COMMITTEES: Regional Australia Committee

Mr McCormack (Riverina) (11:05): by leave—I thank the minister at the table for his indulgence. The minister at the table, the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, knows full well how important it is to ensure that we have productive irrigation in regional Australia. That is certainly so in the Riverina area, and I know he is particularly conscious of how many billions of dollars worth of exports come out of that region.

I know that the minister at the table is particularly concerned about the Riverina because he has visited there on several occasions during this term of parliament, which I very much appreciate as do the people of the Riverina. That said, the member for Murray and I have produced a dissenting report to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia's recommendations and report for the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. We have done this for a number of reasons.

Whilst I have just spoken to the member for New England about the process by which this happened, and I take on board what he has just told me and how this has eventuated, the member for Murray and I believe that it is disingenuous of the government to have changed the order of speaking business in parliament last night such that this particular bill was debated by most of the speakers who wished to speak on it—certainly, the speakers who were on the list last night. That speaking list was exhausted, and this ensured that the dissenting report to the recommendations of the Regional Australia Committee was not available to those members who spoke, including myself and the member for Murray.

Members should have had that information available to them to make an informed decision as to what they would say in their speeches and which way they would vote. This vote may well be on party lines, as is so often the case with such things that come before this place, but it would have given the crossbenchers an opportunity to decide what they needed to say in their speeches—if they were, in fact, going to give them—and which way they were going to vote. This ensured that members who spoke on this important piece of legislation did not have the benefit of the final recommendations of the House of Representatives standing committee, or this minority report.

I commend the member for New England for the work that he has done heading up the Regional Australia Committee, which was, as we all know, charged with the responsibility of initially inquiring into the Murray-Darling Basin after the Griffith meeting in October 2010. The committee was formed and the member for New England was given that responsibility by the minister at the table in conjunction with the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, because they saw how important getting a basin plan correct was to the people of Griffith. Seven thousand people turned up to that meeting at Yoogali to express their fears about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

When the Prime Minister went to Goolwa in South Australia on 26 October to announce this special account for South Australia it changed the game as far as many people were concerned. I think the states were just about to sign up to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I do not think they would have opposed it—even New South Wales and Victoria were very close to signing up to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It was a game changer; the Prime Minister went to South Australia on 26 October and announced that she was saving the ailing Murray.

I can tell you that the Murray is not ailing right at this moment. The Murrumbidgee and the other rivers in the system are certainly not ailing. In fact, the floodwaters from March this year have yet to recede in many places, and that is one of the great concerns of the member for Murray in this minority report. She has just spoken about the impacts of flooding on the environment, the regional communities and the communities if the natural barriers and constraints in the system are removed. The member for Murray quite correctly points out that from the data available it would seem that widespread flooding of the lower Goulburn floodplain and the Murray below Yarrawonga would occur on a regular basis—every 2½ years. On the Goulburn floodplain this would be a 40,000 megalitre-a-day flood for a median duration of four days between June and November, for 40 per cent of the 2½ years. This would, as the member for Murray correctly points out, quite simply devastate a highly productive region and inundate infrastructure, including the flooding of some 100 houses in Shepparton.

Think about that: 100 houses in Shepparton. These people are important; they are certainly important to the member for Murray and they should be important to the people of this place. We know that floods cause more devastation than any other natural disaster. How do those people in Shepparton feel about this House putting in place a policy that is going to have their houses flooded on such a regular basis? The flatness of the topography would see water accessing aquifers, retriggering salinity problems. We need to protect the environment and ensure that we have a healthy river system, but this additional water for South Australia does not need to come at the cost of the economic imperatives of those communities which grow the food and the fibre which feeds and clothes not only this nation but also others.

The bill claims that pushing this extra volume of water down the system will improve the condition, in particular, of assets at the mouth of the Murray and the Lower Lakes in South Australia. The Standing Committee on Regional Australia visited those places and heard from those people; indeed, we went right throughout the Murray-Darling Basin system. We produced a very good report in May 2011—Of drought and flooding rains—taking on that famous Dorothea Mackellar line from her view of Australia in her poem My Country. We had a look at those places and saw what needed to be done. We realised that South Australia, like every other part of the system, needs to be looked after, but not at the expense of the rest of the system nor at the expense of the regional economies and communities which produce so many exports and so much food and fibre for this nation.

In fact, due to the barrages and other engineering works in place for more than 70 years in those parts of South Australia, it was observed that despite some of the biggest volumes of water on record recently surging past Lake Albert and the southern Coorong neither of these assets benefited from the record flood flow. Unfortunately, this bill does not address these engineered impediments to achieving a natural flushing of the mouth of the Murray or the salinity levels of the Lower Lakes.

We have heard all about constraints in the system. We heard the Prime Minister and the water minister talking about the constraints, but we in the upstream areas refer to these constraints as roads, railways, important levies and towns such as those at Shepparton and, in my electorate, Darlington Point.

It is quite unrealistic to expect the appropriation of extra funds—$1.77 billion—of which a mere drop, if you will pardon the pun, is going to be funded by this particular government. The rest of it is going to have to be found and appropriated by future governments. Let us all hope that that future government will be a coalition government, because we need a change of government. I am so pleased that the Leader of the Opposition yesterday made his strongest assertion yet that buyback would be capped at 1,500 gigalitres under a future coalition government, which would mean that only 249 gigalitres of water still need to be recovered. That would mean that there would be no additional buyback, which causes the 'Swiss cheese effect'—the member for New England quite often uses that term—and there would certainly be no additional pain for the people of the Riverina, the Murray and those other communities in the basin.

Mr Windsor interjecting—

Mr McCORMACK: I hear the member for New England interjecting. I am not quite sure what he is saying, but he knows how important those areas are to regional communities, he knows how important those regions are to the nation and he knows they need to be preserved and protected by good policy. I do not believe this bill represents good policy. I do not believe the basin plan is good policy. We need to get these things right; they are too important not to. Therefore, the member for Murray and I cannot support this bill and cannot support all of the recommendations of the House of Representative Standing Committee on Regional Australia. I thank the House for its indulgence.

Cristy Houghton