BILLS: Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2015, second reading

At the outset I will commend the member for Murray for her diligent and ongoing work in the water space. Nobody has fought harder than the member for Murray for a good outcome as far as a triple bottom line approach to the woes that are the water debate. As I said, I certainly give her credit for the job she has done and that she will continue to do as long as she is a member of the lower house here in the federal parliament. 

A bit of history and a bit of praise for a former Labor government—and this comes from the book Snowy: The People Behind the Power. I read from the introductory pages, where it says: 'The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Act, No. 25, was passed through the Commonwealth parliament'—this parliament, but in a different place, of course, just down the hill—'on 7 July 1949, ending more than 60 years of proposals and speculation about the development of the water resources'—water resources, that is important—'in Australia's highest landmass. Establishing the snowy scheme was to be one of the last undertakings of the Chifley Labor government.' Good on that administration, which lost power to Robert Menzies's Liberals in December the same year but certainly began the work for what was, as the book points out, 'a remarkable and ambitious project which would mark a coming of age for Australia'. Indeed, it certainly did. The Snowy hydro scheme was the biggest construction project ever undertaken in Australia. It was the diversion of the Snowy waters from their path to the sea by means of tunnels under the Great Dividing Range. They would instead be channelled westwards to flow into the mighty Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers and irrigate the dry inland. We all know that the scheme helped the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area and the Coleambally Irrigation Area—those two fine food- and fibre-growing regions which I represent. They are in the Riverina electorate now. Unfortunately, due to the Australian Electoral Commission, they will be in the electorate of Farrer after the next election. I say 'unfortunately' because those areas have been in the Riverina boundaries since Federation in 1901—I mean, why would you leave them in the Riverina? But I am being a bit facetious.                

Certainly, food and fibre growing is something that the Riverina does very well. In fact, I heard the minister at the table, the Deputy Leader of the National Party, say that the farmers of Parkes were some of the finest in this land. Of course he is right, but he has been to my area many times, doing a fine job as the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, and he understands just how important a role Riverina irrigators play in this nation. I commend the minister for pushing ahead with the Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2015, because, as he knows, water is not always a popular subject in this place. He understands as well as anybody that the water amendment bill is a difficult topic. It is a difficult topic at the moment with the Senate, which sometimes needs massaging to get policy through. He understands that it is a difficult topic to get agreement on with the other side. We saw in the last parliament just how difficult it was with the guide to the proposed Basin Plan. I am not using props, but I have here just a few of the voluminous tomes that were produced, many of which ended up in flames at Griffith, and, some might argue, rightly so. Those fiery meetings—fiery by name; fiery by nature—proved a turning point in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan's implementation because the Griffith farmers and those of the Riverina stood up and said, 'Enough is enough.' Without that advocacy and that passion, I doubt whether the plan would be in the state it is in now. Certainly, there was no triple-bottom-line approach to the plan in those volumes. Certainly, there was no social and economic consideration. There was plenty of environmental consideration—they are environmental documents—but there was, sadly, no concern and no consideration for the economic and social outcomes for those river communities which I proudly represent and the agriculture minister also proudly represents in his role as minister.                

I was certainly heartened when he produced the Agricultural competitiveness white paper—stronger farmers, stronger economy last year. On page 33, there is a chapter entitled 'A fairer go for Australian irrigators'. Thank goodness that Barnaby Joyce was sticking up for the farmers; thank goodness that the National Party and those regional Liberals were sticking up for the irrigators—because we certainly did not see Labor and the Greens sticking up for irrigators in the last parliament. I hope that they get on board with this proposed legislation to show that farmers are important people. You will need a politician now and again; you will need a priest now and again; you will need a lawyer now and again; you will need a policeman now and again; but you need a farmer three times a day, every day, at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Without good water policy, without a fair go, those farmers are not going to be able to produce the food that we so desperately need. I see the member for Rankin nodding. He understands it—I am sure he does.                

In 'A fairer go for Australian irrigators', in the Minister for Agriculture's publication, it says:                

In recent years, Australian irrigators have made great strides in improving on-farm irrigation technology. These systems are delivering significant benefits in water-use efficiency.                

Indeed they are. I was only too pleased to fly to Coleambally with the minister late last year to visit the Coleambally irrigation scheme and see just how every drop of water is being used to full effect. Unlike the environment, my irrigators—those the minister represents in his portfolio area—have to absolutely justify and account for every single drop of water that they receive. My goodness, they have to pay for it and then some, but they have to justify it, unlike the environment, where the Labor Party in the previous government wanted to just do these over-bank flows and had no concern about the poor old irrigator. All they wanted to do was water some so-called icon sites, which were part of these, as one would call them, ridiculous volumes that first came out in 2010 as part of the guide to the proposed Basin Plan, thankfully overturned by Griffith farmers.                

This water amendment bill delivers on the Australian government's response to the independent review of the Water Act. This review was conducted by a panel of experts, and thank goodness this government consulted, because those on the other side never consulted when it came to the original Basin Plan—save perhaps for a few climatologists who thought that the rivers were never going to run and it was never going to rain again. Weren't they wrong about that! But it was conducted by a panel of experts in irrigated agriculture, business regulation, law and science. The response accepts all 23 recommendations made by the panel in full or in part. It follows on from the very sensible legislation as far as capping—and I heard the member for Barker and the member for Murray talking about this—the buyback at 1,500 gigalitres. That was absolutely vital legislation. In an excellent article in the Fairfax press, Colin Bettles reported on what a difference that legislation would make. On 9 September 2015, a watershed day—pardon the pun—he wrote:                

Legislation to cap commonwealth water buybacks at 1500 gigalitres in the Murray Darling Basin Plan has passed the House of Representatives today.                

We heard the member for Barker talk about how buybacks kill communities. Indeed it did. Many of those communities are still suffering. I know that Helen Dalton, an irrigation farmer from my area, as well as the president of the Murrumbidgee Valley Food and Fibre Association, Debbie Buller, made a tour of the Menindee Lakes and other areas just recently and saw just how badly affected some of those areas were, courtesy of—and I use those words in inverted commas—the water legislation which we are trying to fix, which absolutely needs adjusting. This is what this legislation goes in part to do.                 

The 1,500-gigalitre cap on Commonwealth water buybacks, as Mr Bettles wrote, fulfils an election commitment from the Abbott government and will help provide certainty to rural and irrigation communities. And how important is that—we know that is vital. Mr Bettles' story even quoted the shadow agriculture minister, who said that the cap was necessary. But of course he then goes on to talk about the recovery of 450 gigalitres of water for South Australia. We all remember the time when the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, went to Goolwa and made that announcement just to keep the South Australians happy, because it was all about South Australia; never mind the upstream irrigators who grow the food and fibre that this nation and others need and want and is also going to help our export markets. Those are our export markets that were so valuably boosted by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so valuably boosted by the preferential trade agreements brokered by Minister Robb—with South Korea, with China and with Japan—last year. To tap into those markets, to make sure of those export opportunities, we need to be able to continue to grow the food and fibre that have made our farmers as renowned as they are—as the agriculture minister talked about in question time today.                

                     This bill complements the government's commitment to implement the Basin Plan in ways that optimise the social and economic outcomes. These are words we never heard from Labor, words that they did not care about in the previous government. We had the Independent member for New England going around on the bipartisan regional Australia committee. I was on that committee. We did a lot of talking, but we did more listening, for months on end to bring about a better resolution. We produced a report—quite a volume—with 21 recommendations. If anybody could have forced the issue, the Independent member for New England could have, because he was holding the government's numbers in the lower house, but Labor chose to do nothing. They chose, unfortunately, to ignore those irrigation farmers' pleas for help. So I am glad that Labor is on board with this. I am sorry to hear that so many Labor members have stood up and talked about how terrible it is that water is back in the agriculture portfolio. It is where it should be. Water should be in the agriculture portfolio; it is our most valuable resource. As Samuel McCaughey, one of the pioneers of Australian irrigation said, water is more valuable as a resource than any amount of gold. This nation is one of the driest continents on Earth and water is the most importance resource we have.                                    

                     This is good legislation and I am looking forward to seeing it pass the Senate. It was brought into the parliament by the now member for New England, who is doing a fantastic job in his electorate, in his space of agriculture, with the National Party. I am pleased that this is before the House tonight. I look forward to hearing the minister's summing up. If passed, the bill will also provide flexibility, as the member for Murray said, for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to use the proceeds of water allocation trade on complementary environmental works and measures. That is good. We are actually going to use the proceeds where they should be used—not on more buybacks which are going to hurt communities, which are going to provide Swiss cheese effects to those river communities I represent, and under existing arrangements the CEWH is only able to spend proceeds of trade on purchasing water. That is a ridiculous notion. So I am pleased that the agriculture minister recognises that, and this is in this legislation tonight. I am pleased that Labor is getting on board—finally. I have been in this place since 2010 and I have heard very little coming from the other side as far as common sense is concerned when it comes to water. So finally they are getting on board, so that is good. I am pleased that they supported us when the 1,500-gigalitre cap on water buyback was put into place. Finally I hear some common sense from Labor. I will be very pleased now to hear the minister's summing up. It is good legislation from a good minister, and I commend the bill to the House.

Cristy Houghton