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National water security

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 26 Mar 2007

The Greens will be supporting the Democrats' motion to refer the National Plan for Water Security to a committee. We believe this is an extremely important issue. The government is spending a large amount of taxpayers' money, and, as Senator Bartlett stated and as became evident in the many estimates questions that were asked, there has been no proper analysis of the costs. During estimates when we asked for an explanation of the costs and how they were arrived at, no information could be provided-not even back-of-the-envelope estimations.

When we asked for targets, none of that information was available. There has been no update on the basis of how targets have been set for the Murray-Darling Basin. In fact, the 10-point, $10 billion plan does not include any targets. Presumably we are still stuck with the 500-gigalitres target, which, as I have said on many occasions in this place, is the lowest common denominator target. This was the target all the states could agree on and it was the lowest of the low that the scientists recommended. Scientists said that 3,500 gigalitres were required to give the Murray-Darling a good chance to recover. We have no idea whether that can be achieved through this process and we do not even know if that is the target, because the government has not committed to a target.

All we can assume is that we are working on the 500-gigalitres target.

We are getting more information every day.

A couple of weeks ago, the State of the Darling-interim hydrology report was released. What that says is that basically the Darling is in a state. It is a severely degraded river that is getting worse. It is suffering from loss of volume flow, the wetlands are drying out, there is a loss of flood events, there are fish migration problems and, besides what the river is suffering from now, there are increased risks from climate change. I will go back to that in a minute. The current estimates indicate that reductions in average flows of 20 per cent or more may occur by 2030. I would say that is on the low side, if you take the example from Western Australia where a 20 per cent reduction in rainfall led to a reduction in run-off of 64 per cent. I would suggest that that estimated reduction in average flows is probably on the conservative side.
The report also talked about the continued increase of surface water use. In other words, they have not managed to stop the increased use of that water system. It also says that they need to ensure that they do not allow increased flood plain harvesting diversions, and there is also concern about current and future groundwater use. The list goes on and on about the potential impacts for the Murray-Darling system.

No proper analysis was done of the needs of the river. This plan was not based on a considered management plan; this was based on a 'let's put something together real quick over Christmas, starting in November' proposal. This was not raised at the water summit. At the water summit certain actions were put in place. One of them was to give CSIRO just 12 months to go away and determine the sustainable, harvestable water from each of the catchments in the Murray-Darling Basin. Twelve months is a very short period, and they do not have all of the information they need to be able to do that.
They were given 12 months in November. On 25 January the Prime Minister announced a $10 billion water plan, which was not canvassed with the states. There was no consultation with communities, with landowners, with irrigators, with the states, with the broader community, with environment groups or with local groups that know their wetlands inside out and back to front. None of those groups were consulted. There are no costings and there are no targets. Victoria still has not agreed to the $10 billion plan.

Now we have South Australia very seriously canvassing the concept of cutting off the water supply to at least nine of their wetlands. Water is absolutely critical to these nine wetlands. Last week I talked about Lake Bonney, which is in a dire situation. If it does not get water within the next 12 months, they might as well not bother because salinity will have risen to such an extent. If they cut off water supply to that lake, it will have dire consequences for the broader environment because salinity will have been driven so high in that lake. It is do or die for that system. It is do or die for a number of the wetlands of the Murray-Darling system.

The government now has at its disposal an even stronger mechanism to start helping those wetlands, but it is refusing to do so. It keeps saying: 'Yes, we know we need to be buying water allocations. We know this is urgent.' I have tried to put up several motions on this issue very recently, but the government will not commit to urgently buying the water resources that are needed to help these wetlands. It did not support a motion on World Water Day. The motion simply acknowledged the potential decision of South Australia to cut off water to lakes.

It talked about the impacts of climate change as outlined by Dr Wendy Craik of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. It also talked about the need to supply water urgently to these wetlands and the fact that water management plans should be written to ensure that changes due to climate change are taken into account.
I question the government's commitment to ensuring that this issue is dealt with expeditiously. When will the $12 billion start hitting the ground so real water can be returned to the system? We know that, at this stage, only about 350 gigalitres have been found from the existing programs and none of that water has been returned to the river system. While the government is spruiking its credentials that it is putting $10 billion into the Murray-Darling system, that money is not having an impact now because at least nine wetlands in South Australia are potentially going to be cut off from a water supply-their lifeblood.

Not only that; the State of the environment report found that 22 of the 64 Ramsar wetlands are suffering from some form of degradation and their ecological character is being changed. It is outrageous. Why isn't the government prepared to take more urgent action to find the water now so that we can save these wetlands?

Just last week, Dr Wendy Craik also talked about the impact of climate change and the potential for significant long-term impacts on the Murray-Darling system. These issues need to be factored into the water management plans. Are they being factored in? We do not know. Who is going to be reviewing them? We also have conflict within the coalition, with several ministers saying that the water licences will be bought back more or less as a last resort. It is too late for that. We need to be buying them urgently now. We cannot leave it as a last resort. When do we get to that point where it is a last resort? I believe that we have reached that point and we need to take action now.
As a compromise with the states, the government have agreed to some independent advice. They have also committed to table in parliament where they disagree with that independent advice. However, the big issue is that they have not agreed to table anything to do with the finances. If the independent panel advises the government, presumably, on policy and the government do not take that advice, they said they will table that advice in parliament. But they will not table the advice they receive on the finances-what is being bought with public money and how they will buy back the water allocation licences. Nothing has been made public about the costing and how it has been worked out-what we will get for the $10 billion-and the government is refusing to table in parliament the advice of the independent panel on how that money will be spent. I am deeply suspicious that we will see a return to the bad old days when decisions about what licences will be purchased will be based on expediency in a particular electorate, for example. There will be fights not over whether the water licence is an appropriate one to purchase but over who does or who does not want it in their electorate. We will see a return to those bad old days of pork-barrelling.

It smacks so much of that. It is: 'In which electorates can we best spend this money?' rather than 'What is best for the Murray-Darling Basin?' We have gone way past that now because this river is under the biggest threat it has faced, and it will soon reach the point where these wetlands in particular will not be recoverable. We can see that from the scientific evidence.
We also have to contend with the issue of the federal government taking control of the allocation of water and its management, and how they will undertake the natural resource management part of that process.
You cannot manage water without dealing with the natural resource management issues, and then you get involved with the tricky issues of people stealing water.

There is evidence that that is happening in New South Wales where environmental flows are released to wetlands and never make it to the wetlands. There are photos of where that has occurred. There are photos of where it is being syphoned off, but nobody is doing anything about it. I appreciate that these are extremely complex issues, but they are issues that need to be dealt with. The photographic evidence is there and no-one has taken any action. How those issues will be resolved through a federal management process is yet to be articulated and that is one of the things that would also come out in such a review.

As Senator Bartlett said, he has proposed a relatively short time frame for this review. It is not one that will tie up the process for a long time, but it will be the only chance for members of the community and this place to find out more detail about the plan. How is it going to be implemented? Where is the money going to be spent? Which wetlands are going to be saved? How much water is going to be returned to the river through the efficiency measures? How much water is going to be returned to the river through buying back the licences through overallocation? What is the government going to do about the licences that have been bought through managed investment schemes which major corporations now want to offload because the MIS process has been changed? Major corporations have been left holding a number of licences that contain large amounts of water. I bet companies are looking to have them conveniently bought out. That may be appropriate; we may want some of that water back. But how do we know that the system is actually going to work effectively and that that is in fact priority water that needs to be bought back?

As I said, there are major corporations that now own large amounts of water because they have bought up the licences. They have also distorted the water market, because they have entered the market and bought at prices that have now pushed up the water market, which of course makes the water more expensive for the government to buy when they try to acquire back the water licences. How do we know that money is not going to be offered to farmers for water efficiency measures and that those funds will not then subsequently be bought out through overallocation? I asked that question at estimates and I must say that I got an answer which I thought was okay.

They said that they would not be doing that, that that was silly, but that has subsequently been contradicted by media reports and things that have been said in the House of Reps. So I get one answer that I am assured by and in another place, in other fora, I hear different answers. So now I am no longer satisfied that we will in fact be doing this in an orderly way, that there is some sort of sensible plan for how these issues will be dealt with. I do not think there is.

This sort of inquiry would help us find out whether there is, in fact, a comprehensive plan to implement the plan. I do not think there is. I do not think the government has had time to put that together, and that is why they do not like this sort of inquiry.

It will be like the emperor with new clothes: $10 billion is being spent but we do not know where it is going. If there is a review, that will become obvious. The government does not want this to be looked at, because there are no costings, there are no targets and they do not know where the water is coming from. Farmers have questioned the amounts that have been bandied about in the national plan. The Farmers Federation have questioned those figures. They do not think the water is in the efficiency measures. They maintain that they have made significant advances on the water efficiency measures, so they do not think it is there. What does that do to the rest of the flimsy arguments in the national water plan?

When I asked for information about the water that is going to be acquired through these various measures, no references could be given-none. We kept getting told at estimates that this information was provided by experts. When I asked for the references, they were not there. The only reference I was given was the plan itself.

So in questioning the plan and the references, when I wanted the information justified, I was given the plan itself. Anybody could have pulled those figures from anywhere to put into that plan. I want actual scientific papers that show that those are the sorts of savings that we can expect from these measures.
There is $10 billion. Like Senator Bartlett, I think that we need to spend that sort of money on the river, but we need to make sure that it is properly targeted, properly allocated and that the decisions that are made are transparent, accountable and based on independent scientific advice, because we will never save the river if we continue to do more of the same, which is what this has been set up to do. It has been set up to continue more of the same, with no accountability on where money is spent. Sensible decisions are not made on a scientific basis and the money is flushed down the drain because no-one is prepared to bite the bullet and actually make the really tough decisions about where water needs to be acquired, how much needs to be acquired and where land use will have to change into the future.

Overlaying all of that is what impact climate change will have on those predictions and whether the government is tough enough to stand up to the community. Unfortunately, they will have do stand up to the community and say, 'We need to change these water management plans.' Are they going to be able to do that? Will the plan deliver the sort of change that we expect if we are going to save the Murray River?

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