BILLS - Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021 - Second Reading

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (18:22): The Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021 is about implementing the Basin Plan. There's been a lot of talk about what is and isn't the Basin Plan and what is or isn't included in a very important document for our country. It's an issue that has been of interest to Australia for as long as Australia has been around. There's section 100 of our Constitution, which is basically there because of debates at the constitutional conventions around the Murray-Darling. That particular section of our Constitution gives the states the rights to manage their own water resources. They really did manage their own water resources in an independent and uncoordinated way until this process was kicked off by the Howard government in 2007. It took many years to finalise a plan for the basin. There's a lot of talk about what that is and how that came about. But I was somewhat involved at the time the plan went through. At that time, I was working as the chief of staff to the then Senator Barnaby Joyce, who was the shadow water minister. For all the talk over these last couple of days about former Senator Joyce and now Deputy Prime Minister Joyce, he voted for the Basin Plan. The Liberal-Nationals government largely voted for it. The member for Riverina, Michael McCormack, did vote against it. But it was voted for and supported because of some key promises that were given at the time the plan was created. There was a lot of controversy at that time, especially when a draft of the Basin Plan proposed to take away more than 6,000 gigalitres of water from our nation's farmers.

Senator Patrick interjecting

Senator CANAVAN: Yes, it was, Senator Patrick. I will take that interjection. Senator Patrick said it was science. Yes, apparently it was. I'm not a scientist myself but that brings up a really important point here. Science is an input into the Basin Plan. It's important that the plan is based on good science, but it can't make the whole decision here, because this plan is about people too. This plan is about how we produce food as a nation. This plan is about how communities grow and thrive with their own economic prosperity not just at one end of the basin, not just in the north, not just in the south but right through our country. All of those things must be balanced, so the science is a very important input.

But what happened with that draft plan—Senator Patrick is right—was it was science on steroids and science unconstrained from any concept of what its impact would be on our nation's people and on our nation's ability to grow food. What I have said just then is not a distortion; it is what the Murray-Darling Basin Authority said to Senate estimates. They said they had to develop a plan that just prioritised the environment, that put the environment first and that didn't worry about the economic or social conditions of people. It didn't worry about the almond growers in South Australia's Riverland. It didn't worry about the fruit growers in Berri and Renmark; the plan ignored them. It didn't worry about the dairy farmers around the Lower Lakes; it ignored them.

Senator Patrick interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Fawcett ): Order! Senator Canavan, resume your seat. Senator Patrick, when you speak in this place you are generally given the courtesy of not being interrupted. I would ask you to extend the same courtesy to Senator Canavan. You may disagree with him but you will have an opportunity to put your point of view.

Senator CANAVAN: Mr Acting Deputy President, don't silence him on my behalf; he is only inspiring me further. There are people in Senator Patrick's state of South Australia who rely on the use of water for their livelihoods, for their jobs. The town of Berri would not be there but for the irrigation that comes from the Murray-Darling. I know Senator Ruston, from Renmark, is one of the few senators in this place who lives in and has an office in a very remote and rural part of this country. She knows how important irrigation, that use of water, is. And we can't have a plan that is only based on what's important for the environment alone, because people surely have to be part of our considerations.

So after that misstep, after that draft plan was distributed, it became pretty clear quickly that it was not going to be accepted by the Australian people. The Labor Party had to bring Simon Crean in to fix up the mess that, I think, Mr Tony Burke at the time presided over. Mr Crean came in and he promised everybody that there would be a triple bottom line. At the time Mr Crean promised that the economy, the society and the environment would all be considered as part of this triple bottom line, that we would balance all of these factors. That was the promise that was made to the Australian people. That was what the then Liberal and National government, the Labor Party and others voted for. The Greens weren't happy. I think they might have voted against it. They wanted the 6,700, but sensible people in this place realised that we had to have a balance and that's why we came up with the plan. There is a controversy about what exactly that meant.

Since that time, a lot of water has been recovered and that's come at a great cost to many communities in the Murray-Darling Basin. We have to recognise that cost. We have to recognise that there are towns and communities in our country that have suffered greatly from the taking back of water from their towns and communities. Over 10,000 agricultural jobs have been lost as a result of the implementation of the plan—over 5,000 have been lost in Victoria, over 3,000 lost in New South Wales and a little over 2,000 in South Australia alone.

It's good that the government buys back the water. There have been other processes where governments sometimes just take rights back from people. We know that; Senator McDonald knows that. We had property rights just taken off people through government regulation. But at least, to give government its due, it has paid for the water it has taken back from farmers.

The problem, though, is that the farmer who sells his water gets paid a commercial rate. Some do very well out of the sales, but once they take out the agricultural production, once they're no longer growing the fruit in Berry or the cotton in Dirranbandi or the rice in Coleambally, suddenly there are no jobs for tractor drivers anymore. Suddenly the local feed supplier and seed shop don't have the business they had before. Suddenly the tyre shop doesn't have the business anymore. Suddenly the cafes and restaurants and hotels don't have the business they had before. That's when you lose all of these jobs in communities and you have that real human impact—sometimes people in this place gloss over or don't want to confront that—and they're the people I know we have to put front and centre when we consider balancing all of these interests. We have to make sure that we don't lose, unnecessarily, more jobs for the sake of meeting some mythical plan that never existed.

I want to pay tribute to my colleagues. While I have some history in the Basin Plan I now live in Central Queensland, a fair way from the Murray-Darling, and have not been as involved in recent years. I want to pay tribute to my colleagues who live and work this issue every day of the week. In the other place, Mr Damian Drum and Dr Anne Webster have been working very hard on behalf of their communities in northern Victoria to develop a better plan, to make sure we stay true to those triple-bottom-line economic, social and environmental principles that were established as part of the plan. Along with colleagues here in this place, including Senator McKenzie and Senator Davey, they have developed sensible ideas to amend the Water Act to give effect to that initial promise to the Australian people and, especially, to the people of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Centred around the controversy here in the current implementation of the Basin Plan is a so-called 450 gigalitres. Let's be very clear, here, that this 450-gigalitre figure was not science. There was certainly no science behind it, as Senator Patrick liked to say before. There was absolutely none. What happened after the Murray-Darling Basin Authority first picked 6,750—it was around that figure—was that, the reaction was clear, it wasn't going to fly. It was going to destroy our ability to grow food and destroy jobs and families and farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin. Senator Patrick is indicating he wants to still go to the 6,000 gigalitres figure, just for the record.

That wasn't going to work, so the Murray-Darling Basin Authority came back with a figure that was their estimate, their science—their estimate of a scientific balance of economic, social and environmental figures—of 2,750. That was the amount to be recovered. That was the one accepted by the then federal Labor government and the one they took to the ministerial council to seek agreement on. Where did this 450 come from, then? It didn't come from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It didn't come from the scientists, Senator Patrick. There was no science behind it. Where did the 450 come from? Well, when they took the 2,750 gigalitres to the ministerial council the South Australian government would not support it. They had to do a deal, and we ended up with this figure of 450 gigalitres. There was some science involved in that, Senator Patrick. It is called political science. That's what led to this figure here. It was a politically scientific figure, that was come to, to get the agreement and acceptance of the South Australian government.

In fairness to the then Labor government, the extra amount of water that was flagged to be taken back from farmers, taken out of food production, was always predicated on the idea that there would be no economic or social detriment to Murray-Darling Basin communities. So it was incumbent on—effectively, South Australia—those implementing the plan to show and prove that if this 450 gigalitres extra was to be acquired it had to have no social or economic impacts on basin communities. Clearly, they haven't been able to do that. As I said before, the work of agencies in this area has shown that 10,000 agricultural jobs, not just all jobs, have been lost as part of the plan, as part of getting back not all but most of the water to get to the 2,750. So the test has not been met.

The Basin Plan said, if you want the extra 450 gigs, you have to show you can do it in a way where there is no social and economic impact. Well, there has been a social and an economic impact. There will be more of an impact if we go for this 450 gigalitres. So we should not proceed with the 450 gigalitres. Anyone who is seeking to implement the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full should not be seeking this extra 450 gigalitres, because it fails the very tests and conditions that were imposed on the establishment of the Basin Plan itself.

The Basin Plan is incredibly complex, of course, but there are other things that were in the plan that are still to be done and require some extra work. Alongside the 450 gigalitres—excuse all of the figures here—there was the view that, instead of getting to the 2,750 figure with more buybacks and/or even more infrastructure projects, which cost a lot of money, what we would seek to do is, through improvements, get 650 of the 2,750 gigalitres from greater efficiencies—from so-called works and measures. At the time, there were about 2,100 gigalitres that would be recovered when the Basin Plan went through. The idea was that, to get the extra 650, we'd become more efficient at environmental watering. That made a lot of sense, because, throughout the Basin Plan process, there's been a lot of criticism about farmers being inefficient and a lot of undue criticism about rice and cotton being an inefficient use of water. I don't have time to rebut that particularly ridiculous claim right here. There was always this idea that farmers had to be more efficient to give more water back to the environment. That's fair enough, but if farmers are expected to be efficient so should the irrigators of environmental assets. We shouldn't just be wasting water by sending it down the river to hit an appropriate environmental target. Just as you can water a cotton paddock or a rice field better, you can water the lakes, wetlands and rivers much more efficiently through modern technologies.

So the 650 gigalitres was to come through investments in better environmental watering. There have been 36 projects identified across the basin states, but they're not giving the water that we first thought they would.

Senator Patrick: There's been total mismanagement!

Senator CANAVAN: Senator Patrick is right. There has no doubt been mismanagement of the environmental water. I don't know enough about the details, Senator Patrick, but I'm sure there's been some mismanagement in the bureaucracy as well. All my colleagues' amendments would do is give more time and flexibility for more projects and ideas to be brought forward. To those opposed to this amendment: why would you be afraid of more ideas? Why would you oppose more ideas to more efficiently improve environmental watering? What is the problem with trying to become more efficient at watering our environment? If farmers are expected to be efficient, so should the bureaucrats. Those who would oppose the Nationals amendments are effectively saying that the bureaucrats should be a protected species and should not have the same requirements imposed on them as our nation's farmers. I think we should defend our nation's farmers. We should defend our ability to grow food. That's why I fully support the sensible amendments brought by my Nationals colleagues.

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