Senator Birmingham: (South Australia) (5:15 PM) -Madam Acting Deputy President Kroger, congratulations on your appointment to the office of Acting Deputy President, which I am sure you will fill well. This Labor government simply cannot manage a reform agenda. Anything of substance, anything of note, that they touch just turns into mush, turns into waste, turns into expense and delay and problems for taxpayers and for Australia that we all end up having to wear for many, many years to come. We have just heard Senator Wortley speak on this matter of public importance. We heard her talk about the process. Like so many others on the Labor side, she tries to have it both ways in this debate. When they feel under pressure about the way Murray-Darling reform is going, they say: ‘The coalition initiated this. The coalition were the ones who passed the Water Act. The coalition were the ones who started this whole process.’ But when they want to boast about the reforms they say: ‘The coalition never did anything. The Howard government never did anything at all.’ It is a remarkable tactic: wanting to have it both ways.
I am very happy and proud to say that the Howard coalition government did pass the Water Act and did initiate water reform. We did it with a complementary $10 billion fund-and amazingly, given Labor’s propensity and capacity to spend money, you have barely been able to dribble any of that out the door. You have barely been able to spend a cent of the money on infrastructure-a key point of your failure to which I will return in just a moment.
Senator Wortley also says that we on this side have been initiating some type of fear campaign across the basin. Let me say that I only wish we had the capacity to mobilise people like they have been mobilised these last couple of weeks. I have attended these community meetings personally. I have gone into those basin communities and talked to people. I have not asked one person to attend the meetings. I have not had to encourage people to go along. I have not had to encourage people to do anything. They have come of their own accord and they have mobilised en masse because they are scared and worried-and their worries and concerns are only amplified by the failings of those opposite in their mismanagement of this program. You have mismanaged this program from the day you took office.
The Labor Party inherited the Water Act, which established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Yet for some reason it took nearly 18 months for the members of that authority to be appointed-nearly 18 months of delay and procrastination before you actually got people sitting around the table to start this process. It is little wonder then that what has just been released is only a guide, not the original plan that was proposed; it is little wonder that its release was delayed three or four times; and it is little wonder that its final implementation was rushed-because the first 18 months of the three years for which the Water Act has been in existence was wasted with total and complete inaction. Most particularly, we have seen inaction on the promise to deliver water-saving infrastructure projects. This inaction has only heightened the fears and concerns in the communities that all of the water that is required to implement basin reform will simply come out of productive capacity rather than through the win-win benefits that the coalition envisaged when we committed $5.8 billion to water-saving infrastructure projects in the first place.
In a 2008 intergovernmental agreement, Labor signed off on some projects which you even had the gall to call priority projects. We have seen what COAG reported just last Friday in a very timely report on those priority projects. It said that, in the 18-month period between when the IGA was signed and the end of the reporting period, only two projects were completed, or largely completed-that is, two out of 17 projects-and there were significant delays in the development and approval of all the other projects. COAG highlighted that this seemed to stand in contrast to the urgency that people give to this topic. And it does stand in marked contrast to talk about the urgency of action here when we have not managed to get 15 out of 17 projects progressed in any meaningful way. And all Labor’s failure to progress these projects has done is to amplify concerns throughout basin communities that the water required for the environment is going to come wholly and solely out of their productive capacity rather than by demonstrating that large parts of it can come from water-saving infrastructure efficiency upgrades.
Every year that Labor have been in office they have spent more on buybacks than they budgeted and less on infrastructure than they budgeted. That, of course, has highlighted concerns that this government has a one-track focus. Where people have put together structured packages to retire entire irrigation channels, they have been turned away. You will only take the piecemeal, Swiss-cheese-effect type buybacks that leave stranded assets and increase the cost and concerns for people throughout the community.
We have seen the failure of the MDBA to actually undertake a thorough, decent, comprehensive socioeconomic analysis before releasing this guide. The MDBA’s own chairman acknowledged that the guide is seriously lacking in socioeconomic analysis. Well what on earth has the government been doing in the regular briefings ministers have with the chairs and CEO of the MDBA if not saying: ‘Have you done detailed economic analysis? Is it part of the guide? Is it part of the plan?’ The failure to do that has only heightened those fears and concerns throughout the community. That is what has driven people to protest. That is what has driven people to express their concerns.
Then there was the great lie of the election campaign when the Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, flew into Adelaide and announced that the government would accept whatever the recommendations were of the independent authority. She was greeted by an entire front-page picture in the Adelaide Advertiser under the headline ‘River Queen’. I am sure Senator Wortley remembers the headline well. It turns out that that promise was made by the river rat, not the river queen, because the river rat has demonstrated that it has no commitment to its word or its promise and that this government, instead, has no intention of implementing the independent authority’s report. The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Mr Burke, went to great lengths in the other place last week to highlight that he reserves the right to change that report himself. We always said during the campaign that was the right thing to do, yet we were pilloried for it. Australia deserves a Murray-Darling plan, but a good plan-not just any plan.