Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (11.44 am)—Everyone wants a healthy river system. We all want the health of the Murray-Darling Basin to be the best it can be. No-one wants this more than the regional communities who are totally reliant on the rivers in this wonderful area of Australia.
No-one wants this more than the family farmers, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation irrigators whose ancestors were sent, coerced, encouraged—call it what you like—by the Commonwealth government of the day to turn dry, arid dust bowls into the lush, green food-producing areas that they are today. These rural oases came about only through hard, backbreaking work under a hot Australian sun. Living conditions were primitive but the early European settlers who went to forge a new existence in these windswept, largely waterless plains had a common desire: a desire to succeed, to make the best of the harsh conditions and times, to make a new life.
Hope springs eternal. Through sheer determination and against all odds, they did succeed. Water was diverted to these once-dry districts in open channels and a remarkable transformation took place of ground described by explorer John Oxley in 1817 as ‘country which, for barrenness and desolation, can I think have no equal’. Making the landscape renovation from desert to paradise was all the more amazing considering these irrigation regions were largely established by migrants and soldier settlers. These irrigation communities have flourished over the decades and our nation and indeed the world have benefited as a result. I note the member for Kingston citing statistics in her speech from the Australian Conservation Foundation. Here is an interesting fact, and I have a few more to share with you as well, just so you are really in the picture of the true worth and value of our irrigation areas, two of which, Coleambally and Murrumbidgee, are in my Riverina electorate. The Australian Farm Institute says every Griffith farmer feeds 150 Australians and 450 foreigners each year. No doubt even members of the ACF, who sometimes have a very different way of looking at the need for farming and just how we will grow produce into the future, have partaken of the fruits of the labour of those from the Coleambally and Murrumbidgee irrigation areas as many of us have done and hopefully will continue to do.
What irrigation farmers after many months of angst and heartache need now most is certainty. The greatest threat hanging over their heads at present is uncertainty. As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia, which is conducting an inquiry into the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in regional Australia, the central theme coming from the many communities we have visited is uncertainty —uncertainty brought about by this Labor government, which took to six months to get to a water policy, 18 months to set up the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and 36 months to determine there needed to be a proper analysis of the social and economic effects, the human cost, of any water reform.
‘Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over.’ American author Mark Twain summed up one of the biggest issues facing Australia. The Nationals are all on the same page when it comes to putting the family farmers who grow the food to feed the nation first and foremost when it comes to the water debate. Another quotable quote in relation to water came at one of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority community information sessions and was uttered by Benerembah farmer John Bonetti, who spoke for many, if not all, when he told the MDBA: ‘If you think this is the end you’re wrong. The fight has only just begun.’ You can understand Mr Bonetti’s passion. At present the Riverina growers produce 28 per cent of the national citrus crop, 98 per cent of Australia’s rice, hay and forage crops, cut flowers, turf, vegetables, livestock and livestock products.
The Murray-Darling Basin, specifically the Murrumbidgee River, is the lifeblood of the western half of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. The MIA is the food bowl of the Australian economy, the largest food-producing region in Australia. To be saddled with suggestions of water entitlement cuts as much as 43 per cent included as part of the MDBA’s guide to a draft to a plan and then to be told, again by the authority or representatives thereof, just recently that in real terms the cuts are more in the order of 55 per cent, it is little wonder the good folk in that good part of the world are not feeling very good at the moment.
Cutbacks proposed will not decimate communities as everyone is saying; they will obliterate them. The Nationals, as I say, are all on the same page. Like all others in the MIA, Mr Bonetti is desperately worried about the future if cutbacks to water allocations in the order of up to 43 per cent proceed under the Basin Plan. He has been integral in the MIA’s strong, united voice against what federal Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Tony Burke calls the guide to a draft to a plan. The guide is a Labor-Greens dagger to what the Mayor of Griffith, Councillor Mike Neville, often describes as the heart and lungs of the nation, the MIA, which contributes more than $2½ billion annually to the Australian economy.
Labor has lost control of reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. The former chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Mike Taylor, had to resign because the minister was asking him to do things which were against the legal advice he had received on the Water Act. We now have a new chair, Mr Craig Knowles, who is an ex- New South Wales Labor minister. Mr Knowles has appointed a separate delivery board and an advisory board, plunging the entire process into farce. Let us get the Basin Plan back on track. Labor has the Basin Plan process the wrong way around. When the coalition put up the 10-point Howard-Turnbull plan we prioritised investments in water efficiency so that we could return the water to the environment and to communities. Labor has spent only $437 million of the $5.8 billion allocated for infrastructure investments. They are already $700 million ahead on buybacks but $350 million behind on infrastructure investments compared to the original plan. In the midyear budget update the Labor Party decided to defer a further $450 million in infrastructure investments.
The coalition have nothing to hide in regard to the Senate inquiry into the Water Act and if there are problems with the Water Act then we will stand and we will remedy them. The coalition succeeded in establishing this Senate inquiry into whether the Water Act can deliver an equally weighted consideration of the economic, social and environmental factors. Both the coalition and Labor have promised that they will deliver such a bottom line result. But Professor George Williams; Professor Judith Sloan; Professor John Briscoe; Josephine Kelly, who is a barrister; and the Productivity Commission have all argued that the act gives the environment ‘primacy’. What have Labor got to hide? Why won’t they even support an investigation and why won’t they release all the legal advice they have received on the act? A failure to deal with these ambiguities risks keeping the Basin Plan in court for the next decade. That is not a good outcome for the river or the communities who need the certainty to get on with their lives and businesses. The Water Act could not be the first act since Federation that may require amendment. Let us get on with the job and get it right the first time.
The coalition have announced $600 million of deferrals in water buybacks to make way for spending on the recovery from flood and cyclone damage in Queensland and other parts of Australia. The water buyback scheme is already $700 million ahead of the original plan set in 2008. Labor has bought $1.4 billion in water buyback spending in the past two budgets. The recent floods give us some breathing space to actually develop an environmental water plan before we spend billions of dollars on water rights. Floods do not necessarily reduce the price of water licences, because the water does not increase the number of water licences. The price of water licences in the Murray-Darling Basin has been stable over the past year. We welcome the interim findings of the inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia into the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia, particularly the call for a more strategic approach to buybacks. The coalition proposed a more strategic approach at the last election, calling for an assessment of the full cost of water buybacks, including the cost of stranded assets.
The coalition support improving the environmental health of the Murray-Darling Basin—as we all do. That is why we set up a $10 billion National Plan for Water Security over four years ago. This motion notes that the government have already begun the task of returning the Murray-Darling River system to health. After four years, all Labor can claim is that they have begun the task. They took 18 months just to appoint the board of the MDBA. Now they are busily creating a second delivery board to sideline the first. Menindee Lakes was at the top of the list of actions Labor were going to take on the Murray-Darling Basin at the 2007 election. The coalition left Labor $400 million for that specific purpose. Over three years later, no work has actually been done on Menindee. Even God could not wait for Labor—the lakes have filled back up again and now the Minister Burke admits that further delays have been caused by the fact that so much of it is now under water.
Labor claimed that they are working toward ensuring the health of the basin, but they are actually doing it at the pace of a snail. The coalition put aside almost $6 billion to invest in improved water efficiency, which would deliver water for the environment and communities. The COAG Reform Council noted last year that 12 out of 17 of the projects had failed to make substantial progress. Labor have managed to spend only $437 million of this fund, to deliver a paltry 2.7 gigalitres of savings—an unbelievable $161,000 per megalitre. Labor are $350 million behind on the original time line for the infrastructure program. Labor’s changes to the buyback scheme that were announced recently are an admission that they have got it wrong. Labor accept that a more strategic approach to buybacks is now needed, in line with the coalition’s election policy on the Murray-Darling.