development of the Hume regional plan. Similarly, Campaspe and the remaining councils in the Murray River Group of Councils have been part of the Loddon regional plan. So the short answer is: yes, we do, and those plans are available.

Mr Baillie —On the question about the regional strategic plans, we should avoid the temptation of saying, ‘If we are provided with this infrastructure or this grant or whatever, everything is going to be okay.’ We are not at that point yet. We first want to have confidence that all that can be done has been done by way of achieving the environmental outcomes without taking water away. We do not want to jump to: ‘What can we have to offset the benefit?’ We want to make sure that all that can be done has been done first. Yes, the regional strategic plans outline how we can make our communities more resilient through different infrastructure solutions, and that is fine, but I would advocate that we are not at that point yet.

Dr STONE —Of course, the areas that you are covering include some of the most important Ramsar listed wetlands in the Murray-Darling—for example, Barmah and Millewa forests and Gunbower in your immediate neighbourhood—and they have had environmental flows committed to them for a very long time. Also, there is some evidence that those environmental flows have not been managed as best they could—for example, the blackwater event, which is also to do with cold burns and vegetation management in those big forests and, indeed, the management of the forests themselves. Do you have any observations as councils about what additional works and measures might be introduced which would make better use of environmental flows—there are hundreds of gigalitres already committed to those areas—or different management regimes which would give us some additional environmental flow advantage rather than having to reach for more environmental flows through something like non-strategic buybacks?

Councillor Pankhurst —It is in the development of the plan and the management of the environmental water. Obviously, if you are doing things artificially it would certainly be more preferable to do them in a mechanised way, I guess. There is a lot talk about overbank flows, but I think that would raise a great deal of concern within the communities about how you manage a flood event like that. Certainly, where we want to artificially manage a flood event in a wetland, it needs to be done in a way that is not putting the rest of the community at risk.

Mr Baillie —I think it goes to the question I touched on earlier about the system and the systemic solution to bring all of the subject expertise to bear to exhaust the environmental solutions. I think the community does not really draw a distinction between local, state and Commonwealth governments, to be honest. They view government as government and their expectation would be that we would work seamlessly to deploy all the knowledge we have to the solution. The knowledge we have on this in the environmental space is in the state governments and the CMAs, and they need to exhaust that knowledge.

Dr STONE —Tony asked about planning before. We have the NVIRP, the Northern Victorian Irrigation Renewal Project, in its third year. It is running along in parallel with the Commonwealth non-strategic buyback. Can you make any comments about how that is operating on the ground and whether you see that as a particular issue? Can you comment on the impacts of that on community expectations and particularly their sense of the future? You mentioned non-strategic buyback in your submission but what about the actual impacts on the ground in that big Goulburn-Murray irrigation system? What has the non-strategic buyback done on top of the drought and other low priced commodity issues?

Councillor Cox —If we get on to the low priced commodity issues, we will be here all day. With NVIRP, you have to give credit where it is due. To the federal governments of any political persuasion: it is a great project that is going to further enhance the irrigation development. I do not want to be an irrigation farmer and turn around and have a system that is not going to have probably the potential—

Dr STONE —But what is happening regarding the integration? You have these parallel things happening.

Councillor Pankhurst —The problem with the integration is that NVIRP is operating in a fairly short time frame and NVIRP is an entity that has been established to undertake the modernisation works and once it is done that entity will no longer exist. The concern at grassroots level is with the way that process has been undertaken. There are certainly benefits to be seen from the work that is there, and an efficient and modern system is good, but it has to be sustainable and be a system that farmers can afford to use. Certainly, I do not think there is enough strategic work being done at the moment in the process to make sure that it is happening not just in parallel but also in connection to the other events that are happening in regard to getting water back for the environment.

Mr Baillie —Across the state of Victoria, there is a trend going on for councils doing strategic land use planning in relation to farming land; our shires are at the forefront of that in Victoria. Based on that, it heavily uses land use capability and the placement of irrigation infrastructure to determine the appropriate density, whether dwellings should be there and the appropriate use of farming land. It is fundamental to our future economies to get this right.

Theoretically, the placement of irrigation infrastructure should be based on the same things. So what you need is an alignment between investment in irrigation infrastructure and the local governments’ planning schemes, and to get those lined up is the goal. I think an excellent outcome would be further schemes and investments to assist local government to get that planning scheme right and then to coordinate that with investments in infrastructure. That means you would get it aligned.

With NVIRP, it started out perhaps a little unaligned or misaligned but after six months we worked with them and we are on the same page as to where things should be. That will need to be the case with different areas, as they are upgraded with irrigation infrastructure. It can be done. The Campaspe irrigation district is going through major change where there is an alignment between where irrigation systems should be and a land use capability. It is very difficult for some farmers, but the majority overall voted in favour of the decommissioning of that scheme. So I would argue that it can be done.

Mr Arnold —In terms of the integration component of Sharman’s question, the observation that we have made in local government is that there does not appear to be any integration. A case in point in the western part of the Moira shire is that the first that we knew about properties being acquired through the non-strategic buyback by the federal government was when the houses were left vacant. When you speak with NVIRP, as I have personally, I have yet to come across confirmation that there has been prior discussion on any targeting at all with the water buybacks, which is why we have been critical in our submission. The integration is lacking.

CHAIR —Are there any further questions? There being no further questions, are there any final comments, gentlemen? What is the take-home message?

Councillor Cox —The take-home message, I believe, is that we want to make sure that we have a secure, sustainable farming area in the Murray-Darling Basin. It needs to be a vision of federal, state and local government for our communities. The people of the basin who actually live, work and breathe in the basin do not want to be told what to do by people who have far greater interests outside the basin. We live, work and breathe in the basin and we want to have a greater say in our community and in our future.

CHAIR —I will throw a final question out there: would you rather this whole thing went away and you just go back to a state based allocation process?

Councillor Cox —That is a good question because you could probably turn the clock back 100-odd years and nothing has changed. We are still arguing over water with South Australia, New South Wales, ACT and Queensland, which happened in the late 1800s. The difficulty that I have as a mayor is that, with people today—and we are all in the same boat; we are supposed to be so much better educated and know all about what our neighbours and everybody get up to—there is still this hint of jealousy about what I have and what somebody else need not have.

There is no Australian-ness about this plan at all. It is not looking after your mates. It is not all coming together for a common goal. We see that minority groups that have the money, the power and the ear to you and to your committee and to federal governments are having too much political clout. And the rest of us are up in the back paddock farming. We are in our local communities trying to battle on, and this is just one issue we have in local government. We have local government running, as you would realise, everywhere and anywhere. So we just see this as of critical importance to our future and we want a greater say in the future of our basin as local government—and do not listen so much to the minority groups. I will go back to it: I believe that for the future of the basin a whole new process needs to start. I really firmly believe that.

Councillor Pankhurst —In closing, as a Victorian irrigator, a direct answer to your question would be that, given Victoria’s historic ability to manage water, it would be very easy to answer yes to that question.

CHAIR —Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you for coming. There will be a transcript of the evidence. If you have any other contributions that you would like the committee to have, please let us know.

[12.39 pm]