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Water crisis - Johnny Come Lately

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 6 Feb 2007

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (6.06 p.m.)-by leave-
I move:

That the Senate take note of the government's response to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee's Rural water resource usage report of 2004.

This inquiry was referred to the committee on 21 October 2002. It received 78 submissions and held 11 hearings, in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Darwin, Kununurra, Griffith, Moree, St George and Berri. The inquiry dealt with the important topic of the state of rural industry based water resource usage and options for optimising water resource usage for sustainable agriculture-an issue that I note we are talking about yet again. The report addresses the issue of water access entitlements, environmental management needs, water trading arrangements, structural adjustment assistance, unintended consequences of water trade and the recovery of overallocated water. Does this sound familiar to anybody? These are all clearly important and outstanding issues.

The committee report was tabled in August 2004, but it was January 2007 before the government response was tabled out of session, which leads me to question whether the government was truly interested in water before the issue became a political hot potato in the polls. Does this seem like the actions of a government that had its eye on the ball and, until very recently, had been taking the issue of water resources seriously?

Senator Heffernan-Yeah.

Senator SIEWERT-It has taken 2½ years to respond, and this is all of a sudden an issue, is it? So it was not an issue until it became a poll issue. Looking at the response to the committee's recommendations, it strikes me that the government have not been engaging with the substantive issues. There is an air of defensiveness and reference to a number of recent initiatives that do not directly address the committee's concerns. In fact, they list a range of initiatives that have not been fully implemented, or implemented at all, such as returning any environmental flows to the Murray. Not one drop has yet been returned. They have not even found the 500 gigalitres they are supposed to find.
It is worth noting that the committee raised the issue of speculation and profiteering in water markets. The government response denies there is an issue and that it is likely to be a problem. I would very strongly suggest that they revisit this response, given their announcement of $3 billion being made available for buying back water entitlements and the comments that there will be a need for a strategy to deal with this so that profiteering does not occur. I strongly suggest that they will need to rethink this.

Around the time that this inquiry commenced in 2002, another Senate inquiry into another aspect of water concluded. The Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee inquiry report into urban water management was entitled The value of water.

That report dealt with the management and resource security of water supplies for our cities, including projected population growth and consumption, sustainable water use and demand resource strategies, urban stormwater management, improving water quality, water recycling initiatives and the effectiveness of market mechanisms for achieving efficiency gains. Again, these are all outstanding and important issues. What was the government's response to this inquiry? How much did they value it? The answer is: I do not know, because four years later they have still not responded to it.

What about the 2004 report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry entitled Getting water right(s)-the future of rural Australia? This report dealt with important issues of water policy, frameworks, water rights, water trading et cetera. This has still not been responded to. Can we conclude from these remarks that the government has not been taking the issue of water in Australia seriously-and, as an aside, the role of the Senate committee seriously? But the ultimate outcome is that the government has still not seriously come to grips with the issue of water resource management. It has only jumped on the bandwagon lately when it has been under so much pressure that it can no longer ignore the issue.

If you take the time to look through the issues covered and the recommendations made by this series of parliamentary inquiries-and it appears that the government has failed to do so-it becomes clear that many people have been giving consideration to the water resource issues of this country for a long time, but the government has consistently failed to deal with the oncoming water crisis. It has not just appeared all of a sudden; it has been growing for years. The response-and we saw it again today-was: 'Let's just blame the states. Let's blame the states, focus on them, and not actually acknowledge that the Commonwealth had a role to play as well.'
Last year we again saw an increase in the number of people raising the issue. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission repeatedly told the government that our storages were getting to dangerously low levels. They reported very frequently. In October, Wendy Craik from the Murray-Darling Basin Commission told Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport that, if the situation continues, it looks as though we will be effectively emptying our storages by the end of the irrigation year-that is, by April-May this year, which is three months away, by the way. Did the government respond to this? No, they did not respond to anything until the beginning of November when they called a water summit for three hours on Melbourne Cup Day-where, by the way, one of the solutions canvassed by the Prime Minister was that we could drain wetlands. That is in the face of the fact that 90 per cent of the wetlands of the Murray-Darling system have been degraded. I believe they are likely beyond repair. This is again policy on the run.
The report that came out in January does not at all canvass the government's new policy initiatives announced on 25 January, committing $10 billion to an uncosted plan. There was no consultation with either the states or, as it now turns out, major government departments who could (a) provide advice and (b) do the costings. We have not been told how much water is going to be returned to the Murray. The Prime Minister's 10-point plan makes no comments about commitments to how much water will be returned to the Murray. Five hundred gigalitres is the very minimum, the lowest common denominator, that all the states and the Commonwealth could agree to. The Commonwealth was a party to that. It did not stand by like Pontius Pilate and wash its hands and say to the states, 'You make up your mind.' It was part of the process of deciding on 500 gigalitres.

But the Prime Minister's plan does not commit to a target for returning any further water to the Murray. The panel of scientific experts recommended that 3,500 gigalitres of water was needed to give the Murray a good chance of recovery. The Prime Minister's statement makes no comment on how much water is going to be returned to the Murray. The government want to take control of the states, presumably to try to manage the situation better. But they had a chance in December when the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was being amended through the Environment and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2006. A number of proposed amendments to that bill related to giving the government a trigger for matters of environmental significance. But did they want this trigger? No, they did not. Under legislation they could have had that trigger, with no fighting with the states about whether it is constitutional or not.

They did not have to fight with the states; they could have simply added a trigger to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to give them the power to make assessments and get involved in water management. On 7 December we were debating that very thing in this chamber. The government did not want controls then, but on 25 January they want controls. Now they are going to be embroiled in a long fight with the states.

Yesterday the Treasurer made it quite clear that no money will be delivered to this water plan unless the states agree. No money will flow-pardon the pun-until the states agree. By the way, very little money has flowed to the Murray to date. None of the $2 billion has been spent; not one drop of water has been returned to the Murray.

Now we have yet another promise of $10 billion for the Murray that is uncosted, with no evaluation yet given on how much water we are going to return to the Murray.

We are spending $6 billion on water efficiency, with half of that saving going back to the agriculturalist and the farmer.

So we are spending $6 billion to only get back half of the water that is saved in efficiencies. Why aren't we getting all that water back for environmental flows? We are only getting half of it back-$6 billion for half of the water that is saved.

There is no timetable; in fact, already Minister McGauran is backing away from buying water entitlements. Two days after the Prime Minister made his statement, Minister McGauran was already backing away from the question of how they are going to implement this plan and how they are going to buy back water allocations. No commitment has been given to the urgency of returning environmental flows to areas in crisis, such as the Macquarie lakes and the Gwydir wetlands. There is no timetable set. (Time expired)

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