BILLS: Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012

Mr McCormack (Riverina) (22:01): As I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012, I hold in my hand the proof committee Hansard, which runs to 33 pages, of the hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia, which inquired into the bill, on Tuesday, 20 November 2012. I inform the House that the member for New England, who is the chair of that committee; the ALP member for Bendigo; the Liberal member for Murray; and I as the Nationals member for Riverina were in attendance at that hearing and we took evidence from a number of witnesses, following the submissions that were sent in to us, to discuss this very important bill. Certainly, people took a lot of time on their submissions to the committee.

 The bill was referred to the Regional Australia committee on 1 November. The reason for the referral was that the bill commits future parliaments to appropriating $1.77 billion. This is an unusual approach which deserved scrutiny by the committee, given its impact on the budget—and we know how important the budget is. We know how important it is for the future of Australia and we certainly know how important it is to the future of Labor in government, which at this point in time has not delivered a budget in surplus since 1989. The committee received 16 submissions and undertook a public hearing, as I said, on 20 November. The submissions were tabled and we took evidence from a number of people at that hearing.

To my way of thinking, the fact that tonight we have put aside the adjournment debate because the Leader of the House has opted to exhaust the list of speakers on this bill makes a mockery, really, of what the Regional Australia committee members were trying to achieve. We read the submissions, we listened to the evidence at that hearing and we had a meeting just this afternoon to discuss our recommendations. We have had a series of meetings since the hearing. We have discussed it in this parliament amongst ourselves. We have exchanged telephone calls. We have done all that to come to a set of three recommendations, and the wording of those recommendations was the subject of considerable debate. We had agreed that, in the morning, we would finalise the actual wording and report back to the parliament, for the benefit of members, the standing committee's recommendations, which would affect this bill. But tonight we are exhausting the speakers list and tomorrow, the Leader of the Government tells me, we will vote on it. So members will vote on the bill with all the speakers having spoken on it but without the benefit of knowing what the Standing Committee on Regional Australia's recommendations are.

After all that—the 16 submissions that were made by people in good faith, and the evidence that was given in good faith last week in Sydney by environmental groups, farming groups and irrigators—I wonder: what was the point of it? What was the point of it when tonight we are being told to hurry up our speeches and to get all this debate out of the way? For what? The members cannot take a vote without the informed recommendations of the Regional Australia committee. The Independent member for New England keeps the Labor government in power, but what must he think? His committee have spent hours and hours on this inquiry and have deliberated on the bill, and taxpayer money was spent on all of us to travel to Sydney to hear the evidence—for what? We heard the evidence and we made recommendations, and those recommendations will be, what, just tabled in parliament? I cannot see for what purpose.

What should have happened is that there should have been enough time to table the recommendations. Members on both sides of the House would have benefited from being able to read the recommendations, and we would have been able to vote on the bill based on those recommendations. It is all lip-service, as is typical of this government. Had it not been for the passion and pride shown by those who live in the Coleambally and Murrumbidgee irrigation areas at the original meeting with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the public rally on 14 October 2010, this whole water debate would have headed in a different direction, because it was at that meeting that 7,000 locals told the MDBA that they were not going to watch their communities be destroyed by a bad guide to a draft of the plan without a proper environmental watering plan and without proper scientific validation. Had it not been for those 7,000 people turning up and telling the MDBA that they needed to go back and rethink this, the minister for regional Australia and the minister for water would not have charged the Independent member for New England with the responsibility of heading the House Standing Committee on Regional Australia's look into the MDBA.

We did that and we produced a fine report, Of drought and flooding rains: inquiry into the impact of theGuide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which itself produced 21 really worthwhile recommendations. It talked about buyback. It talked about the patchwork economy that we are in, but also about the 'Swiss cheese effect' of which the member for New England constantly reminded members in this House. It talked about the need for water savings infrastructure to be put in on farm, and for environmental works and measures to ensure that the water recovery was such that it did not have an impact on those regional communities which grow fibre and food to feed our nation and, indeed, other nations as well.

As I say, we produced a really good report. It was produced in May 2011. Yet it took until the last sitting day of last year for the water minister to come into this place and actually acknowledge the fact that that report had been delivered. I do truly believe that that only happened after I implored the minister for regional Australia that this should be so. Yet, still, those 21 recommendations have not been followed through.

As to the three recommendations that our committee has made—which are being worked on as we speak and will be finalised in the morning—we made them for what? The members will not have the benefit of those informed submissions, the benefit of that informed hearing that we had in Sydney, and the benefit of those people who took the time and trouble to actually give us evidence—and that is the environmental groups, too—and tell us what they thought about this particular bill, which is now going to be voted on in the morning after the speakers list has been exhausted tonight. Well, that is a disgrace. It makes a mockery of the democracy we are supposed to be upholding.

Within hours of that meeting ending at Griffith, as I say, the member for New England was given charge of it and the Standing Committee on Regional Australia was set up. And we have done some great work. We went right around—we met in 12 regional centres in four states, with the largest attendance, apart from the hearing in Griffith on 25 January 2011, being 70 at Deniliquin on the previous day.

The people of Griffith and the people I serve are understandably concerned. Only last week I told some locals in Griffith that, had the Prime Minister, on 26 October when she made the big announcement in Goolwa, in good faith come to Griffith and said: 'I am going to set aside, as the Prime Minister of this country, a special account of water for South Australia, but I am going to do it just through works and measures. I am going to do it with a special fund that I'm going to set aside. It's going to cost $1.77 billion. I have not actually worked out how I am going to fund that. I know how you people work hard, and I acknowledge the fact that your area of Griffith is celebrating its centenary of irrigation. So, after this meeting in Griffith, I am going to go to Goolwa and announce this special fund,' I think the people of Griffith might have thought, 'Well, you know, the water's going to come out of works and measures—it's not going to come from further buyback; it's going to be coming from a special water account fund,' I think they might have accepted it. I think they might have thought, 'The Prime Minister has come here in good faith; we should listen to her; we should go along with what she says.' But no—absolutely playing the politics, the Prime Minister went to South Australia and said: 'I've saved the ailing Murray! I've done that.' She had the minister for water there, and they both took credit for saving the ailing Murray.

I can tell you that some of the river red gums in my part of the world are actually dying, drowning, through too much water. We heard Senator Hanson-Young going on about the river red gums dying. Well, I would like to know where they are dying, because many of the river red gums and many of the trees have been underwater for so long, due to the last two floods that we have had in the Riverina, that they have actually got too much water. I would love to know how the government is planning to put more water down the system when—and we heard the member for Murray talk about the low-lying areas in her electorate—there are parts of my electorate which have been underwater since March, and the people of Darlington Point are fearing that, with the amount of water that we are proposing to put down the river, they could be permanently underwater. That simply is not good enough in a country which says that it is going to look after its people, particularly its regional people.

The final Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been put forward, and I have signed a disallowance motion with the member for Murray. I stand by doing that. But, as I say, all Australians want a healthy river system. We cannot survive without this happening. Regional cities and towns along the rivers also know we desperately need a Basin Plan with a focus not solely on environmental outcomes but also with economic and social implications taken into consideration. And we do not have that at the moment.

The Prime Minister needs to know that no region has been more interested in, passionate about and vocal in the Basin Plan deliberations than my electorate of the Riverina. This is because the Riverina people have the most to lose if too much productive water—that which is used to grow food and fibre—is lost to the local area through buybacks. And I am so pleased that the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, this morning made his strongest statement yet that buyback in a Basin Plan under a future coalition government—and, God willing, that will happen next year—would be capped at 1,500 gigalitres, because that will mean that only 249 gigalitres are still to be recovered through buybacks. Over the years, I think the irrigation communities can wear that. Certainly we cannot take buybacks totally off the table because there are some irrigation farmers who want to sell their water. But too often in the past we have seen the other side of politics talking about buying water from willing sellers when they have actually been debt-pressured sellers. They really did not want to sell their water, but they had to because they were pressured by banks and because the Labor government, the biggest irrigator in the country, had gone into the marketplace and were paying over the odds for water. Why wouldn't an irrigator want to sell his or her water if they were due to retire, their kids did not want to take up the farm and there is money being offered to do it?

At the moment, the Burrinjuck and Blowering dams, which produce a lot of hydroelectricity and a lot of irrigation productive water, are almost chock-a-block full of water. If we put too much more environmental water into the system, there is not going to be any air space; the dams are full as it is. Unfortunately, when we experience floods, as we have for the past couple of years, we then experience the typical environmental flows going into an already flooded Murrumbidgee Valley, which is just what we do not need.

The Prime Minister, in her 3 May 2012 speech to the Global Foundation summit in Melbourne, spoke of strengthening irrigation. Her more recent Australia in the Asian century white paper also acknowledged the huge role Australia has to fulfil regarding the global food task in the years ahead. I commend the Prime Minister for making those statements, because they are true. But she knows as well as anyone that Australia is well placed geographically, economically and agriculturally, with our agricultural industry already well established, to more than meet the growing food demand in Asia. But we cannot do it if we do not give our farmers productive water and we cannot do if we set up special accounts for South Australia. Why isn't there a special account for the Riverina? It has already had 360 gigalitres bought out of it, more than any other place in the basin. It is just totally unfair. My people will not keep copping this, let me tell you. I would like to see the Prime Minister come to Griffith and explain to them the Basin Plan and acknowledge the great job that they do on behalf of this nation. (Time expired)

Cristy Houghton