Senator NASH (New South Wales) (12:34 PM) —I rise today to make a contribution on the Water Amendment Bill 2008 and to indicate my generally broad support for the bill, noting of course that there is significant room for improvement with amendments. The bill itself amends the Water Act 2007—and it is interesting to note that the amendment bill itself runs to around 304 pages.
When the coalition was in government the National Plan for Water Security was put forward by this side of the chamber. The plan behind the National Plan for Water Security was essentially to invest in, not buy out, the Murray-Darling Basin. There was recognition of the need to have a single plan to govern the basin and make sure that arrangements within the basin were managed holistically.
The $10 billion plan that we had at that time looked at a range of measures moving towards a single basin plan. We were looking at a nationwide investment in irrigation infrastructure, including things like lining and piping major channels. We were looking at improving on-farm irrigation technology and metering. We were looking at the sharing of water savings between irrigators and the Commonwealth government. We were looking at the issue of addressing overallocation where it existed. We looked at new governance arrangements for the Murray-Darling Basin and a sustainable cap on surface and ground water use. We looked at an expanded role for the Bureau of Meteorology for the water data that is extremely necessary for farmers and irrigators to be able to plan for the future, a task force for Northern Australia and a completion of the restoration of the Great Artesian Basin.
The Water Amendment Bill 2008, as I said, amends the Water Act 2007. It is particularly important to note that one of the hallmarks of the national plan was consultation with industry and community in developing a way forward for the Murray-Darling Basin. It is very important to note that because we have not seen from this government that level and degree of consultation with the industry—with irrigators and farmers—and with the community to make sure that we get the future for water in the Murray-Darling Basin right. I place on record my recognition of the work done by John Anderson, the previous Leader of the Nationals and Deputy Prime Minister, towards water reform in this nation. It is something that has been noted in this place on a number of occasions, and I commend him for the work that he did.
During the recent inquiry of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport into the bill, it became very apparent that there were a number of issues of concern not only to the industry but also to associated groups and interested areas. There are a number of amendments that need to be adopted to improve the bill. There are a range of areas that I will talk about this afternoon, but one of the issues is the very important one of water efficiency. We certainly believe that targets need to be set to make sure that those water efficiency savings are there. We believe that the way to best make the basin sustainable is through those water efficiencies and through water savings.
What we have seen so far from the government is a focus on buyback. What they are completely focused on is the belief that buyback is the best way to return water to the basin. I think we even heard the Minister for Climate Change and Water say recently on Adelaide radio that the fastest way to return water to the rivers is to purchase it. That would seem to be an incorrect premise, because if we can get better water efficiency in the basin through the water utilisation that currently exists then that is what is going to return water to the basin most quickly. Our plan is to make sure that we assist not only with the irrigation infrastructure type arrangements, where we are looking at piping and lining channels, but also in an on-farm way. To do that, the government has to make sure that there is funding available to assist those irrigators with that infrastructure efficiency.
I have recently done a tour of the Murray-Darling Basin—from one end to the other—and I spoke to a lot of farmers and irrigators along the way. There have been some terrific on-farm innovations by farmers to improve their efficiency. We are talking to farmers who, through simple technology like linear move irrigation, can reduce water use and make their farms up to 30 per cent more efficient. If we can do that with the water that is currently available by providing financial assistance to implement those measures needed to improve efficiency on farm then that has to be the best way to return water to the basin. Through that process of government assistance—and irrigators were very much on side with this—there would be a share that would remain on farm and a share that would go back to the environment. I think anybody in this chamber can see that that is going to be the most efficient and quickest way to get water back into the basin. Certainly there is a role for buyback where necessary, but we disagree with the government’s view that that is the primary way and the best way to return water back into the basin.
It is interesting to note too, in terms of that water going back into the basin, the comparison that we can make here. In the initial $50 million buyback that the government undertook across the Murray-Darling Basin, it was initially announced that there would be 34,000 megalitres targeted in that process. Indeed, only at Senate estimates a few weeks ago did it become clear that only 22,000 megalitres were potentially going to be there as savings through the entitlement buyback. At that point, only 9,000 megalitres had actually got through onto the register. Of that amount, only 849 megalitres was real water, real allocation. The minister is saying that buyback is the fastest way to deliver water, yet that water is not going to be available for that allocation until it rains—until that water is there and can be allocated against that entitlement. Our very strong view is that water efficiency and water savings are important. Indeed, I think the Murray Irrigation Area have said that there is something like 300 gigalitres that they have identified that they could save if only the government would invest the money with them. I reiterate that these savings are not just on farm; they are going to go back to the environment through the investment in that infrastructure.
One issue that has been raised in terms of the savings that are being made in the basin is the north-south pipeline, which is being built to take water from the Murray-Darling Basin to Melbourne for urban water use. I raise this now because it contrasts directly with the real water savings—that 849 megalitres—that have already been made in the Murray-Darling Basin. We have recently had two inquiries looking into this issue. This was raised as part of the inquiry looking into this bill. The recommendation from coalition senators on both occasions was to stop the pipeline. We have this ludicrous situation of the pipeline being built to take water from the Murray-Darling Basin to Melbourne for urban water use. What we are looking at is 75,000 megalitres of real water a year being sucked out of the basin for urban water use in Melbourne. Melbourne, at the same time, is allowing something like 400 gigalitres in stormwater run-off to just disappear and is not doing anything to ensure its own sustainability as an urban capital. We are told that that 75,000 megalitres is going to come from savings from the food bowl and that those savings will deliver the water to Melbourne. Any water that is saved in the Murray-Darling Basin through water efficiencies and water savings should stay in the basin. Given the current state of the Murray-Darling Basin and all the work that is going towards ensuring the sustainability of basin, under no circumstances should water be taken out of the basin.
It is clearly stupid that we are looking at a bill that is designed to improve the situation for the future sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin when the government is allowing—Minister Garrett ticked it off under the EPBC Act—potentially 75,000 megalitres of water per year to be sucked out of the basin to go to Melbourne for its urban water use. The effect this is going to have, particularly on our rural and regional communities that are going to suffer as a result, is being completely disregarded by the government. Under no circumstances should that pipeline be allowed to continue to be built or to take water out of the basin.
Let us look at those two figures. To date, with all the investment and all the work that the government says it is putting into water savings in the Murray-Darling Basin, and with the importance of having sustainability, they have saved 849 megalitres of rural water so far. How much water is potentially coming out of the basin for Melbourne per year? Seventy-five thousand megalitres. It is hypocrisy for the government on the one hand to say that they are doing all they can to save the Murray-Darling Basin and on the other hand to do absolutely nothing to stop this pipeline—and this is against a background of talking about cooperative federalism with the states when they were all Labor. The fact that the government is standing by and watching this happen is ridiculous.
It is interesting to note that the Australian Conservation Foundation is extremely aware of this issue. I quote from Dr Arlene Buchan at the recent Senate inquiry into the issue of the pipeline:
You have the Murray-Darling Basin, which is on its knees, and there is a suggestion that they will move 75 gigs of water annually from the Goulburn district to Melbourne when Melbourne pumps about 400 gigs of water out to sea every year as wastewater. It is ridiculous. The basin is on its knees. Why would anyone propose moving water from a basin which is on its knees, away from communities and the environment which are stuffed, and send it to Melbourne, which can look after itself?
I think that very clearly puts forth the view of a lot of witnesses that we had appearing before the inquiry. There is no indication that the government has looked at the social and economic impact on those rural and regional communities that are going to suffer as a result of this pipeline going through.
This leads me to the broader issue of the impact of the potential reduction of water throughout those communities. We on this side of the chamber believe that there should be community impact statements done by the government to determine any effects that are going to happen as a result of their water buyback. The government is doing nothing to assess the potential social and economic impact on our rural and regional communities of removing water through the buyback process. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, it seems a very ad hoc process. We have seen the situation with Turill. We have seen the situation with Tandow. I think if we were able to very clearly question the other side of this chamber on why that buyback has taken place, what exactly it is going to do, who it is going to assist, where the water is going to end up and why they have targeted that particular area—which we have done on a number of occasions—the decisions and determination would not be there. I am sure we would get the government’s oft used explanation: ‘It’s an election commitment, so we’re going to do it.’
But this side requires rather more from the government than that. We need substantive proof that the processes that the government is going through to reach their end of the buyback process are substantiated, clear, level and measured. One of the things that is very interesting—I mentioned the $50 million buyback before—is that the department recently appeared at the inquiry and freely admitted that there had been no specific study done at that point in time in terms of the social and economic impacts of the $50 million buyback on those communities. They have commissioned an ABARE report to look into it, but that is not due until the middle of next year and, if it does come out with some negative findings, there is no process in place to address the impacts that already will have occurred in those communities.
The lack of focus from the government on determining what the impacts might be is of great concern to the coalition. We are talking about hundreds of rural and regional communities across this nation, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin, who stand to be severely impacted by any potential water reduction in their communities. It is not just about the farms that the water is taken from and the impact on those farmers, those irrigators and that land—those on this side clearly recognise this—it is about the flow-on effects in those rural and regional communities. It is about the funding flow on, the effect on jobs, the effect on businesses, the effect on schools, the effect on essential services and the effect on the population. It is vitally important that we focus on those impacts and on those effects. Those communities are the core of our rural and regional society. I think the minister stated during the estimates process that it was a result of overallocation and climate change, taking no responsibility at all for trying to determine what the potential impact of those buybacks might be.
There are a number of other areas where the coalition believes we can improve the bill through amendments. We will be raising those amendments during the committee stage. There is certainly a necessity for a structural adjustment assistance package. The government is very clearly going down a path whereby there will be some dislocation in communities as a result. When we were previously in government there was a very clear recognition that government had a role in assisting communities to restructure as a result of water reductions due to any changes in those water arrangements. It is very important that we realise that it is about the fabric of those communities. They will need some determined assistance from government with restructuring. To go into their communities, buy up the water and then say, ‘Thanks very much; we’ll leave it up to you now,’ while thinking that the process itself is structural adjustment, as has been referred to by the department, would be just wrong. The government needs to clearly focus, as we did in government, on what needs to be done to assist those communities.
The issue of the transparency of the buyback process has also been raised. We need to ensure that there is a full disclosure process to ensure that Commonwealth water purchases are fully transparent. People in irrigation regions right across the basin deserve to have a very clear and transparent process and to know the price and volume of water and also where, when and how water transactions have taken place. I think it is only fair and equitable to be able to provide that to them.
We have also seen the issue concerning the definition of ‘critical human needs’. This is something that was raised quite often during our inquiry process. We believe it is not clearly defined by the act itself. It certainly needs to be defined in such a fashion that the definition very clearly reflects the intent of the bill. The minister referred to it the other day as being ‘drinking water’. That is not clear in the bill. So that is something that we would like to see addressed.
There is also the issue of the separation of climate change from new knowledge, which we will explore further in the committee stage. Again this is something that needs to be very clearly spelt out for irrigators. We believe it should be deleted from the bill because of the uncertainty that it is creating. I believe that the issue of food security more broadly also needs to be debated in this country. This is an example of something that brings to the fore the broader issue of food security. In respect of this bill, the coalition will be moving a number of amendments during the committee stage.
I thank the Senate
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