Second Reading -Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023

Wednesday, 13 September 2023

Mr PITT: Water is always a difficult issue. It’s a fraught issue. It’s a complicated issue. The Murray-Darling Basin has always been that way. No matter where you stand, whether you are at a farm here in Australia—whether you’re in Queensland or South Australia or New South Wales—or in fact anywhere around the world, if you want to really narrow this down, the easiest way to think about it is: when you’re talking to a local farmer, they will think that downstream are wasters and upstream are thieves. That is fundamentally how it applies. When it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin, this has been a very difficult turn of events over many years, through droughts and floods and everything else.

But what I want to put on the record here today is more around what’s being used by those opposite, particularly the Greens. They are making some outrageous claims about what can and can’t be delivered around 450 gigalitres of water. Let me be very clear: taking 450 gigalitres of entitlement away from growers will not keep the mouth of the Murray River open. I’ve been to the Murray River mouth. In fact, I’ve been all over the Murray-Darling Basin, from Queensland all the way through. I’ve spoken to users, environmentalists and Aboriginal communities and groups. There seems to be a concept that this magic number is going to fix everything and make the environment wonderful. This river system will never return to its natural state—it can’t. It is a series of weir pools controlled by gates and valves and engineering that has been in place for decades. It is very well managed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. They’ve done an incredible job in difficult circumstances.

We needed to talk about facts and reality. The 450 gig is a number, and that number is about taking away the economic security of people who utilise that water. There is a big difference between entitlement and allocation. Every single year the states work out how much entitlement is provided as an allocation to growers dependent on conditions. They don’t get all this water every year, regardless of what it looks like and regardless of weather conditions and everything else. To put anything else forward is complete nonsense, so let’s look at what is going on in reality. I have here the SA River Murray Flow Report from 30 December 2022. I want to utilise a few numbers out of the report to make my point, but first I want to congratulate in particular the members for Barker and Nichols and the member for Parkes for their contributions. They are people who’ve lived in the basin for many years, and they actually understand how it works. They know the impacts it has on their communities.

The first point I want to make out of the reporters is this:

The peak flow reached the South Australian border on 23 December and has since passed through Renmark, Lyrup, Berri, Loxton …

This obviously was late last year.

The adjusted peak flow at the border was around 190 GL/day …

Seriously, that is a lot of water passing into South Australia. The report goes on to say this about the Murray mouth:

High flows are achieving good scouring of sand at the Murray Mouth, now that average tide levels are becoming lower (typical for this time of year). In addition to the obvious environmental benefits, the current deepening and widening of the Mouth will also further improve capacity of the barrages to pass flood waters out to sea.

Right up until close to this point you are still dredging the mouth of the Murray. It is a continuous operation. The idea that a 450 gigalitre reduction in entitlement for growers will make differences to the Murray mouth is quite simply ridiculous. From an engineering standpoint, it is absolute nonsense.

If you look at what has been going on in the Murray in recent months—the member for Parkes is here, and I know he’s seen this firsthand in any number of floods and droughts—unregulated flows into South Australia have been continuous since July 2021. For those who don’t understand what that means, it means there is a stack of water that people can utilise because there is so much of it they don’t know what to do with it. Those flows were continuous from July 2021 until the end of last year, when it reached peak flows. This is an enormous system. In fact, the modelling of this system is still separate. It is still managed through different state organisations, and they don’t have an overarching model of the entire Murray-Darling Basin flow—it doesn’t exist. It’s something the coalition committed money to so that we can get this done and upgrade these old clunky systems of software to get something that is far more advanced and utilises technology that’s used right around the world.

We know that you need enormous amounts of water running through the Murray to have any impact whatsoever on the mouth—enormous amounts—and yet we continue to see a proposition put forward by those opposite that a 450 gigalitre reduction in entitlement will make enormous changes to the environment. Well, it’s just not true. If you want to make changes to the environment, you need to do things that have practical outcomes, not just reduce entitlements for holders in the Murray-Darling Basin. That simply won’t work, and the minister is misleading the House. There is no deal here. Victoria are not in; they are out. They are not in for buybacks, and you do not have a Murray-Darling Basin Plan without Victoria. If you don’t have all the states, what is the intention from those opposite? Will the Labor Party build a wall through the middle of the river and say we have New South Wales on one side and Victoria on the other? It is a ridiculous proposition. If you do not have Victoria you do not have a deal and you do not have a Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It does not exist.

If we look at the changes proposed to the bill, one that stuck out to me was the postponement of the requirement for the minister to conduct a review of the Water Act from the end of 2024 to the end of 2027—the reconciliation. If I recall correctly, on advice, that’ll take a couple of years, so it’s actually delayed to 2029. For those in the Greens who are saying, ‘This is a wonderful thing, and we’re going to get the stuff that we fought for,’ 2029 is a very, very long way away. There are changes around the Inspector-General of Water Compliance, and some of these I welcome because we established this group. We established the Inspector-General of Water Compliance. I appointed Troy Grant. He has a very long history in police, enforcement and investigation, and he’s doing great job.

But the most important part that the minister continues to ignore—doesn’t speak about whatsoever—is that the plan is not established until the water resource plans are completed. It is not established until they’re completed—and the framework is in place so that you can actually enforce the plan. We hear a lot of noise from the minister about numbers, water, entitlement and the environment, but nothing about the actual pieces inside the plan, the detail, and the things that need to be completed. I took a quick look at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s outline. Right now, the Barwon-Darling Watercourse Water Resource Plan, the WRP, has been withdrawn by New South Wales, as have the ones for the Gwydir, the Macquarie and Castlereagh, and the Namoi. Many of the others were done under the coalition—put forward and completed. I congratulate Victoria, South Australia and Queensland; their plans are in, completed, signed off and operational. These are the bits that matter. These are the bits that matter in the local areas. Without the water resource plan, everything else doesn’t really work. It is quite incredible that the minister continues to ignore the pieces that will make a difference.

The 450 gigalitres is now going to be brought about through different means—one, in particular, being uncapped buybacks. You now have this perverse position where those opposite, the Labor government, are suggesting that they will spend, potentially, hundreds of millions of dollars on water infrastructure with big irrigators, and this is the right way to go about the plan because you get new infrastructure and, as a by-product, you get water recovery through efficiencies. That is the right away. But those organisations can then sell that recovered water to the Commonwealth as part of this entitlement. Double dipping—that just doesn’t even describe it. What a ludicrous proposition: the taxpayer will pay for upgraded infrastructure for the company to then be able to sell back water to the Commonwealth. They win both ways—what an incredible outcome. The only people that lose are those that live in these communities because, in perpetuity, they will have lost this water allocation, this water entitlement, that drives their economy. It actually grows food—food for the country, which we desperately need.

When you add on Labor’s propositions around safeguards and what they’re intending to do for offsets, as well as the 60 million hectares that somehow the minister for environment is going to magically acquire to meet nature reserve commitments to the United Nations, the more you look at all of the proposals the only places they can come from are cleared and partially cleared agricultural land, of which there’s about 425 million hectares. If you lose 60 million to nature reserves and you lose 450 gigalitres of water, 450,000 megalitres, that will take out some 50,000 to 70,000 hectares, as has been explained by the member for Barker and others, of productive land in this country. That reduces our food-growing capacity.

No-one on the government side seems to be talking about the impact this will have on the individual. If you look at the flow-through effects—and I know Treasury won’t model flow-through effects—they’re up to five times into the economy. The individual that works at the bakery, works at the hairdresser or is a teacher at the local school in a town that loses its population—they no longer have a job. They will move somewhere else to find that job, and that population will continue to decline until they can’t provide those services, there aren’t any schools, there aren’t any childcare services or there aren’t any aged-care services because the entire regional economy relies on irrigated agriculture in many of these locations. They are small towns, they are the heart of this country and they should be protected from this Labor government. We will fight against the government. We will fight this because it is fundamentally wrong.

I know there will be individuals out there who are very happy to sell their water because to them this has become a bucket of gold. They can dig in. They won’t have to have employees. They won’t need to run farms. They won’t have to do any of those things. They can potentially move. And good luck to them. But the reality of the impact on these Murray-Darling communities should not be understated. We have seen what has happened in other towns already. This is why the Victorian minister is refusing to sign up. Victoria will not do buybacks.

There are much better options to be delivered, and that is around infrastructure and around water efficiency. Australian farmers are some of the most efficient users of water in the world. They are incredibly efficient. They look after every tablespoon of water because they know how important it is not only to their operations but also in the way they operate in the environment. Most farmers out there are very, very good operators.

We continue to see more proposed changes. If we look at the water market briefly, Daryl Quinlivan, who I appointed to do this work, came out with the Water market reform:final roadmapreport. His concern was around costs. I know that internally there were recommendations around building another ivory tower, whether it’s in the ACCC or elsewhere, to look after water market reform. The concern I always have is around who’s paying, because that cost will go onto the cost of water. The bigger these departments get, the more people that they employ, the more things they do, that cost has to be recovered, and it will be recovered through the only means necessary, which is on water prices. That drives up the cost of food and it reduces the opportunities for Australian farmers to be profitable, to be cost competitive in the world environment.

There were statements made by Victoria’s water minister, Harriet Shing. They do not support the new deal. Victoria has a longstanding opposition to buybacks and nothing we have seen in this deal has changed that position. But it’s not just Victoria who are against this. New South Wales does not support water buybacks. It wants to see the Australian government prioritise investment in recovering water through other ways. How do you do this without New South Wales and Victoria, two of the biggest agricultural states on the Murray-Darling Basin? You cannot deliver the plan without them.

The federal minister needs to explain to the House and explain to the Australian people how on earth you have a plan without these two states. How is it that they want to go out and take away what drives the economy in these regional towns and centres? They deserve to be looked after, and the idea that they will be thrown a few shekels to move them on, to do something else—well, they don’t want to do that. They like where they live. They like to live in regional Australia. They like being farmers. They like working on farms. They like delivering for our economy. Can you imagine what this will cost in perpetuity for every single year that it doesn’t exist, this change to take away water entitlements forever from these people who produce Australia’s food supply? The idea that it can be offset by something else is nonsense. It is ludicrous, and yet we have a Minister for the Environment and Water who is deadset on destroying these communities and the people who live there.

The more the minister focuses on taking away from them, the more they’ll fight, the more they’ll argue and the more they’ll stand up. We have seen how much trouble this has caused in the basin in the past, and I say to Minister Plibersek: ‘Recant. Change your mind. Go back to the way it was being delivered under the coalition, because infrastructure is the way to do this.’ There are multiple benefits to using infrastructure for this type of water recovery. You get infrastructure that lasts for decades, you get outcomes for communities that last forever, and you don’t destroy the economies of these regional communities who deserve to be looked after.

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