SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (17:13): I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the response by the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities regarding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Leave granted.
SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: I move: That the Senate take note of the document.
This is a brief response from the minister to what ended up being a brief motion. A more extensive motion was moved in the Senate by my colleague Senator Joyce and me on 9 May this year; however, only one part of that motion was passed, and that part called on the government to ensure that the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan is based on the most up-to-date data and the best available science, consistent with the requirements of the Water Act 2007.
I welcome the response of the minister insofar as it addresses this. The minister’s response restates the fact that the government’s position has always been that the Basin Plan should have a sound scientific foundation and that the final plan should optimise environmental, social and economic consideration. The minister’s response further highlights the requirements of the Water Act 2007 that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Commonwealth water minister act on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge and socioeconomic analysis when developing the plan.
Insofar as the government has restated what we already knew, the response is indeed welcome. However, it is important to note that the motion, limited though it was, did have further intent behind it, which was to ensure that the final Basin Plan is based, firstly, on the most up-to-date data and, secondly, on the best available science, consistent with the requirements of the Water Act 2007. Here is where we run into, in many ways, the crisis of confidence that is afflicting the progress of the Basin Plan throughout the community, both upstream and downstream. Upstream communities have made clear their real concern that the data and the modelling undertaken by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is not as up to date as it possibly could be and has not included the most recent wetter years within its modelling and data analysis. I do note that the MDBA has responded in other fora indicating that, were those recent wet years to be included, there would be a very small difference of negligible value. However, I do believe it is important that the most up-to-date data is applied to ensure that you try to harness and maximise confidence in this important reform process in those upstream communities. Similarly, there are concerns about the best available science and whether that is being used, and those concerns are particularly imminent in downstream communities.
Knowing what is the best available science is something that is often a matter of debate. ‘Best available economics’, ‘best available science’ and ‘best available modelling’ are terms that are sometimes thrown around rather loosely in this chamber and in politics generally. Indeed, there will be, as one would always expect, different scientific opinions as to the impact of different things. But it is important, it is vital, in order to try to reinstate confidence in this process that the MDBA and the government demonstrate that the science they are relying on for the modelling they are doing and for the proposed Basin Plan they are putting forward is science in which credible scientists have confidence. That is what I would ask them to do. I am not going to stand here and pick one scientific organisation and say, ‘Their modelling is the best available in this,’ which I know some state governments and some other stakeholders have done. But I am going to urge the MDBA and the government, as they seek to finalise this plan, to ensure that they demonstrate it is based on credible science and that it has credible scientific supporters behind it.
We are reaching the very pointy end of this process. It is five years since the Water Act was passed, and it has been a long, drawn out and tortuous process to get to what is almost a final Basin Plan. The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Mr Burke, really is the only person now, barring some surprises from the MDBA, who can influence the outcome of this plan. It rests with him, and I would expect that he will finalise it over the coming weeks or month or two and that we will see it tabled in this parliament shortly.
Let me make it clear that I want to see it finalised, I want to see it tabled and I want to see it succeed. This is an important reform. It is vital for my home state. It is an issue on which I have probably spoken more in this place and in Senate estimates hearings than on any other issue at all. For that reason, can I say that the tactics of some involved in the progress of the Basin Plan are starting to concern me. The tactics of those who want to try to ramp up pressure around the place, on different parliamentarians, on government, opposition and crossbenchers alike to talk more about this and to judge us, as one organisation is proposing to do on what we do over the next two weeks, concerns me greatly. Many of us, and some in the chamber right now, have worked on this for many years. I have received an email from the Australian Conservation Foundation, who tell me that they propose to track parliamentary and other public communications of South Australian federal MPs and senators during the next two sitting weeks and that they will publish a report at the end of this period to see what it is that we have done and said about the Murray during that time.
Well they can track this comment: I think it is a childish game they are playing. I think there are too many stunts being played. Stunts by my hometown government, the South Australian state Labor government, stunts by interstate coalition governments, stunts by my hometown media, the Adelaide Advertiser, stunts by some irrigator organisations and stunts by some environmental organisations. Frankly, anybody who looks at this rationally is going to know that it is impossible to present a Basin Plan that will make everybody happy. Any Basin Plan is of course going to require certain trade-offs. I make those statements not because I want to sell my home state out but because I want to see us take a good step forward. I want to see us take the best possible step forward in this basin plan to achieve a more sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin in the future. But I want to see us take a step forward not take no step at all.
I am concerned the approaches of some of the stakeholders throughout this process are putting us at such polar extremes in this debate that the risk will be we will get no Basin Plan whatsoever. If that is the case, if the final plan that is tabled is rejected by this parliament because it is not perfect in the eyes of some, that will be a devastating act, I believe, for my home state. Yes, of course, we should fight to get the best possible outcomes for our states. I believe that is what I have done in the five years that I have been here. I believe that is what I did when I first stood in this place-happily, on the other side of the chamber-to speak for the passage of the Water Bill, as it then was. It was the last great reform of the Howard government: to try to have a national plan in place for the management of the Murray-Darling Basin system, a national plan that did not rely upon state jurisdictions but could ensure the basin would be managed sustainably. It was a plan whereby $10 billion was budgeted to aid in the transition for its implementation and to ensure that it could be implemented in a manner most sympathetically to the irrigation communities throughout the Murray-Darling.
I have been and remain incredibly critical of many of the ways this government has gone about spending, or in some cases not spending, that $10 billion. I remain very concerned about many of the approaches the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has taken throughout the course of this. However, we are at the pointy end now. I want to see us get the best possible outcome. That is what I will fight for. But I do not need any community organisation to start tracking the number of times I-or, frankly, any other colleagues-say words in this place on a topic that is so important.