Murray-Darling Basin

A report in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, headed ‘Fear for ghost towns' included the Riverina's Hillston and Leeton as centres at greatest risk if water cuts proposed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority proceeded. Members on this side of the House have been aware for a long time just how hard the cuts would hit regional Australia whilst for whatever reason, convenient or otherwise, it has only just dawned upon those opposite. Those opposite have not had to worry. There aren't any Labor electorates in the Murray-Darling Basin. But, you know, Labor members do like to eat and drink and when country communities-the farmers who produce the food to feed the nation-protest in their thousands then the government has to take action. This is why the government set up on 14 October-less than two weeks ago and on the very same day that 7,000 men, women and children rallied at Griffith-a parliamentary inquiry to ensure the socioeconomic impacts of the Basin Plan were taken into consideration. This is why the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, told parliament last Thursday that he had called for legal advice from the Australian Government Solicitor about the Water Act. This is why the water minister visited Griffith on Friday to meet civic leaders, family farmers and business people to listen to what they had to say.

The inquiry, the legal advice and the minister's visit are all welcome-overdue, but very welcome. But this government took six months to get to a water policy, 18 months to establish the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and 36 months to form the view, which was bleeding obvious to everyone else, that there needs to be a proper analysis of the social and economic impact-the human cost. Speaking of bleeding, that is precisely what communities in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, which is in my Riverina electorate, are doing and will continue to do until the wrongs of this ‘guide to a draft to a plan' are made right. That is what will happen whilst the uncertainty of proposed water cutbacks -sustainable diversion limits-hangs unfairly like a guillotine blade over the heads of all those in the MlA and other basin communities.

How did Labor get this so wrong? Why did Labor move forward under a process by former water minister Penny Wong which clearly did not get the legal advice in order to correctly follow the act? The current water minister admitted yesterday that the comments made publicly by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, that the Water Act did not allow it to fully take account of socioeconomic issues, were not supported by his legal advice. Not supported by his legal advice! Now we all know and it is what many in irrigation communities have been arguing all along: that the authority can and should and must adopt a triple bottom line approach and that the act is not just environment, environment, environment.

The water minister virtually rebuked the MDBA and warned it cannot hide behind the falsehood that the Water Act forces it to put the environment over communities. The MDBA's guide suggested only 800 jobs would be lost if water cuts up to 45 per cent occurred. What a joke. What an insult to hardworking family farmers and regional communities. It will be more in the order of 8,000.

I am worried that this Labor-Greens alliance wants to turn the country back to nature, a move which will drive farmers off the land, send regional communities to the wall, ruin our balance of payments, jeopardise food security and significantly increase food prices. Environmentalism gone mad!

The water minister faced some of the key stakeholders of the MIA at Griffith and I am appreciative that he took me with him. He penned a lot of notes and listened intently to what the people of Coleambally, Griffith and Leeton had to say. I am sure he came away far better informed, but whether those new insights materialise into something positive for Australia's greatest food bowl remains to be seen. As the Griffith Mayor, Councillor Mike Neville, said, this whole water debate has been ‘misinformed and misled from the start' and what is now needed is certainty and clarity, not just in the MIA's best interests but in the national interest. Perhaps the most telling remarks made to the minister at Griffith concerned the state of mental health of some of the people whose futures and livelihoods depend on the availability of water for important productive use. As the water minister left on Friday, one of the locals said to me he hoped the government was not merely paying lip service or buying time. I hold the same hope.

Cristy Houghton