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Water: people vs. the environment?

Rachel Siewert 7 Nov 2006

My question is to Senator Minchin, Minister representing the Prime Minister. Will the minister confirm a statement from a senior government source that, because it is important to look after people first, they will cut environmental flows so they can allocate more water to irrigators? How much water does the minister intend to take away from environmental flows to give to irrigators and is it true that they are considering draining wetlands to achieve this?


Senator MINCHIN-With great respect to Senator Siewert, whom I have no reason to doubt in any way, when I hear questions quoting 'senior government sources' I do have reason to have some doubt about the nature of the question and the foundation for the question.

Senator Carr interjecting-

The PRESIDENT-Order! Senator Carr!

Senator MINCHIN-I am certainly not aware of reports or rumours from senior government sources that we are taking water from the environment to give to irrigators or that we are going to drain wetlands or whatever else the senior government sources may allude to as the damnable activities of our government, no doubt! No, I am not aware of any such plans.

I am not seeking here-through you, Mr President, to Senator Carr-to blame the states, but it should be remembered that the constitutional fact is that we do not actually issue water licences and we do not control irrigators. We seek to work with the state governments to ensure that the health of our river systems can be sustained well into the future for the sake of our generation and future generations and to ensure a cooperative approach with those sovereign governments who do have the constitutional authority over the issue of water licences and the management of water in this country. But I think I can safely deny any proposition on our part to drain wetlands or take water from the environment to give to irrigators.

Supplementary Question

Senator SIEWERT-Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I am pleased to hear that reassurance, because the Prime Minister at lunchtime in fact did say that the task force going away to consider these issues may consider draining wetlands, so I am very pleased to hear Senator Minchin deny that that is in fact the case. Could the minister reassure us that, if they do consider draining wetlands, they will seek legal advice and will there be an environmental impact assessment statement?


Senator MINCHIN-I was watching the Prime Minister's press conference with his Premier colleagues, and a very interesting press conference it was too. It is great to see the federal-state cooperation on this very significant national issue. Certainly I did not hear the Prime Minister or anybody else refer to the draining of wetlands and so I do not retract the statements I have made. But I am happy to check the record on that matter and correct anything I have said if it needs correction.

Take Note of Answer

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (3.26 p.m.)-I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance and Administration (Senator Minchin) to a question without notice asked by Senator Siewert today relating to water resources.

Scientists have estimated that, for there to be a good chance of recovery for the Murray River, 3,500 gigalitres of water is needed. The compromise that was reached by state and federal governments was 500 gigalitres, and that only provided a chance halfway between moderate and poor of saving the Murray River. At the moment, all that has been identified is 310 gigalitres, which is a long way off 500 gigalitres and a very long way off-in fact, less than a tenth-of what is needed for a good chance of recovery for the Murray River. Today we had the water summit and what we had was more of a talkfest: 'We're going to'-supposedly-'speed-up the National Water Initiative and a group will come back with some suggestions by the end of the year,' one of which may be to drain wetlands.

I would have thought that if we are trying to save the Murray, the essential thing we need to be doing is save the environmental flows of the Murray and save its environmental characteristics, which are our wetlands. Already, the Gwydir Wetlands are receiving around 75 per cent less water than they should be receiving. In fact, an article in the paper-yes, I am reading the paper and taking advice from the paper-said, 'The farmers of the Gwydir are asking the federal government to take it off the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance because it no longer has values.' That is an absolute tragedy.

Further, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature will be taking up this matter with the Ramsar secretariat. They believe it is unprecedented that a group of landowners would ask for a wetland to be removed from the Ramsar list because it is not being managed properly. I am very pleased to hear that the government will not be considering draining wetlands, but I would also like to hear-

Senator Heffernan-What are you talking about? Are we-

Senator SIEWERT-Which one?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT-Senator Siewert, address your comments through the chair.

Senator SIEWERT-Mr Deputy President, I will keep addressing my point. The issue that we need to be addressing to save the Murray is overallocation. We have been hearing, ad infinitum, an acknowledgement of overallocation, but we are not hearing that a lot is being done about it. We cannot address the issue of overallocation by taking water away from environmental flows.

When everybody acknowledges that the Murray is not getting sufficient water, what are we doing? We are considering taking water away from environmental flows to give to irrigators when we are irrigating crops in this country which, quite frankly, we can no longer afford to irrigate if we are to have any chance of protecting the Murray River. To be irrigating things such as cotton and rice in the 21st century is not appropriate.

We should not be relying on the market system to fix this crisis. Trading in water may be appropriate while we are trying to address some of the agricultural issues, but it does not and cannot address environmental flows. You would think the experience over the last couple of years of state and federal governments collectively being able to identify only 312 gigalitres would send a very clear message that it is not possible to tinker around the edges. We need to make some of the hard decisions.

Just when are we going to be facing these hard decisions? The governments collectively are trying to put it off as long as possible.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission has been issuing warnings for months and months about the decreased rainfall and decreased flows into our storage in the Murray-Darling Basin. We have been in drought for six years, yet only last Friday the Prime Minister called the Water Summit to drag the Premiers to Canberra for three hours to talk about a crisis that has been building for years, and then they still do not come up with any hard decisions. When did they suddenly decide there was a crisis? In October the head of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission highlighted at a Senate committee hearing that our storage will be empty by April or May next year. That was four or five weeks ago. The Prime Minister got out of bed on Friday and decided there was a crisis so he called a meeting for three hours on Melbourne Cup Day! Was that so that he could bury it? It is ridiculous.

The government needs to be looking seriously at the impact that climate change is having on the Murray-Darling system. We need to be taking allocations out of the system and we need to be doing that now. When are they going to do it? Next year? The year after? The one in 1,000-year drought? It is going to be every year from now on.

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