BILLS: Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (16:48): The Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012 amends the Water Act 2007 such that a sustainable diversion limit can be adjusted, give-or-take five per cent, without any formal notification to the community or to the parliament. Let us just think about that five per cent. It does not sound a lot but it could amount to the entire water used by the state of South Australia in any given year.

This adjustment could or would be done by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority under certain provisos: reference to the Basin Officials Committee—yet able to override that committee's consideration or recommendations either way—without the necessity of amending the Basin Plan as part of the Water Act; and by notifying the relevant minister who would then adopt the MDBA's adjustment and table it before parliament as a non-disallowable instrument.

I am strongly opposed to the inquiry conclusions of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia following the private meeting held in Parliament House on 4 October. The members for Murray and Wannon co-signed a dissenting report which was submitted the following day. We are extremely concerned with the cursory attention paid by the inquiry to a request which was denied a proper consultation and input from relevant stakeholders in the preparation of the report. Indeed, during a 30-minute teleconference on 24 September of the committee to discuss the matter there was more discussion as to who had the temerity to ask that the Regional Australia Committee look into this matter as there was of the details of the matter itself. I pushed for the committee to examine this issue and I do not mind admitting as much, as I did on that very day. I am only sorry we paid such scant attention to it before issuing, signed off by the chair, the member for New England, an advisory report with just one recommendation: that the committee recommends that the House of Representatives pass the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. The members for Wannon and Murray and I signed a dissenting report because we were not in agreement with the recommendation.

The contents, consultation and adjustment processes for the future Murray-Darling Basin Plan are of critical importance to the 3.4 million people living in the basin for its economic—and hence social—wellbeing and environmental sustainability. More than that, it is of critical importance to the 22 million-plus Australians who rely on the Murray-Darling Basin for food and, indeed, to all of those people within the Pacific Rim—and we only heard yesterday how important Asia is to our national interest. I was disappointed that more focus was not placed on agriculture and on the unique ability that Australia has to feed people into the future. There are going to be some hungry hordes into the future. The population projections to 2050 and beyond are well in excess of what we are capable of feeding given our reluctance—or this government's reluctance—to provide water to our farmers, who are the best in the world, to grow food.

As stated in the report of the first inquiry by the regional Australia committee into the impact of the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, released in May 2011, the release of the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan sent shockwaves through regional communities. Unfortunately, the way that the MDBA went about developing and communicating this document and the scale of the reductions that it proposed invoked a high degree of anger and bewilderment in basin communities. Those basin communities, particularly the one at Griffith last Friday, were again bewildered and incensed at the latest developments in this water debate.

In the second report released by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia, the committee stated that it made recommendations in a number of areas where it believes that information needs to be provided before the plan is put before parliament to give members, senators and the community a level of certainty regarding both the planning process and the science necessary prior to the plans finalisation. There are two important words in that sentence, 'certainty' and 'science'. 'Certainty' is the word that has been uttered the most. It was heard by the member for Makin and you, Deputy Speaker Mitchell, as you went with the regional Australia committee through the Riverina and other areas, such as the areas in South Australia. People want certainty. Certainty underpins business, investment and confidence. But that certainty has been dragged away from the business community of Griffith. The business chamber president there, Paul Pierotti, is absolutely aghast at the latest developments.

The other word that I mentioned in that sentence was 'science'. There has not been a lot of credible science used by the MDBA to a lot of their deliberations in relation to the guide and to the draft. There are many people who are struggling with the science that has been put forward. We all know that some of the things that the Wentworth Group of Scientists have put forward just do not stack up; they do not stand up as credible.

While we support the concept of a sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism that takes into account environmental works and measures and other savings, this bill does not identify the processes or safeguards and sits in the vacuum created by the fact that there is still no information on a final SDL. How can you put something like this before the parliament when we still do not know what the final SDL will be? It is beyond belief. It is quite inexplicable why this small, inadequate and disembodied element was rushed into parliament in this way.

We have heard many speakers talk about the big announcement last Friday at Goolwa. I will seek leave to table a document, Deputy Speaker Mitchell. I know that the person who released this documents holds this Labor government in power, so I am certain that the member opposite at the table will not mind if I table this. This is a media release put out by none other than Tony Windsor, the member for New England. The press release states that the Murray-Darling plan can be a win-win. He says, 'The parliament recently passed an amendment to the 2007 Water Act that enables the automatic adjustment of sustainable diversion limits of up to plus or minus five per cent of total sustainable diversion limits, 10,000 gigalitres.' He has announced it, and yet we are talking about that very piece of legislation. The cart has really been put before the horse there. I seek to table that media release. It is just not correct. I seek leave to table that document.

Leave granted.

Mr McCORMACK: I thank the member opposite. Here we have the chair of the regional Australia committee saying that what we are talking about now—what I am talking against and what the government is speaking for—has already been decided upon when we all know that that is not correct.

The following details some of the specific concerns that I and the members for Wannon, Farrer and Murray have in relation to this very important matter. The bill states that the MDBA can suggest adjustments to the SDL in a range of plus or minus five per cent. At this stage, as I said, we do not know what the final figure will be, so it is unclear what volume the five per cent will relate. Taking the current size of the environmental water holding, a five per cent increase could represent a volume equivalent to all of the water allocated to South Australia.

I do not know how much environmental water this nation needs. Obviously, we need a lot in times of drought. But at the moment Burrinjuck dam is at 91 per cent capacity and Blowering dam is at 90.1 per cent capacity. I do not know how much more environmental water that we need. But if we put any more environmental water into some of our dams the people downstream are going to be very worried, given the fact that earlier this year, in February and March, we saw devastating floods. Let me tell you, the last two floods that we have had in the Riverina caused widespread damage. A lot of the damage came about because of the huge amount of rain that we had, obviously. But we also had, dare I say, environmental flows. We had dams that were at capacity releasing their water downstream and that exacerbated the problems caused by the storms.

There has been a lack of effective consultation and transparency throughout this whole process. If it is so important, why was there such haste to have this amendment agreed to and why such a reluctance to even have it considered by the regional Australia committee in the first place? I remain critical that the bill received only a cursory glance at a single meeting that lasted just 27 minutes. As stated, no evidence was called for and no stakeholders were consulted.

I know that people would have liked to have given evidence. If they could not have come to Canberra, they would have at least liked to make submissions. Why didn't we take submissions from people such as the national irrigators and Tom Chesson? Why didn't we take submissions from the New South Wales irrigators and that fine advocate for sensible water reform, Andrew Gregson? Why couldn't we have taken submissions from the Murrumbidgee Valley Stakeholders Group, which has a new spokesman in John Dal Broi, the recently elected Mayor of Griffith? Why couldn't we, indeed, have taken evidence from, of all organisations, the Wentworth Group of Scientists or maybe some greenie group that might have also liked to have some say on this very important piece of legislation? But no, we had to have a meeting in Canberra lasting just 27 minutes at which no debate was allowed, no submissions were received and no evidence was given. Shame on them for that process.

The regional Australia committee chair maintains that the amendment was in fact one of the four recommendations that the committee in its previous report. In fact, recommendation 3 does not make any mention of an adjustment percentage or of MDBA involvement. Nor did we recommend that parliamentary scrutiny of an adjustment SDL be denied.

It is said that the bill is needed to implement the adjustment mechanism. Such an implication is not, however, correct. The act contains a mechanism for amendment of the basin plan, under subdivision F, sections 45-49. This mechanism requires formal consultation, including with stakeholders—that would be a first for the government—and is subject to the review of the minister and to the disallowance of parliament. The adjustment mechanism can, in fact, be implemented under the current act. So, why all the fuss?

The removal of the ability of stakeholders to have input into the adjustable mechanism is totally unacceptable.

The minister's role and parliamentary scrutiny should not be usurped by the MDBA and that is what this bill allows. We heard the member for Murray quite correctly point out that the MDBA has been clouded and flawed by some of its decision-making processes and lack of consultation in this whole process—and the member for Murray is correct. Pursuant to the act, as it stands, the minister can direct the authority and can choose whether or not to take the basin plan to the parliament. This bill would remove this capacity and require the minister to simply notify parliament of an MDBA action.

Under the current act, an amendment to the basin plan is subject to the disallowance of parliament. The bill would remove this provision in the instance of the adjustment mechanism operation—that is, the elected representatives would not have the capacity to review the critical element of the basin plan. Why should we agree to this? We are the people—the representatives of the communities—put here to make decisions, not the MDBA. The MDBA are not representative of Australia, they are not representative of the irrigators and they certainly are not representative of the Murray-Darling Basin communities, which rely on good policy from this parliament so that they are able to continue to grow the food and sustain the communities. These communities have had every obstacles put in front of them to fail. So many people from multicultural backgrounds were sent there to the dry arid plains and so many soldier settlers were sent there when recovering from the ghastly effects of world wars, yet despite all that and despite poor policy from this place they have survived, they have thrived. Why should any government and so-called independent authority take that ability away from them? It is an absolute disgrace and, as the member for Riverina, I will not stand to see my communities devastated. I am sure the shadow minister at the table, Ms Ley, the hard-working member for Farrer, also will not stand by and watch her communities of Deniliquin, Finley and Berrigan be ridden over by any poor policy from this government or the MDBA. It is just not right for the people who are entrusted with the very important job of growing food to feed this nation and to feed Asia, as the Prime Minister quite correctly points out.

On 3 May the Prime Minister talked about strengthening irrigation. I would love to see the Prime Minister actually put in policies to implement that idea, because I have not seen anything, since that landmark—supposedly—speech the Prime Minister gave on 3 May, to indicate that she is in any way going to strengthen and support irrigation.

Finally, this amendment does not need the support of this parliament. It will certainly not get my support. It needs to be discarded because it is flawed policy.

Cristy Houghton