Water Amendment Bill 2015

I also would like to rise to give my support to this bill, the Water Amendment Bill 2015. I want to say up-front that nothing in this bill changes the amount of water that will be provided for environmental purposes under the Basin Plan. 

That figure broadly remains at the level of 2,750 gigalitres, although there is an adjustment mechanism in the Basin Plan which provides some of range around that figure. This bill does not change that one iota. It does not change the amount of water that will be provided to the environment.

When I was here earlier listening to Senator Rhiannon, she said that somehow this revealed that the Nationals in particular and the coalition by extension do not care for the environment and are not prioritising the environment. The question that has to go back to her is: how does this reveal any lack of concern for the environment when it does not actually change the amount of water that will be provided to the environment?

It changes only one thing. What it does change is how we will recover that water to provide for the environment. The isolated opposition of the Greens to this reveals their true agenda. It is not to protect the environment. It is that they oppose irrigation. It is not that they want to protect wetlands. It is that they do not like intensive agriculture and they want to destroy jobs in the communities that rely on intensive agriculture for their livelihoods and sustenance and which produce the affordable foods that Australians are used to being able to consume. There are many, many farmers that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin and many families that rely on those farmers earning an income. The Greens want to make sure we have unrestricted buyback to rip the economic guts out of these communities and to rip the economic rug out from underneath those farming families.

We in the National Party and in the coalition generally are opposed to that kind of approach. We are opposed to that kind of approach because we support families that live in the basin. We support the jobs that have been created in the basin. We support the very diverse and affordable food that all Australians can eat thanks to the Murray-Darling Basin.

This is something that is really important for the whole country. It is not just important for the 2.1 million people and families who live in the basin. It is important for all Australians because we all rely on the food that is grown in the Murray-Darling Basin every week when we go down to Coles and Woolies. Every week when you go down to the supermarket you are most likely buying something that was grown or started being grown in the Murray-Darling Basin because it accounts for a full 40 per cent of agriculture in Australia. Australians are used to being able to have pretty cheap food. They are used to being able to access food at a low price. There is nothing wrong with that. But if we were to shut down the Murray-Darling Basin, which the Greens want to do with their crazy target of 6,700 gigalitres, that would completely remove the ability of Australians to buy cheap food in their shopping trolleys every week. It would not just affect the families in the basin; it would affect every family in this country if we were to follow the Greens approach, stop our ability to grow food and make food more expensive across our entire country. I do not support that. I want to support the people who grow our food in this nation. This bill helps to do that. It helps to do that because it re-emphasises that this government is committed to finding an environmental outcome which is practical and does not reduce the productive capacity of Murray-Darling Basin communities.

There are two main broad ways to recover water. There is a third way which I will go into later in my speech, but there are two main broad ways to recover water to go back to the environment. I agreed with Senator Rhiannon when she mentioned in her speech that we have overallocated water in the Murray-Darling Basin. All sides of politics agree with that. Indeed, it was the former Howard government that kicked this process off on Australia Day in 2007. There was an overallocation. But there are two broad ways to deal with that overallocation. One way is to buy the water back from farmers and reduce the amount of water that is used for food production and therefore reduce the amount of food that is produced in the Murray-Darling Basin. That is one way.

The other way is to invest in ways of using water more efficiently so that we can still produce the same amount of food in the basin at the same prices we currently enjoy and have the same number of jobs but put the water savings made from those efficient investments towards the environment. That is the other way to do it, and I believe that we should emphasise that way and not the buyback way. The buyback way destroys communities, it destroys jobs and it lessens our ability to grow cheap and affordable food. The infrastructure way is the smart way because it makes us use water smarter and more efficiently. We can still provide that water to the environment, but we will not undermine the economic efficiency of basin communities.

That is exactly what this bill does. This bill does that because it gives basin communities, the 2.1 million people in the basin, the certainty that the Basin Plan will not buy back more than 1,500 gigalitres. That is a lot of water. In round terms it is three times the size of Sydney Harbour that we will be buying back every year, on average. But it is much better to cap that amount to provide that certainty than to leave an open-ended commitment that does not allow people in the basin to plan for their futures and invest in their own lives.

I noted that Senator Rhiannon talked about the need to provide certainty to the environment, that frogs and fishes and wetlands and trees and all these other wonderful things in God's green planet deserve certainty on how to plan their futures. I think that people deserve that certainty too. I think people are part of our natural environment, a pretty important part of our natural environment and just as important, if I may go out on a limb, as trees, frogs and wetlands. They deserve certainty, and this bill provides them with that certainty.

There has been some contention and controversy that the Water Act cannot deliver a triple-bottom-line approach, which is what I am proposing here. I think we should treat people, the environment—trees and frogs—and society—the social structure in our communities—on an equal and level playing field. I think they should all be considered in a balanced way when we come into this place and make decisions on these matters. Those decisions need to be informed by the values we have, not just by the raw numbers and data that we have access to, because it goes to a values choice about how much you value someone's job and community. Those things are really important and they should be considered on an equal basis with environmental factors. That is what is broadly known as a triple-bottom-line approach.

I can understand why some consider that the Water Act may fail to deliver such a triple bottom line, because in the construction of the Water Act at a federal level it did get quite complicated. At a federal level the Commonwealth government does not have constitutional powers over our river systems. This applies particularly in relation to irrigation: powers over irrigation are reserved for the states under section 100 of the Constitution. So when the Water Bill was going through the parliament in 2007, other heads of power had to be relied on to provide the Commonwealth government with the powers to legislate in this field. That influenced the drafting of the Water Act. This is most prevalent in section 3, in particular—the objects of the act. Objects (a) to (h) are listed—I do not know how many that makes—but the key ones in this context are objects (b) and (c) which state:

(b) to give effect to relevant international agreements …

—and all of those agreements relate to environmental issues such as wetlands and migratory birds—

(c) in giving effect to those agreements, to promote the use and management of the Basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes …

That is a description of this triple-bottom-line context, but it is important to note that that triple-bottom-line definition is preceded by the qualification 'in giving effect to those agreements'. Those international agreements, as I said, all related to environmental factors.

There is great legal controversy about whether or not those international agreements provide the government and the MDBA with the flexibility to act in a triple-bottom-line manner. I will not go into much more detail, but sections 20 and 21 are also relevant in this context, where the words 'giving effect to relevant international agreements' are repeated. Section 21 begins with the preamble that the Basin Plan is 'to implement international agreements', then later in that section it says that the Basin Plan is to have regard to things such as social, cultural, Indigenous and other public benefit processes and the consumptive and other economic uses of basin water resources. But again, those economic, social and Indigenous priorities are all subordinate, in a way, in those sections of the act, to the overarching environmental factors. That has clearly given rise to some concern that the Basin Plan will not be implemented in a triple-bottom-line way.

This bill helps to remove those concerns, because it clearly states that the government's approach will be defined by capping the amount of water that can be bought back and capping it in a way which limits the economic harm caused by reduced consumptive and productive water use in the Murray-Darling Basin. We will instead seek to implement those other ways of recovering water—the more efficient, smarter ways—so that we can act in a way which does not harm people's jobs, does not take families off their farms and does not reduce our ability to grow cheap and affordable food.

There was something else in Senator Rhiannon's speech which grabbed me: apparently we are doing this to help big water corporations, or some such. Corporations always seem to be the bad guys in the Greens' fairytales. Water licences are now primarily owned by the Commonwealth government, but they are not the ones of interest in this particular piece of legislation. The facts are that, apart from the environmental use of water, water licences are primarily owned by family farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin. They are the people who own the asset, but they are actually not the people that we are trying to protect and target with this legislation, because they have an asset. They have a licence. As much as I want to see farming continue in this country, and intensive agriculture continue in the Murray-Darling Basin, they are not as harmed as other people when water is bought back. Under the buyback proposal an irrigator, a licence holder, has the option to sell their water licence, to achieve a good price for that asset and then have the flexibility, with those resources, to do what they like with the rest of their life. They can move to the Gold Coast or they can buy another farm somewhere else. Indeed, some of them have sold their licences and then bought other licences elsewhere. I think Senator Nash would well remember the Kahlbetzer family, who were able to sell, how much was it—

Senator Nash: "$300 million."

$303 million worth of water licences, I think, to Senator Wong. You only get one Senator Wong in your lifetime, and Kahlbetzer has certainly made every post a winner on that deal—$303 million worth of water licences were bought by the Commonwealth government and he took off to Africa and bought massive amounts of farms and water licences there, and we were left with effectively just air. I cannot remember—I stand to be corrected—but I think that $303 million bought 109 gigalitres of water. If I were over next to Senator Nash in the chamber, I could ask the departmental adviser. But 109 gigalitres works out at about $3,000 a megalitre—about 50 per cent higher than the usual average going rate for water. It was a great deal for one of those parties, and it was not the Commonwealth government; it was the Australian taxpayer, unfortunately. Those are the options available to irrigators. They have that flexibility after they sell their licences, and good luck to them.

But there are other people who do not have that option; they do not have that flexibility. When water is bought out of a small town and economic activity falls, the people who own the motel, the tyre shop, the newsagency, the bakery or the service station do not have any water licences—they do not get any bailout from the Commonwealth government—but their turnover and their revenue definitely fall. Their businesses are definitely affected. That has been an unfortunate consequence of the Basin Plan, but we want to limit that unfortunate consequence.

Just last year I was up in St George—I was there a few months ago as well. Last year I particularly went to speak to people in St George, a country town in south-western Queensland that relies heavily on irrigated agriculture. A big water licence was bought near a smaller town close to St George called Dirranbandi. That has had a terrible effect on the town. Agricultural consultants have had to leave because there is no more business for them. The wider business community has been affected, and it is causing quite a bit of harm.

The problem for St George is that there is still a lot of work to do. Under the Basin Plan, St George is slated to have its water use reduced by around 100 gigalitres. I should say that this is for the wider Condamine-Balonne region, but, under the current proposal, most of it will come from the St George area. Then there is potentially a common pool amount which would possibly amount to around 50 gigalitres from the area, depending on the review that will be done over the next year. So they are facing a 150 gigalitre reduction. It is about a 50 per cent reduction in water use in that district. It is a third of the overall Condamine-Balonne district. For various reasons that I will go into shortly, at the moment there is not the plan to take water from those areas. They will lose half their productive asset, half their economic asset. The whole town is only there because of this. St George exists because 30 or 40 years ago we built a place called Beardmore Dam. Other farmers came into the area and built ring tanks to store water from overland flow and started growing wheat, grains, cotton and all these other products that have sustained St George. It is a beautiful town, away from the coast, in our nation, and we should protect towns like St George. I certainly want to make sure they continue to flourish in the future.

At the moment we have achieved 50 gigs or so, so we have 100 to take back, possibly 150. At the moment around 50 gigs have been recovered in the Condamine-Balonne. What has been really disappointing is that, of those 50 gigs, only about four gigs—last time I checked it was about four, but it may have changed—was recovered through infrastructure, through that option of getting more efficient. The other 46 have been recovered through buyback. If that proportion continues, St George will no longer exist in its current form, unfortunately. It will be a much diminished town. I do not want to see that. I want to protect against that happening. That is why this cap is very important. It is very important to pass this cap, but it is not the only thing we must do to save towns like St George.

I would like to conclude by briefly talking about some other issues that we need to tackle in this field to protect towns like St George—issues that I hope will be taken up in the inquiry by the Senate Select Committee on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which is visiting St George for a hearing on 29 September. I encourage all residents in the area to go along to that hearing, to make submissions and to have their views heard. Particularly, we have to get smarter at delivering the environmental benefits we want to deliver. For the Greens this is about reducing intensive agriculture. For those of us that are the rational political parties in this country—and I include the Labor Party in that—it is not about reducing intensive agriculture; it is about protecting the environment. That is what our goal should be.

When you go to St George and to the wider area, you learn about the environment. The Murray-Darling is not just one big old dry carpet like it is down here on the floor, where you put water down on one end of the carpet and it flows to the other end. It is not a series of interconnected garden hoses. It is a very different and diverse system. It covers a huge area across our country. In that part of the area, when you put water in and try to deliver a water-flow event, often the water will not push down the river system unless there is a big flood; it will bifurcate at the end of the river systems into wetlands, and those wetlands are often the ones we want to target and provide water to. But we can do that in a smart way or in a silly way. We can buy back water haphazardly and chuck water down the river. There are assets we can use in this region to make sure we get the same environmental outcome without destroying towns like St George and destroying the livelihoods of the 2,000 people that live there and the lives of about another 2,000 that live in the area. There are weirs on the Culgoa and Balonne rivers in the area that we can use more efficiently to direct environmental flows towards environmental assets in a more efficient way.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder are now the biggest irrigator in our country. They own the most amount of water right now—about 1,160 gigalitres of water. They are the biggest irrigator in our country and they need to get smarter about how they water their fields, just like we have expected farmers over the years to get more efficient at watering their own fields. They can do that by using assets in this region to make sure that, when we put water down the Balonne, half of it does not go down the wrong river and end up watering stuff which is actually not that much of the priority or not as important as other environmental assets. There is a weir there we can use and upgrade to direct the water to the appropriate places. I do give credit to the government, which has had a number of reports prepared on these issues recently, but now we need to act in the next couple of years to make sure that we do get smarter with this way of recovering water. I would add that we need to think about getting water from places other than just St George. There are other environmental assets upstream in the Condamine-Balonne region, around Chinchilla and Dalby, which also should be considered, particularly to minimise the impact on St George but also to help the micro and macro invertebrates is that part of the system.

The final thing I want to say is that this should not just be about water; this is about the environment. Just adding water is a simplistic way of trying to deal with this issue. This is not a cake mix that you buy down at your local shops and just add water to make it work. It needs a lot more sense to get a productive environment in our Murray-Darling system. We need to be smarter about this and look at what we are targeting, which is the environment, not people's jobs, which is what the Greens want to do.

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