Water Amendment Bill 2018 (MDBP)

May 30, 2018

I'm happy to rise to speak to the Water Amendment Bill 2018. I do so as a member for a South Australian electorate, South Australia always having had a particular interest in the health of the Murray-Darling Basin, and also as a former water minister—albeit for a matter only of several weeks—and as a shadow water minister during the last term of parliament who understood, I think, the fragility of this plan and the importance of bipartisanship and agreement between the two major parties to keep on track a plan that was so hard fought.

I'll come to the processes that have led us to be considering this bill. The bill is quite specific. The bill allows for the Northern Basin Review instrument—the Northern Basin Review being an element of the plan—to be remade and to be tabled again in the parliament. But, more broadly, this bill reflects an agreement between the major parties, notably the minister who's at the table today and our shadow minister, the member for Watson, essentially to get the Murray-Darling Basin Plan back on track. I don't think it's any exaggeration to say that this plan was, for a period of time, hanging by a thread, and with it was also hanging by a thread the best possible chance our nation has of returning this incredibly important river system to a sustainable, healthy condition for now and the future.

The scale of the achievement that's enshrined in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is difficult to overstate. It was incredibly hard fought and follows literally decades of disagreement and conflict around the way in which the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was managed. But it focuses on one of the most important environmental and economic assets that this nation has. About 40 per cent of the nation's agriculture is dependent upon the health of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, feeding into about $19 billion of our GDP. Those figures are probably out of date; it's probably substantially more than that now. Particularly importantly—I say this as a resident and a representative of Adelaide—it delivers drinking water for about 1.3 million or more Australians. So this is an incredibly important environmental, social, cultural and economic asset, and the scale of achievement, as I said, in finalising and then delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is really difficult to overstate.

The history of this basin has been one of political conflict, conflict within industry, conflict between industry and environmental groups, and essentially overextraction—extraction at levels that have seen a steady, inexorable decline in the health of this incredibly important national asset. That really is the history. The present and the future have added to that level of overextraction and mismanagement, I think, of what essentially is a national asset fought over between states. Added to those pressures is now the pressure of climate change and a drying trend that you, Deputy Speaker Irons, would certainly see in Western Australia, particularly the Wheatbelt of Western Australia, but that we also see in the south-east of our continent.

I just want to remind members of some of the work that the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO have done around rainfall and stream flow rates in the south-east, including in the Murray-Darling Basin area. The bureau and CSIRO publish every two years what I think is an incredibly important, user-friendly report called the State of the climate report. In the 2016 State of the climate report there was a particular focus on rainfall and stream flow rates in those key growing regions of Western Australia, or the south-west of the continent, and the south-east of the continent, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin. I just want to remind members a bit about what the CSIRO and the bureau said is happening in those regions to add additional pressure to the pressures that have been on this system, on the Murray-Darling Basin, already for many years because of overextraction. In their report of 2016, the bureau and the CSIRO said:

There has been significant drying across southern Australia, especially across the cool April-October growing season—

which is a particular pressure on our farming communities. The report said:

The recent drying across southern Australia is the strongest recorded large-scale change in rainfall since national records began in 1900. This decrease, at an agriculturally and hydrologically important time of the year—

the peak growing season—

is associated with a trend towards higher mean sea level pressure in the region … A known response to global warming is an increase in mean sea level pressure across southern Australian latitudes … This means that years with lower-than-average growing season rainfall are expected to be more frequent than in the past. Southeast Australia—

which obviously takes in much of the basin—

had below-average rainfall in sixteen of the last twenty April-October periods since 1997.

Perhaps more important for irrigator communities than rainfall data, though, as the minister would appreciate very well, is the streamflow—the amount of the rainfall water that actually reaches the river system. The bureau and the CSIRO particularly focused on streamflow rates, which are dramatically down in the south-west of the continent, in your state, Deputy Speaker—I won't go into that, because it's not covered by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—but also down very dramatically in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The report says:

The reduction in rainfall across southern Australia is amplified in streamflow.

Obviously, rainfall needs to be sufficient to saturate the ground before rain then flows into the river systems and is available to irrigator communities. The agencies say:

Since the mid-1990s, streamflow in the southeast is around half the long-term average. During the same period—

since the mid-1990s, obviously—

streamflow in the Murray-Darling Basin was 41 per cent lower than average and in some basins in the west and central regions of Victoria, such as the Campaspe Basin, streamflows have declined more than 70 per cent.

If we were not able to start to get the controls on extraction in the basin that you see in the plan, these pressures would arguably place communities across the river system, and the environmental health of the river itself, in perilously dangerous condition.

I am a representative of South Australia in this debate. South Australia has been making demands since the 1890s for this basin to be managed better and better. At the constitutional conventions, as followers of these debates would know, Charles Cameron Kingston, who was perhaps the leading constitutional convention delegate from South Australia, argued that because the basin crossed then colony, and soon to be state, lines, it should be managed by a national government. It was then an incredibly important national asset, as it continued to be right through the 20th century. South Australia, as so often happens to be the case, got done over by the big states yet again. The upstream states, New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, particularly, were able to continue to extract water from the system as much as they wanted.

It wasn't until the federation drought, over the course of the turn of the 19th and into the 20th century, that pressure really built for the upstream states to come to the table and start to talk about a better management system for this critical water source. That happened in 1902, only a year after the creation of the Commonwealth and really at the point where the federation drought began to break. My great-grandfather was a signatory to the River Murray Water Agreement of 1914, which resulted from that coming together. It took 12 years to get an agreement. It took us a fair bit of time, as well, to get the basin plan agreed to by the member for Watson and different states. It's always been thus. It took 12 years to get the River Murray Water Agreement of 1914 signed, which my great-grandfather signed on behalf of South Australia. It resulted in significant infrastructure being built—locks and weirs in the river system—and secured minimum monthly flows to South Australia from upstream states.

But there really wasn't much progress from then. For the following 100 years there was not much progress whatsoever in a system that would better manage this critically important economic and environmental asset. Since that time, it was essentially a matter of ongoing dispute between the different states, particularly with South Australia, as the downstream state, feeling that it was in a fight against Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Water reform did progress under prime ministers Keating and Howard. Internationally, I think our water market arrangements are seen as some of the best, some of the really exemplary water market arrangements anywhere in the world. But we weren't able to translate that foundation of a water market into better management for the basin until the member for Watson was able to finalise the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, in 2012. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, at its heart, seeks to return the system to environmental health, because everything hangs on environmental health—industries and the health of the communities across the river system. Nothing will work if the river is not returned to environmental health. That is why we have argued against the, I think, inexplicable decision by Prime Minister Turnbull to give responsibility for the implementation plan to the agriculture ministry. This was something that Prime Minister Howard understood was not the right approach. This was something that Prime Minister Abbott understood was not the right approach. For some inexplicable reason, only able to be explained by base politics, Prime Minister Turnbull decided to give the then minister, the member for New England, responsibility for implementing a plan he had railed against year in and year out. We say that this should be a plan managed by the Department of the Environment and Energy and the Environment portfolio, because industry, communities and the environmental health of the system depend upon returning this system to a sustainable and healthy condition.

The core element was returning 3,200 gigalitres, or 3,200 billion litres, of water to the system. That was the core element and the central position of the plan. For some, for example the Greens party, the perfect was the enemy of the good. They thought it should be more than 3,200, so, often true to form in these policy areas, they voted against the plan. I understand that they've been railing against it in the Senate, in the other place, over the course of the last couple of weeks. Members of the National Party, including the current Deputy Prime Minister, voted against the plan as well. On the fringes—the far Right and the far Left—there was opposition, but, fortunately for the system and for the nation, there were enough sensible heads at the centre on both sides of politics to recognise this was our only chance of returning the system to a sustainable and healthy condition.

Within those 3,200 billion litres was a core condition, particularly for South Australia, and that was the additional 450 gigalitres. The member for New England had made his position clear before, and since, becoming the minister with the responsibility for this plan: he did not regard that as a favourable term. He made it clear that he had no real intention of implementing that critically important part of the plan, and that has been a central element in the undermining of confidence in this plan. I want to say that that is probably the key reason why the plan has been put back on track by the minister and by the shadow minister, the member for Watson, over recent weeks. The government wasn't really committed to the plan, as evidenced by the position the member for New England had for many years about the 450 gigalitres of so-called up water. Compliance was not being taken seriously, as seen most obviously in New South Wales. And there simply wasn't enough scrutiny on the so-called SDL adjustment projects—the sustainable diversion limit adjustment projects—with the 605 gigalitres of down water. There wasn't enough scrutiny for people to have confidence.

All of those elements and all of those concerns have been dealt with by this agreement between the minister and the shadow minister. There's a good package of measures, which I think gives a much clearer commitment to that additional 450 gigalitres, linking payments for those states that have SDL adjustment projects and linking payments for those projects to their cooperation with the 450-gigalitre process of so-called up water. There's better compliance in this package, particularly in the northern basin. There's better scrutiny of the SDL adjustment projects, including through technical workshops that the authority will run with groups like the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, and, as the member for Bendigo said when she spoke before me, there's much better support for cultural water outcomes for Indigenous Australians in the basin area. I want to reiterate that this plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, is far and away our best chance of returning the river to a healthy and sustainable condition, and we cannot let that chance slip away.