SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (5:05 PM) -I am pleased to join Senator Joyce in taking note of the ministerial statement on the Murray-Darling Basin. I welcome the ministerial statement and the release of the legal advice that was tabled by Minister Burke yesterday, but the core question that needs to be answered is: why did it take this long? Why did it have to come to this? Why have we only seen this legal advice presented at this time, which is, frankly, so late in the piece?

It is so late in the piece that it is now jeopardising a reform program that is critically important to get right for farmers, communities, the river system, environmental assets and a whole welter of people who expected that the Murray-Darling Basin reform agenda-set in train three years ago-would be delivered as set out three years ago. Instead, we have seen bungle after bungle and debacle after debacle from this government as they have failed to implement the reform agenda set out three years ago.

Having failed to deliver on the infrastructure projects that they promised and having failed to deliver a socioeconomic analysis of any decent quality in the report that was released recently, we now find that they have also allowed the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to proceed in releasing a guide to the proposed basin plan that is based on a false interpretation of the Water Act. That is the fact of the matter. The authority have been out there for the past 2½ weeks now highlighting that their interpretation of the Water Act was such that they had to give consideration to all of the environmental assets and that then precluded them from giving equal and fair weighting to the economic and social impacts of reforming the Murray-Darling Basin. That has been proven to be wrong, in the advice that Minister Burke has tabled.

It is of no surprise to any of us that it has been proven wrong, because the Water Act that the coalition proudly passed in 2007 sought to deliver the triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental balance in order to balance basin reform in a way that would leave us with a sustainable river system and sustainable basin communities that are able to produce goods for the benefit of all Australians. Somehow that balance has been thrown off course. This legal advice provides an opportunity to put it back on course. Why has it taken this long? The reason I ask is that I have sat at meetings-like Senator Joyce but at different meetings-of community consultations the MDBA has undertaken and heard the MDBA chairman Mike Taylor explaining the authority’s interpretation of the act. Mr Taylor said that he raised the interpretation of the act with the water minister, Mr Burke, at his very first meeting after Mr Burke was appointed minister, which was before the release of this guide, the document that has sparked controversy throughout the Murray-Darling Basin.

Why did Minister Burke sit on his hands for one week, two weeks, one month or six weeks-however long it was-between that first meeting and all hell breaking loose across basin communities and allow a misinterpretation of the act to stand? Why did he allow that? Why did he not say to the chairman then and there that basically every parliamentarian understood that this act was about getting a balanced, equitable and fair outcome? If the authority disagreed with that, why did he not call in the lawyers to give some decent advice after that first meeting? Indeed, why didn’t the government act sooner? I am pretty confident, from the way Mr Taylor has explained his conversations with Minister Burke, that Mr Taylor would have raised this issue with the previous minister, Senator Wong, as well. We asked that question in question time today, and I look forward to seeing the response as to when this government was first warned about the authority’s interpretation of the Water Act versus what this parliament’s understanding was and what the lawyers have said the interpretation should be.

I am pretty sure this government has known for a long period that the authority was going down the wrong path. In allowing the authority to go down the wrong path, it is the Labor government that has jeopardised the success of the process of water reform. Even if Mr Taylor did not mention this to Senator Wong prior to the election-as remarkable as that would be, given the way he has highlighted it again and again since the release of the guide and the fact that it was the topic of his very first meeting with Minister Burke-there was a warning back in March, which Senator Joyce highlighted in question time today. That warning came in the Productivity Commission’s report into the water buybacks. In that report the Productivity Commission stated:

The value people place on environmental outcomes, the opportunity cost of forgone irrigation, and the role of other inputs such as land management must also be considered. If the Water Act 2007 precludes this approach, it should be amended.

So the Productivity Commission, back in March this year, called into question the interpretation of the Water Act, but there was absolutely no action at all from the government to achieve a balanced outcome and not jeopardise the process of Murray-Darling reform.

Let’s take a look. The act talks about balancing those economic, social and environmental factors numerous times. Section 3(c) seeks to promote the use of water ‘in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes’. Section 4(2)(a) requires the MDBA to follow principles that ‘effectively integrate both long-term and short-term economic, environmental, social and equitable considerations’. Section 20(d) states that the basin plan is intended to provide for ‘the use and management of the basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes’. Section 21(4)(b) requires that the MDBA ‘act on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge and socioeconomic analysis’ in developing the basin plan. Section 21(4)(c)(ii) expects the MDBA to have regard to ‘the consumptive and other economic uses of basin water resources’ in developing the basin plan. Ultimately, it requires that, when the basin plan is presented to the ministerial council for consideration, the MDBA must provide the ministerial council with advice on the ‘likely socioeconomic implications of any reductions in the long-term average sustainable diversion limits proposed in the basin plan. That is in section 43A(3).

It is comprehensive and it is clear-as clear as you could hope-that this act was written with the intention of getting a fair balance between economic, social and environmental considerations, and yet the government allowed the authority to charge on ahead without due regard to those objectives and details of the act. The questions remain as to why they did that and, in doing so, how much damage have they done to the water reform process in communities that are now very concerned about the credibility of the process and the credibility of the government and the authority in delivering on this process for communities that rightly deserve answers as to how it could have been so comprehensively botched. Frankly, we know the reason why it was so comprehensively botched: the Labor government simply wanted to play politics with this issue during the election campaign.

Prime Minister Gillard flew into Adelaide during the election campaign and promised to implement the independent authority’s report. That was the promise. There was no caveat about ministerial discretion-nothing of the sort. She was greeted with a front-page picture in the Adelaide Advertiser-the entire front page was taken up with a picture of Ms Gillard and the river under the banner headline ‘River Queen’. The ‘River Queen’ has turned river rat as the government has back-flipped on that election promise.

Senator Wong went out there and gleefully sold Ms Gillard’s promise in the days afterwards and said, ‘The cap will ultimately be set by the independent authority.’ She said, ‘This is a government that is prepared to back the independent authority in its determination on what the rivers need.’ What we have seen is that this was nothing more than electoral posturing by the Labor Party. They went in, they made whatever reckless promises they thought they could to try to win the election, and now they have back-flipped on all of those. It is back to ministerial discretion as the final power, as it should have been all along. We said time and again: this river system deserves a good plan, not just any plan, and it deserves the balance that was put in the act, and the government should have known that from day one.