MOTIONS: Murray-Darling Basin Plan Disallowance

Mr McCormack (Riverina) (16:40): I move:

That the Basin Plan made under the Water Act 2007 and presented to the House on 26 November 2012, be disallowed.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has generated a wealth of fear and uncertainty for regional communities and cost good, hardworking country people a wealth of money. An attack on the nation's farmers is, in fact, an attack on the nation itself. This is an assault on regional Australia.

The Water Act was legislated in 2007 by the coalition government. The fact the Commonwealth was able to gain carriage of the water issue, overriding the states in spite of the Constitution, was made possible only via international treaties. Because management of water is constitutionally the responsibility of the states, the Commonwealth government invoked several international environmental treaties, particularly the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat, done at Ramsar, Iran, on 2 February 1971.

The Water Act therefore became an environmental act. The Solicitor-General of Australia gave advice, upon request, to the government that:

Neither the Convention on Biological Diversity nor the Ramsar Convention require that the Parties disregard economic and social considerations in giving effect to the environmental obligations. Both Conventions establish a framework in which environmental objectives have primacy but the implementation of environmental objectives allows consideration of social and economic factors.

As the New South Wales Irrigators' Council chief executive officer Andrew Gregson said only last week, 'Green idealism will neither feed nor clothe people.' To wrest power from the states, the Commonwealth resorted to an obscure international environmental convention.

To avoid a constitutional crisis, the Commonwealth had to build the Water Act around this fig-leaf.

That was the view of leading Harvard University water expert John Briscoe, who addressed a Senate inquiry last year. He said this process 'would not work and could not work'.

Professor Briscoe, who was senior water adviser at the World Bank, absolutely nailed it when he said that the Water Act placed extraordinary faith in the views of scientists. The act stipulated that 'science will determine what the environment needs' and that the task for government, including the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, is then just to 'do what science tells it to do', Professor Briscoe said. This decision-making process effectively excludes asking the thousands of people living and working in the basin—those to be most affected by the new Basin Plan—to use their knowledge and expertise to review and evaluate the science, he asserted. Never a truer word was said. He said that it was the job of science to map out options, indicating clearly the enormous uncertainties which underlie any scenario linking water and environmental outcomes. But it was up to government to decide the necessary trade-offs and value judgments and then to take responsibility for its decisions and to make those decisions transparent to the public.

In his advisory role on the Basin Plan, Professor Briscoe said:

In all of my years of public service, often in very sensitive environments, I had never been subject to such an elaborate “confidentiality” process as that embodied in the preparation of the Guide to the Basin Plan.

He said that time and again he was told by many professionals, community leaders, farmers and state politicians who had made Australia the widely acknowledged world leader in arid zone water management that they were excluded from the process of developing the Basin Plan.

On 14 October 2010, just six days after the original guide to the draft to the Basin Plan was made public, more than 7,000 people descended on the Yoogali Club at Griffith to voice their objection. I say 'objection', singular, because they spoke as one. They were united, and people power won that day. The Labor government took notice—it had to; it was forced to—and tasked the new House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia with conducting an exhaustive inquiry into the impact of the guide.

Another 1,000 people from Griffith and district fronted to the committee's hearing on 25 January 2011. Among them was Coleambally Irrigation Cooperative Chief Executive Officer John Culleton, who poignantly quoted a local farmer who said: 'I'm not here to survive; I came here 30 years ago to thrive.'

Then, on 15 December last year, the Leader of the Opposition and the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities—a title which is, I might add, a bit incongruous with this bad Basin Plan—were there when as many as 12,000 converged on Yoogali in another defiant show of solidarity against the ill-conceived draft plan.

Nearly a year on, and the MDBA still has not explained how it intends to act to get the water to the 2,442 icon sites it listed. We are still yet to see an environmental watering plan for the 'key environmental assets', what the precise socioeconomic impact on towns will be, where the water will come from and the actual costings about where this money will come from.

Labor's record on saving water through infrastructure is atrocious and it cannot be trusted. As at the end of May 2012, the government had spent just 15 per cent of the $4.6 billion allocated towards projects to deliver water into the basin. This included funding just 12 per cent of projects in New South Wales—$159 million of $1.35 billion; just 16 per cent of projects in Victoria—$171 million of $1.059 billion; just 26 per cent of projects in Queensland—$21 million of $81 million; and40 per cent of projects in South Australia—$162 million of $420 million. For every one litre this government has saved through infrastructure, it has bought back five litres. This is a dreadful indictment. The government has spent just $500 million on infrastructure projects, yet it has spent almost $2 billion on buybacks.

If the government were serious, it would genuinely look at building more dams. That would actually increase the amount of food we produce and generate the wealth we need to pay back the debt Labor has accumulated. But, just like the 26 October 2012 'I saved the ailing Murray' pledge by the Prime Minister at Goolwa, making a $1.77 billion unfunded announcement of an extra 450 billion litres for South Australia, Labor makes a grand announcement and then does nothing on delivery.

In the 2007 election, Labor promised to 're-engineer' the Menindee Lakes, with a $400 million promise. Indeed, it was top of its list of Murray-Darling projects. Five years later, and Labor has spent just $21 million on Menindee and not a single drop of water has been saved. Why doesn't Labor actually deliver on the promises it has made before it goes about making new ones? There remains almost $4 billion yet to be spent on infrastructure works, and now another $1.77 billion has been ratified in this House, after considerable debate just last night.

The Goolwa announcement was just another example of Labor making promises with money it does not have and for which it will not be accountable. It is just piling up the liabilities for future governments. The 2.1 million people in the basin, which supplies around 40 per cent of Australia's food, deserve better. They deserve a future, just like all Australians. My motion to disallow the Basin Plan will be seconded by the member for Murray, who, like me, has an electorate which stands to significantly lose through poor water policy. And this is happening in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area's centenary and the Australian Year of the Farmer.

Just last week Elizabeth Minehan complained to me that the value of her Grimison Avenue, Griffith, home had decreased by $75,000 and now she could not sell. She blamed the Basin Plan. Let us never forget, farmers are paid for their water but businesses in the regional cities and towns which rely on agricultural and irrigation production to keep their economies turning do not receive compensation and they suffer considerable downturn when productive water goes out of a district.

Since our disallowance motion was lodged, at 10.28 on Monday night, the opposition leader has made his strongest statement yet on water, saying a future coalition government would cap buyback at 1,500 gigalitres, meaning, with water already recovered, there would be only 249 gigalitres left to purchase basin wide. The Nationals' New South Wales Minister for Primary Industries yesterday announced a limit on buybacks at three per cent per valley, per decade, from 15 January 2013. Tony Abbott's and Katrina Hodgkinson's announcements this week are welcomed. So too is the assurance given to me yesterday by the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government that the taxation hindrance holding up a funding offer to Murrumbidgee Irrigation Ltd of nearly $150 million to implement grant activities in return for 1,534 megalitres of general security, 8,352 megalitres of high security and 23,110 megalitres of conveyance water entitlements to the Commonwealth, a commitment made in February 2011, would be fixed.

Each and every member of this House was entrusted by their community to represent their interests. Above and beyond all else, the people of our electorates expect us to be their voice in this place. Like all members on all sides in this House, I believe this is a very grave responsibility which I cannot—and do not—take lightly. Every member will appreciate the difficulty which I face today in moving this motion. It is not something that I relish nor something I take joy in doing. I move this motion because I cannot, in good faith, cast a vote in favour of a move which will bring about severe social and economic consequences for my community.

When severe social and economic consequences are threatened through significant change in the automotive industry in South Australia, the people of Wakefield expect their member to represent their interests. When job losses hit Canberra as a result of the federal budget, the voters here expect their members, for Canberra and Fraser, to voice their concerns. In exactly the same manner, my constituents expect me—above and beyond all else—to represent their interests on this national stage.

The Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area—the heart of my electorate—is one of the most productive regions of Australia. The annual value of our farm-gate productions is in excess of half a billion dollars each and every year. This is greatly multiplied with a range of value-add processing. The winemakers' association estimates more than $2 billion of regional investment has been injected into our region in wine processing alone. We are home to the SunRice processing facilities, which enable millions around the globe to be fed. We produce chicken meat, cattle, wine, citrus, rice, cotton, nuts, vegetables, cereals—the list goes on and on. And we are highly dependent on water.

My electorate is an electorate built on irrigation. My community is a community built on irrigation. The people who entrusted me to represent them are reliant on irrigation. It is simply not possible for me to support, encourage or allow to pass without comment a Basin Plan which will so materially affect the people who placed their trust in me.

This plan says that my electorate must have hundreds of billions of litres of its lifeblood taken away from it. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of billions of litres, because this plan does not specify that. It merely says that my electorate must suffer an indeterminate amount of pain. This plan says that 320 billion litres of water must come directly from my electorate, plus some share of a further 971 billion litres that is to be 'shared' amongst the southern basin. Around 50 per cent of that shared volume is to come from New South Wales, so I can only assume that around half of that will come from my electorate. That is another 243 billion litres of water.

That is 563 billion litres of social and economic productivity. A billion litres is one gigalitre. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, each gigalitre of water produces around $770,000 in gross value of production. That same gigalitre provides around seven jobs. We are talking about 563 of those gigalitres. Let me put that into a context that every member of this House will understand. We are talking about just under 4,000 jobs. How many members in this chamber would stay silent when that sort of direct impact was being thrust upon the people who trust them to speak up? I would like to think not one of us—and certainly not me.

I recognise quite clearly that I have overstated the impact here, because not all of those gigalitres will be simply stripped from production. Some of them will be obtained via infrastructure, but not enough. Too many will come from buybacks, which are nothing short of economic vandalism, a simple ripping out of the economic capacity of communities.

This plan should have been sensible about how it obtained water. It should have focused on maintaining the productivity of our regions. It should have been about the balance between production of food and fibre and ensuring the sustainability of the environment. But it is not. It needed to have a cap on buybacks. It does not.

The failure of the minister to pay heed to social and economic devastation leaves me with no choice but to disapprove of this plan. The minister may believe that the impacts are far from his inner-Sydney electorate. They are not distant to me. They are not distant to my electorate.

Today I do what any member of this chamber should do: I stand up for the people of Riverina, who put their trust in me. I speak not with my voice but with theirs. Their voice is clear. It is loud and it is proud. It says to the Australian parliament and the people of this land that they will not suffer this indignity, this great affront to their resourcefulness and their productivity. They say no to this Basin Plan. This is why I move this disallowance motion, and I urge others to join me for the sake of their electorates, their communities and the people they represent.

Finally, I commend Riverina people for their resilience during this difficult time. The Area News editor, Daniel Johns, has led a spirited campaign, Our Water Our Future. Among many who have been strident advocates for common sense are included Griffith Business Chamber president, Paul Pierotti; Murrumbidgee Valley Food and Fibre Association president, Debbie Buller; the state member for Murrumbidgee, the Hon. Adrian Piccoli; Murrumbidgee Irrigation policy and public relations officer and proud Gogeldrie cotton grower, Elizabeth Stott, and her husband, Dallas; and the various mayors of affected towns. There are many, many more. They turned up in their thousands at the many meetings at Griffith.

The minister at the table, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, knows that. He went to some of those meetings, and I do appreciate the fact that he went there. I do appreciate the fact that he took copious notes. I do not appreciate the Basin Plan he has put before this parliament.

This is one of the last debates of this parliament this year. It is, I would argue, the most important, because water grows food, and food availability and security are the most important economic and moral challenge of our time.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Georganas): Is the motion seconded?

Cristy Houghton