SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (17:46): I rise to offer in-principle support for the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limited Adjustment) Bill 2012, and to welcome the arrival of this legislation for debate in the Senate because it signals, I hope, that we are getting very close to the end of a very long, tortuous and drawn out process. It is more than five years since I rose in this place to speak—at that time sitting not far from where Senator Cameron, who has just spoken, sits now—on the then Water Bill 2007. The Water Bill was the last great reform of the Howard government. The attempt to get Murray-Darling Basin reform at a national level was the last great issue pursued by the Howard government and it is one of which I am incredibly proud. It has not been smooth sailing since then; it has not been smooth sailing at all.
The Howard government handed down a package that involved legislative reform through the Water Bill, which is now the Water Act, which at present we are debating amendments for. It provided for a $10 billion fund, to try to ensure the adjustment required to put the Murray-Darling Basin on a sustainable footing could be achieved and achieved in a way that protected the economic and social fabric of our food-producing communities. Not everything has been smooth since then. I do not want to dwell too much on what has gone wrong but certainly we have seen significant delays in terms of when we expected to see a basin plan under the Water Act finalised. Happily, it looks like it is very close to finalisation—it looks like we will see it finalised and delivered within the next few weeks, if not days. If that is the case, and particularly if Minister Burke has managed to do this in a way that has some buy-in and some approval from each of the Murray-Darling Basin states, then I will congratulate him on having done so.
For more than 120 years this country, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin states, has argued, squabbled and bickered over water reform. Way back when the Federation conventions were held in the 1890s to debate the writing of the Australian Constitution and the very establishment of this parliament in which we meet today, the then South Australian Premier, Charles Cameron Kingston, was arguing that there should be explicit federal powers for the management and oversight of the Murray-Darling Basin. Why? Because, as John Howard more than 100 years later in 2007 put it, 'the rivers don't recognise state borders'. The Murray-Darling system and its tributaries stretch across five different state and territory jurisdictions. They do not recognise state borders, yet our system has been managed on a basis of state borders. So I am pleased if we are getting to the end, if we are getting to a point where, as the minister has indicated, the passage of this bill before us today will allow him to hand down the basin plan that John Howard envisaged in 2007. That would be a very strong step forward.
Critical to it, though, will not just be volumes of water. Volumes of water are just means to ends in this process. The ends involve several things. Firstly, they involve, of course, having an environmentally sustainable River Murray and Murray-Darling Basin. The growth in extractions and water allocations that we have seen over decades reached an unsustainable point, and that is what prompted this action and this reform, in 2007. So I hope that we will see brought in changes that will give us environmental sustainability for the key environmental assets of the river and, importantly, the river system itself and that will ensure that level of sustainability for the future.
Importantly, the ends also include having vibrant regional communities. I want to see not just a plan but the supporting evidence for the water recovery strategy that will accompany it and for the intergovernmental agreement that should accompany it. I want to see the evidence that demonstrates that this plan will be delivered in a way that guarantees the future of river communities in my home state—Senator Ruston, who I note is in the chamber, lives in the Riverland in South Australia—as well as the river communities in the home states of Senator McKenzie, who worked with me on the committee report and inquiry into this legislation; Senator Nash, from New South Wales, with whom I have travelled extensively around the Murray-Darling Basin; and Senator Joyce, my colleague and the shadow minister for water, from Queensland. We want to make sure the river communities in all of those jurisdictions have a strong future ahead of them, not just for the sake of those communities having a strong future—although that is a pretty worthy goal in and of itself—but also to ensure that this country continues to grow food for itself and food for export to the rest of the world.
Wherever I go, I am yet to meet anybody who does not want Australia to be a country where farmers grow our food on Australian farms for Australian consumption and for export to the world. It is critical that we have that. It is why the $10 billion was allocated by the Howard government. That funding was central to solving the problem of overallocation, to making the take from the Murray-Darling sustainable. In bringing around that sustainable take, we not only kept farmers on their farms with the same level of productive capacity or better but we also returned water to the environment by doing it all far more efficiently.
Regrettably, over the last five years, the priority that those efficiency improvements should be given to upgrade infrastructure has not necessarily always been there. We have seen, of the money that was put aside, more than $500 million meant for infrastructure projects spent on administrative functions and even on advertising campaigns. The proof of this government's failure to deliver on the principle of supporting infrastructure as the cornerstone of Murray-Darling reform is the fact that to date, in terms of the water secured for the adjustment to a sustainable Murray-Darling Basin plan, in excess of 1,000 gigalitres has been secured through buybacks—often buybacks lacking any type of strategy or thought as to their impact on local communities—and just under 300 gigalitres, less than a third, has been secured through infrastructure programs. That has done so much to undermine the confidence of basin communities in this reform agenda and made the process of getting to a final outcome so much harder.
To give credit where credit is due, I acknowledge that Minister Burke and the government have been converted to the priority that should be given to infrastructure. They may be late converts and they may have done a lot of harm to confidence in this process along the way but the conversion is welcome. The conversion, the plan and the water recovery strategy, which would give some priority to a range of infrastructure programs and environmental works and measures, are very welcome. The legislation before us is central to that. The adjustment mechanism allows not just for an upwards adjustment in environmental flows but also for an acknowledgement that if you can get the same environmental benefits by holding less water then that is what you should do. Our priority should be to have a sustainable river system because everything we do depends upon that and the future of our irrigators depends upon that. Beyond that, we should ensure that every drop we can allocate to productive uses is sensibly used because that is what generates the wealth in our country and what generates the food for our region.
Sheer volumes of water are not always the answer. Just go and ask the irrigators in my home state around Lake Albert, where the sheer volumes of water running through the system are always the answer. Right now Lake Albert irrigators look out from their front porches across Lake Albert and see a lake that still has water in it that is unusable for irrigation activities. It still has in excess of 3,000 or 4,000 EC units—way above what could practically be used. We are at the end of our third consecutive year in a row of flooding through the Murray-Darling system. We have seen enormous volumes of water pushed through the system and flowing out of the Murray mouth, yet Lake Albert, at the bottom, has not managed to recover from the last drought—not for lack of water but from poor management. The entrance to Lake Albert has never been properly dredged or cleared and there is no flow-through of water. These are concerns that should be addressed to ensure we get a better environmental outcome regardless of how much water actually passes through the Murray mouth.
I welcome the fact that this legislation is a step forward to getting an outcome. I welcome the fact that it provides flexibility, which hopefully will see better environmental outcomes up and down the river regardless of how much water is involved. I welcome also the fact that the government has shown some cooperation with the opposition in dealing with this legislation. When it was first introduced into the other place, there were concerns that the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limited Adjustment) Bill 2012 did not have proper ministerial or parliamentary oversight attached. The basin plan that is established through the Water Act that was passed here in 2007 is a disallowable instrument. It will be tabled in this place and the parliament will have the opportunity to have a final say on whether it is a good plan or a bad plan. It is our belief that changes to it facilitated by this legislation should be treated the same way. That was not the government's original intent, but I acknowledge and welcome the fact that the government supported amending the legislation in the lower house to reflect the fact that the opposition wanted to see that ministerial and parliamentary oversight maintained. I think that is very, very important.
We are potentially on the cusp of a period of good cooperation on this topic across the chamber, as, in fact, there has been at almost every juncture. Though I may have many criticisms of the way the government has gone about implementing this, I note that the Water Act itself was a bipartisan piece of legislation. Amendments to it, made in 2008, were also made in a bipartisan way. The only people in this place who have really sat on the sidelines and never been constructive in this process are those on the crossbenches, in particular in the Australian Greens. I notice even today that the Greens are still trying to play base politics with this. I see a media release from Senator Hanson-Young, who appears to want to be critical of the legislation before us. Yet, rather than criticising the government, whose legislation it is, the media release is headed 'Barnaby Joyce poses a real danger to river plan'.
Senator Hanson-Young: That was from Saturday!
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Senator Hanson-Young; it was from Saturday. I do not check your website all that often, you will be pleased to know. However, Senator Hanson-Young, what I did check was that during the committee hearings into this legislation and the complementary bill, the legislation to establish the environmental special water account, the Australian Greens were nowhere to be seen. There were hearings in Adelaide, there were hearings in Canberra. Two different opportunities, not a single one of the Green senators. How many of them are there nowadays? That is right, there are nine of them. There are nine of them nowadays.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells interjecting—
Senator BIRMINGHAM: You are dead right, Senator Fierravanti-Wells: you would have thought that one of them could have turned up. They are pretty quick to come into this place and throw barbs around, they are pretty quick to put out press releases, they are very, very quick to engage in the stunts, and yet when the hard work was there to be done where were the Greens? I will acknowledge that Senator Hanson-Young was, I think, overseas at the time, but you would have thought that one of the other eight Greens senators might have been able to participate in the inquiry into this bill and the other bill.
I am disappointed that, as we are getting close to reaching something that could be quite historic in finally delivering on the long-held dream of national management for the Murray-Darling Basin, there remain those who say they are concerned about the environment, but frankly, from their actions, look far more like they just want to maintain the debate rather than see an actual outcome. I want to see an outcome from this process—be in no doubt about that. I want to see a plan brought into this parliament that all of us on this side of the parliament can support alongside all those on the other side of the parliament. I want to see us ensure that we have a future in the Murray-Darling: that it has a healthy river system, that it has healthy and robust communities, and that the outcomes and ambitions that John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull had in 2007 are delivered. I want to see a situation where we make sure that environmental water is used just as efficiently, just as effectively, as irrigated water is used. I want us to get to a situation where eventually—hopefully—squabbling between the states just might come to an end. Maybe that is too much to hope for, but perhaps we could at least get to a situation where there is an acknowledgement that all states are trying to apply best practice standards to infrastructure, to irrigation and to environmental water use, and that we are trying to get a positive outcome for the river system, for the river communities and for this country's future.
The opposition will propose one amendment to this legislation. The amendment seeks to ensure that the socioeconomic test that Minister Burke and the Prime Minister and others have spoken of is enshrined in this legislation. We hope the government will support that amendment. It certainly is something we have spoken to the government about in relation to the other legislation that is before the parliament at present—the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012—and I particularly hope to see changes made to that to ensure that all of the promises that the government has made on that legislation are included in that legislation when it comes to preserving the future for communities.
As I sum up, I think back to the number of times in this chamber that I have had cause to speak on the Murray-Darling—a topic I have spoken on probably more than any other. I am pleased, as I have said, that we may be close to getting something that will deliver a long-held dream of national reform. I hope the government does not mess it up in the last few minutes. I hope that, in the final days or weeks, we get an outcome that all of those fellow senators from all of those different states representing all of those different communities have something they can go back to their communities with and say: 'We can work with this. We can build on it. Sure, we can improve it. We can make sure that it's as fair as possible to each of your communities, but that it is something that gives us a healthy river and does so in a way that preserves the economic and social fabric of the all of our communities.' I look forward to the committee stage of the debate, and, importantly, to the passage of this bill.