Murray-Darling Basin

From the moving of this motion, and from the arguments put in this chamber so far, it is clear that there are two main conclusions to make from the contribution of the Greens—both the presentation of this motion and also the arguments put. One is that the Greens political party, as a movement, is much more interested in problems than solutions. 

The oxygen that the Greens political party breathes and lives on is around perpetuating a problem, not creating a solution. It is only when problems arise—and problems have arisen over the last couple of months, no-one denies that, in relation to the death of fish in the system—that the Greens appear. They are never involved in trying to find the solution to such problems—the hard work that is involved in getting agreements with a variety of governments and getting support for legislation through parliaments which, obviously, have a variety of different views on a matter like this. Because there is no attempt from the Greens to do that, they can never claim any credit for improvements that are made—and there have been improvements made, as I will go through in my contribution.

The second point is that, for the Greens political movement, emotion always trumps reason and allegations always trump fact. Their contributions are often devoid of fact and are—at least, certainly in this instance—absent of any knowledge of the local circumstances on the ground within the Murray-Darling, which is an enormous environmental system, obviously incredibly complex. It runs from the headwaters around Toowoomba, west of Brisbane in my home state, all the way down to not quite Adelaide but to the east of Adelaide in South Australia. It's the biggest water catchment in the country. In an average season only around eight per cent of the water that falls around Toowoomba and in western Queensland will end up down at the mouth of the Murray. That's in a normal season. In a dry season, like we've had over the past year, or past couple of years in some places, you'll get much, much less than that, often absolutely nothing at all, because there's no connectivity. As people have remarked to me before, the Murray-Darling is like a big, dry, old carpet. It's not a garden hose. You don't put water in one end of the hose and it comes out the other end. You pour water on one corner of the carpet and, if it's wet enough, if there's enough water across the carpet, water will flow from one end to the other, but only in those circumstances where it is wet. And it certainly hasn't been wet recently.

Before I come back to some of those points, I want to put a few of those local facts on the table here in the Senate, particularly as they relate to my area of Queensland and also northern New South Wales, where it has been incredibly dry these last couple of years. Take the Condamine-Balonne subcatchment within the Murray-Darling. It is broadly centred around St George, which is the largest irrigating community around that area, but it does have other large centres at Miles and Chinchilla, although they rely more on groundwater and surface water extraction. But the average annual consumption in the Balonne system is 1,298 gigalitres a year. I apologise for the jargon. It probably doesn't mean much to people—1,298 gigalitres. That amount of water would be about three Sydney Harbours a year—it's probably a bit under that—that is used in the Condamine-Balonne subcatchments. Just keep in mind that that 1,300 gigalitres is the average annual use of water in that system. Some years it's higher; some years it's lower. In 2017, the use in that area was 156 gigalitres. The average is 1,300 gigalitres and in 2017, a relatively dry year, it was 156 gigalitres. Last year, in 2018, it was 73 gigalitres. So far this season—it hasn't been long, but this is when the water would tend to come in that area—only six gigalitres has been used. That is 1,300 down to 156, down to 73. It will obviously rise above six this year, but unfortunately it might not be much higher than that 2017 low this year either.

This is an example of how the system responds. We have a system which does respond. When it's dry, the use of water by farmers, primarily by irrigators, reduces. Most of that 73 gigs last year would have probably been stock and domestic use to keep households and animals alive, and in the towns, including St George and Dirranbandi, for town water. There would have been almost zero use of water for irrigation. I'll come back to that question in a second.

For example, at Cubbie Station, which is often held up, as the Greens have been saying, as corporate farmers or witches—people always want to burn witches in the Murray-Darling Basin. If someone has a witch, that witch has to be burnt. 'If only we could burn that witch, the whole thing would be right.' For some people it's Cubbie Station. For others it's Menindee Lakes. For others it's the Lower Lakes or the Coorong, as Senator Leyonhjelm mentioned. There's always something. 'If only we could get rid of it, everything would be fine.' As I indicated earlier, it's much, much more complex than that. Cubbie Station is sometimes held up as that witch, the witch from western Queensland in this case. Cubbie Station is a large cotton farm in western Queensland. It has not taken any water from the system—not one drop—since 2017. All of last year and so far this year there has not been one allocation of water to Cubbie Station.

But you wouldn't believe that. Over there we heard interjections earlier that it's the big corporate farmers who are responsible here. These corporate farmers are taking the water, and that's preventing the water going to the Menindee or Lower Lakes or lower. The evidence is there, but, as I said earlier, the Greens never resort to bringing a fact to a debate. The facts are all there on the record. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority monitors this very closely. Cubbie Station has not taken any water since 2017.

In fact, around St George—and Cubbie is close to Dirranbandi, which is not too far from St George in Queensland terms, at least—in that immediate area, only one per cent of the area is being planted with cotton or was planted with cotton last year. In a normal year, I think it's about 900 hectares of cotton being planted. That was planted last year because of this lower water use that I mentioned earlier. Down further south—and Senator Williams will be able to speak more about the situation in New South Wales—it's a similar situation in a lot of the dry cotton districts in New South Wales. My understanding is there was no cotton at all grown in Bourke last year, because of the incredibly dry conditions.

This brings us, I think, to an incredibly important point in this debate. I understand why emotion can come into these types of debates and I completely recognise that those not exposed to irrigation districts or the practices of farmers might work under misconceptions of how crop choice works, how farmers decide what to use. But No. 1, in my view, our farmers are our best environmentalists in this country, for a start. They live on the land. They live off the land. If they don't protect the land, they don't have any livelihood for themselves or their families. They know exactly how the environment works and how brutal it can be. They must manage it for the their long-term sustainability and that of their families. The way the system works is that a farmer will be provided with an allocation of water each year. They'll have an entitlement to a certain amount of water. Each year, depending on how much water is in the dam, they'll be allocated a certain amount of water. I mentioned earlier that the allocations in the Balonne have been something like six per cent of their average amount at the moment, and that leaves them less water to use.

In many parts of the system, particularly up in the north, in the upper Darling and Condamine-Balonne areas of the system, water uses can be very variable. There aren't as many dams in that part of the system as there are in the southern part of the system, so you can have a lot more variability in water availability, as we've seen in the last decade. We've had very, very large rainfall in the last decade and 100 per cent allocations for many seasons, but in the last couple of years that's reversed and we've had dry conditions. In that environment, obviously, you want to pick a crop that can respond to that variability. You don't want to plant something or grow something which is going to need water every year without question. That's why in many parts of this system exposed to this variability we have farmers growing what are called 'annual' crops, where you choose every year whether to plant that particular crop. Cotton is one of those. Rice is the other major annual crop in the system.

So, because we have a variable climate, because we know we're a country of flooding rains and droughts, we often have farming systems that respond to that variability and allow a farmer to choose to plant every year. That is the best choice not just for the farmer but for the system as a whole, because it can then respond flexibly to that variability. I want to bust this myth that cotton is terrible and you shouldn't grow it. Actually, because of the variable system, cotton is a perfect crop for that, because, when it's wet it can be very wet, as we've seen in the last decade. It's been very wet around St George for many years with floods. It's sometimes hard to remember those years, but they were only in the last decade. When it's wet, you can ramp up the cotton use. You can plant a lot of cotton and use the water. It's largely going to evaporate anyway; as I said, the whole system is not a garden hose; a lot of it will evaporate. So you can use that water, put it to productive use, make wealth for our country, create jobs and create vibrant communities and towns like St George, which are brilliant places.

Then, in the years when it's dry, as we've just seen, the farmers pull back. They pull all that production back. I know it's the same in the rice-growing districts around Murrumbidgee in Senator Williams's part of the world. We don't grow rice much in Queensland, but down in those areas where rice can be grown they'll do the same thing. I haven't got the stats, but I know that in the previous drought they went back to well over 90 per cent reduction in their rice production during the worst of the drought. They can do that because it's very variable.

If you plant trees, like there are a lot of in South Australia—there's no problem with that; I'm not criticising, but in the South Australian growing districts there are a lot of almond orchards et cetera—they need water every year. You can't rip those plants out when it's dry. So they've invested a lot more in reticulated systems, saving water, in response to the crop choice that they've had in that area. Likewise in Victoria, with again a less variable system and more dams, they have dairy cattle. Cattle need to be fed food and grass every year. You can't just scale your water use back up and down. The system works a lot better because of that.

Because, as I mentioned, the northern part of the system is not as regulated—there are not as many dams and water use is more variable—that system is exposed to the types of events we've seen in the past few months around the death of fish. We've all been touched by that tragedy. It's an unfortunate aspect of nature that we do have floods and then droughts. It does lead to these kinds of events. You can see this locally on the ground. This is a problem with this debate. Not enough people who have contributed to this debate have spent enough time in the areas of the basin where these events occur. They'll turn up for the photo shoot. They'll turn up when the fish die, do a 30-second social media post and then fly back to the city and not think twice about it.

Take Copeton Dam in the Gwydir catchment. Right now it's pretty dry in that area, as it is across many areas. Downstream of Copeton Dam, downstream of the wall, where they can regulate the river because they release water as per need, there are no fish kills. The dam has been able to keep, for now at least, the river full and regulated to an appropriate temperature and height, and there are no fish kills. Just upstream of Copeton Dam in that same local area there have been fish kills, because obviously you can't regulate the water. I might have to step through this for the Greens. Upstream of a dam you can't regulate the amount of water in that river. You can't pump water back up the river. You can only send it down the river. So upstream of the dam there have been fish kills. Downstream of the dam there haven't been any fish kills. This is in the same local area. Why? It's because we have a dam, that's why. The more we have dams, the fewer fish kills we have. The more you can regulate a system, the better you can manage the environment and make sure you don't have these types of events.

As I say, we are exposed to these types of events in the upper Darling in western Queensland because we do not have the same amount of water infrastructure as they have in South Australia with all the locks. You have locks all through South Australia. You can regulate the flow of water. You have the Hume Dam, the Dartmouth Dam and the barrages. You can regulate your system. That's fine; there's no problem with that. But up country we don't have such regulation, for largely good reasons. The topography is not as attractive to the construction of dams as it is in South Australia. So we have to manage these things.

I could go on about this for a long time, but I want to spend some time coming to that point about solutions. We need to find solutions. That is what we as a government have been focused on. I also recognise the efforts of the previous government, who came to an agreement with the states which has been concluded under our government. But it looks like they might be supporting this ridiculous notion, which I suppose is the irresponsibility that comes with opposition. But in government we try to find solutions where we bring parties together, bring states and territories together and get a better-fit deal for South Australia. No-one is questioning the fact that water has been overallocated in the system in the past. That's why we have gone through a more-than-10-year process here to reduce water use in the Murray-Darling Basin and to do so in a way that is responsible, common sense and leads to better outcomes.

We have had better outcomes. We have had enormous watering events right across the Murray-Darling Basin which have led to better environmental outcomes in the Macquarie Marshes, the Lower Lakes and at Menindee as well, notwithstanding the dry conditions they're facing at the moment. But because of the limitations of our infrastructure, because we don't have dams everywhere, we are still going to suffer situations where there is not enough water: not enough water for towns, for farmers, for the environment and for fish as well. We're never going to completely resolve that situation because we cannot build enough dams to store water long enough to get us through the dry period. Anybody who tells you otherwise is selling you absolute snake oil. It cannot happen.

What we have to do is find the best way to manage a scarce resource in the system, to ensure that it is appropriately allocated, so that we can have vibrant communities that produce food for our nation and so that we can have and protect the wonderful environment we have, and that's a managed environment. Senator Leyonhjelm was right when he said that the Lower Lakes and other parts of the South Australian system are regulated. They're not like they were when there was no-one from European countries here, but that's fine. We have made, in my view, a better system through those regulation dams because we can at least manage them. If we didn't have those dams, we would probably have fish kills downstream of Copeton Dam—we almost certainly would right now—but, because we have Copeton Dam, we don't. So that is a good outcome.

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting

Senator CANAVAN: 
Another important aspect of how we've sought to balance this—and this is something I think we've improved on from what we were left with from the Labor Party, and I recognise the work that the former Labor government did—is putting a cap on the amount of buybacks.

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Kitching ):
A point of order, Senator Williams.

Senator Williams: 
I'm trying to listen to Minister Canavan here, and I'm getting interjections from Senator Hanson-Young all the time. She was free to speak without interjections. Could you ask her to show the same respect to others in this chamber, please?

Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Whish-Wilson, I know you've been interjecting. If you could cease that under standing order 197, that would be helpful. Thank you. Senator Canavan, you may resume.

Senator CANAVAN: 
Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. The one thing I think we really have improved on is putting a cap on the amount of buyback from the system. Those on the other side of this debate would have you believe that that has put a cap on the amount of water that can be returned to the environment. That is wrong. There has always been, under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—before we were in government and now—a variety of means to recover water. One of the ways is to buy directly from farmers, willing sellers, to take that water out of the system. The other main way is to improve the efficiency of the system by lining channels and by better levelling our country. You save water, and the saved water can go back to environmental purposes.

In our view, we've got to have an appropriate balance. That's because, as we've seen—Senator Williams, myself and others, and I think Senator Ruston was mentioning similar outcomes—when you buy too much water out of an individual community you take away the economic base of that community. It has enormous impacts, not just on the irrigators—actually, the irrigators do okay because they get to sell their water and do something else with their life—but also on the local petrol station, the local newsagent and the coffee shop in town. They are left destitute because they no longer have the business that they did when the irrigation was in the community. So we've got to find that appropriate balance. I know—I've been out to Dirranbandi since we started this process, and it's had a terrible impact on that town. I think we've managed that better since we've been in government.

I firmly believe that what we need to do going forward is ensure we continue the good work of this government in finding a sustainable outcome to this problem. It is a wicked problem. But the outcome that will be sustainable for the long term is one that still creates food production and jobs in the Murray-Darling; still creates social communities where people can have the confidence to invest and buy houses in their local towns and join sporting clubs—do all the great things people in communities do; and also protects the environment for the long term. If we don't do those three things, if we just focus on one, it won't be a sustainable solution.

One reason is there'll be in-built issues that will come back to get us. The other reason is political reactions—there will be a political reaction if we don't properly manage all of those issues. Notwithstanding what we've seen over summer, the system is much better than it was 10 years ago. It's moving in the right direction. All of the responsible people in this parliament need to keep contributing to the good work that has been done.

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