SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (19:31): One of the first issues I addressed in the parliament was the future of the River Murray. It was partly out of my own personal concerns for better management of the Murray, it was partly as a result of it being the top issue confronting people in my home state of South Australia and it was partly a result of the groundbreaking announcement made by then Prime Minister John Howard in his Australia Day speech of 2007 committing to deliver national management of the Murray-Darling Basin.
John Howard sought to end 120 years of argument and mismanagement by the states that saw the resources of the basin over allocated. He budgeted $10 billion to make the transition to a sustainable, national plan happen and he passed the Water Act through this parliament to provide the legislative framework in which the development of that national basin plan could occur. Murray-Darling reform was the last great reform of the Howard years.
I was passionate as a new, young senator about seeing it implemented when I came to this place in 2007 and I remain passionate about seeing it implemented today. That is why I am concerned that this important reform appears to be at risk, thanks to chronic mismanagement and severely misdirected funding by the Labor government that took power shortly after the passage of the Water Act in 2007. This mismanagement is creating a crisis of confidence in the water reform agenda across the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin, upstream and downstream. Of the $10 billion allocated, Labor has spent in excess of $1.7 billion on water buybacks but only $650 million on infrastructure. This is actually the inverse of what had been intended under the Howard plan in terms of the proportionate spending. Indeed, much of the so-called infrastructure spending for water saving projects is not spending on water saving infrastructure projects at all. Much of the spending on so-called infrastructure does not return water to the system. In fact, the government’s spending total even includes management costs for the bureaucracy associated with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the costs of the advertising campaigns that have been undertaken on water reform by the government-hardly infrastructure projects at all.
Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Tony Burke in particular is losing the confidence of stakeholders in all parts of the basin, upstream and downstream. A constant failure to deliver on the infrastructure projects that I have mentioned has diminished confidence throughout the basin, especially for those looking for water recovery that best maintains levels of food production in Australia. The growth of food in Australia by Australians, for Australians and for our export market is something that people throughout Australia are really passionate about. They want to see that when government embarks on recovering water for the environment it does so in a way that keeps food production happening throughout our prime agricultural lands, especially those of the Murray-Darling.
Labor promised to the downstream states, and South Australia in particular, that they would deliver John Howard’s water reforms and they have campaigned on it at two elections, but all the words and slogans in the world cannot hide their failure to deliver. The recently broken promise to freeze buybacks in the southern basin has seriously damaged confidence among irrigation communities in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. For example, the Victorian Farmers Federation last week expressed its shock at learning that Minister Burke without any consultation had launched yet another buyback in breach of the promise. The VFF highlighted that Mr Burke promised just last November that the Gillard government would not just wade into the water market and that they see this as a ‘random scatter-gun approach that risks the viability of irrigation communities throughout the southern basin’.
The conduct of the minister and his newly appointed chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority after the release of the guide also raised false expectations in many irrigation communities that the draft plan may have significantly less impact on them than the guide that had been released 12 months earlier. The shattering of those false hopes when the draft plan was released late last year further dented confidence in this reform agenda and in those delivering it. Meanwhile, the failure to adequately explain what the environmental implications and differences are of the different sustainable diversion limit reductions-such as the 3,000, 3,500 or 4,000 gigalitre figures mooted in the guide to the plan or the 2,750 gigalitre figure proposed in the draft plan-has all hurt confidence, especially in downstream states, such as mine of South Australia.
Another issue for confidence in the plan is the constant delays with the draft plan now having been delayed five times-and it appears unlikely that the basin plan will be finalised much before the very end of this year, if at all. We see that the ultimate implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin national plan has been dragged out from a 2014 implementation date to a 2019 implementation date. These delays have also hurt confidence. We also have the unexplained explosion in allowable groundwater extractions, which has drawn criticism from the likes of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and thereby undermined the confidence of those looking for environmental outcomes. Indeed, the increased allowable extraction of groundwater of around 2,600 gigalitres is comparable to the proposed surface water extraction cuts of 2,750 gigalitres-a change that has been ill-explained and, again, undermines the confidence of people in this process. We now have a crisis of confidence that has manifested itself in unhelpful threats that jeopardise these reforms-threats that come from the states, both upstream and downstream.
South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, has threatened a High Court challenge to any plan he considers unsatisfactory, saying in October:
… if there is not an adequate response in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin plan, South Australia will pursue its rights in relation to the river system.
In November, New South Wales retaliated by threatening to withdraw altogether, with Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, saying:
… we will not support a plan that is not in the best interest of NSW, our primary producers and Basin communities.
So we have counterthreats now coming from the states. It seems that not only can Labor not agree on who should be the Prime Minister but South Australian state and federal Labor representatives cannot agree on the process of basin reform.
Basin reform faces a lot of challenges and needs real commitment and leadership if it is going to succeed. The Prime Minister likes to tell South Australians that she is one of us and understands the importance of basin reform, but, on performance to date, South Australians just cannot trust her words. As Kevin Rudd said of the Prime Minister just a few days ago, ‘Julia has lost the trust of the Australian people.’ With such a crisis of confidence, it may be time for the Prime Minister to look for a new face to handle the Water portfolio. It may be time for the Prime Minister to look at who the minister for water is as she undertakes the reshuffle caused by the warfare in Labor ranks. It may be time for the Prime Minister to look to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, having lost the confidence of upstream and downstream states and having lost the confidence of those concerned about the environment and those concerned about irrigation and food production. Is it time for him to be moved on? Perhaps it is time for Minister Burke to be moved on and have a fresh face appointed to restore both upstream and downstream confidence in Murray-Darling reforms.
Perhaps someone like the member for Port Adelaide, Minister Mark Butler, should be appointed. Perhaps Mr Butler could get his long-time factional friend, Jay Weatherill, the Premier of SA, onside. Perhaps Mr Butler could convince Mr Weatherill to drop his threats and, in turn, convince the New South Wales government to drop their counterthreats. Perhaps Mr Butler could also provide reassurance to South Australians that this plan will actually make for a healthier river. Alternatively, perhaps Minister Chris Bowen would find the politics of water-not exactly an easy area-a walk in the park compared to the politics of the Immigration portfolio that he seems to eager to leave.
Whatever the Prime Minister does, this reform must be put back on track and 120 years of arguments must be brought to an end. This parliament must finish what John Howard started in 2007 and deliver a fair, balanced national plan for the Murray-Darling that secures the health of both our river system and the communities who rely on it. All I ask of the Prime Minister, at least for this week, is that she makes sure she has a minister for water who has the confidence of communities to deliver on this objective.