Senator BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia: 7.02pm) Thank you, Mr President. I thank the Senate and I thank the government for their facilitation, whilst in no way of approving of the gag that was just applied by the government and the Greens to this debate.
I come to the issue. I rise to support reform. I rise to support action. I want to support change. I want to support something that will deliver an improved management system of the Murray-Darling Basin. That is why I opposed this disallowance motion. That is why I opposed the wrecking of the plan by the Australian Greens. That is why I opposed the fact that the Greens have simply voted to stop action, to stop reform, to block any type of change.
I said in my maiden speech that I was a great fan of former President Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was in fact one of the first great environmentalists-someone who started the process of establishing national parks and implementing environmental reforms. I want to quote Roosevelt:
Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty …
Perhaps nothing relates more to effort, pain or difficulty in a policy sense than achieving Murray-Darling reform. There have been 120 years worth of arguments and bickering-120 years since the states first gathered to establish Federation and this place and, in so doing, the arguments were had over who should manage the Murray-Darling Basin.
Sadly, the wrong decision was made then. Today, it has been righted slightly because today we are a step closer to now having a national management plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. We have seen, unfortunately, in the last 120 years, especially in the last 40 to 50 years, serious mismanagement of the water resources of the Murray-Darling.
What is the source of the problem? Who is the source of the problem? The source of the problem, very clearly, has been state governments. Labor state governments, Liberal state governments and National Party state governments all share the blame. They all saw the extraction of water from the Murray rise at a dramatic rate, especially in the period since the 1960s and, in rising at that dramatic rate, it reached levels that came to be accepted as being overallocated. It was too much for the system to withstand. There was too much extraction of water from the system; therefore, there was a need for reform.
But let us be very clear: state governments were to blame here-not farmers, not irrigators and certainly not irrigation communities. They simply took advantage of the opportunities afforded to them by their state governments, to take a water licence and undertake business, grow food, grow fibre, make produce and help the economy of this country. That is why, in fixing the problem that has been created, we must do it in a way most sympathetic to those farmers, those irrigators and those communities. They did not create the problem; their state governments did.
When we got to the last great drought that began at the turn of this century, it was evident that the Murray-Darling system was under more stress than ever before. It was clear it had been overallocated and it was obvious that action was demanded and warranted. That is why the Howard government, having tried in 2004 through the National Water Initiative to initiate reform and yet seen the state governments drag their heels yet again-fight and bicker yet again-in 2007 said: ‘Enough is enough. We must have national management of the Murray-Darling.’ They put $10 billion on the table. We put $10 billion on the table-I say ‘we’ because I am proud to have been a member, albeit briefly, through that important period when that solution was actually implemented-when the Water Act was passed through this parliament and when the funds were budgeted and set aside for the recovery of the water to restore some sustainability.
The solution of the Howard government was to establish an independent authority under the Water Act-the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. We hear a lot sometimes about the fact that this authority has not done its job. People attack it from all sides. People suggest it has no credibility and has compromised the outcome. Let us remember the people sitting around that authority table, the six members of the authority, do genuinely constitute an independent authority. I want to thank them for the work that they have done in preparing this Basin Plan-for the difficult task they have undertaken. They have not always got it right. They have not always engaged as they should have with the communities. But around that table there is an environmental scientist-you would not think that listening to the Greens, but there is-and around the table there is an agricultural scientist. Yes, there are economists and former public servants. But around that table are credible people trying to fix a very difficult problem.
The other aspect of the solution in terms of establishing the authority was to task it to come up with what has been coined as a triple-bottom-line approach-one that said we must optimise the economic, social and environmental outcomes that we seek through this process. That has been a very, very difficult thing for them to achieve, because it involves trade-offs, it involves compromise and it has been seen to be a painful process.
During the debate many analogies have been thrown around for this process. If I can add one more, it has certainly been like root canal treatment without the anaesthetic. It has been painful for all participants. It has taken far too long, since 2007. We have seen delays, we have seen problems and we have seen mistakes. And, yes, it is a process that has been made that much harder due to the incompetence of the government at various times-the incompetence that has seen the government undertake buybacks at the expense of delivering on infrastructure projects and in doing so lose the confidence of so many of those people in the upstream communities who were and are being asked to make the sacrifices of their water back to the environment. There has been, of course, mismanagement of expectations-both upstream and downstream-of just what would be achieved and how much could actually be returned.
Nonetheless, after all of the arguments, after all of the rallies, after all of the shouting, after all of the delays that we have seen throughout this process, we now finally have a final Basin Plan. Not much has been said in this debate about what it is-what the actual solution is and what it might achieve. Again, you would be forgiven, when you listen in particular to the Greens, for believing that not much is achieved through this Basin Plan. Let us put that in some perspective. Firstly, 2,750 gigalitres of water will be returned to the environment. What does that mean, though? Well, that is 2,750 gigalitres from a 2009 baseline of 13,623 gigalitres. That is a 20 per cent reduction in water use across the Murray-Darling Basin. That is an enormous step. That is a huge change. We should not downplay the significance of the amount of water that is being recovered for the environment through this process. There is, of course, the aspiration-and I will not go into the detail of that now-to get another 450 gigalitres, taking it to 3,200 gigalitres, a 23½ per cent reduction, getting close to the point where one in every four litres of water that had been available for extraction from the basin before 2009 will no longer be. We should not in any way underestimate the extent of that change. In terms of that 40-year period of enormous growth in extractions and allocations of water, it knocks out about half of that growth. That is why this is such a difficult adjustment for the communities of the basin. That is why this is so challenging for those communities being asked to give up the water.
Let me deal with another misconception-that is, that there is no modelling behind this or it makes no difference. I will invite any senator, anybody listening, anybody who reads this, to go and look at the MDBA website. Go and look at the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of reports that sit behind this plan. Look at the modelling that has been released. Yes, the modelling that has been released and has been undertaken. And also look at the difference that it makes, because it makes a real difference environmentally. Look at some of the targets that have been set for the bottom end of the system which have attracted the greatest attention, and there are some good examples here. The maximum period in number of days where salinity in the Coorong southern lagoon is greater than 130 grams per litre: under the baseline model, that maximum period is 323 days; with the recovery of this water it returns to the without-development figure of zero days. The maximum salinity in grams per litre in the Coorong northern lagoon over the model period: without development it would be 49 grams per litre; at the baseline at the 2009 extraction levels, it is 148 grams per litre; with the return of the 2,750 gigalitres it falls back to 56 grams per litre-getting very close the without-development scenario again. Then there are water flows out of the barrages right at the end of the system-the proportion of three-year rolling average barrage flows greater than 2,000 gigalitres per year.
Without development, that is achieved 100 per cent of the time. Under the baseline model, it is achieved only 79 per cent of the time. With this Basin Plan, it will be achieved 98 per cent of the time. One could reasonably ask of the Greens sometimes what more they want. This is achieving some very significant environmental improvements-some huge steps forward in terms of the environmental outcomes-and they, just like the scale of change being achieved, should not in any way be underestimated.
However, the task of saying how much water should be returned is only one half of the equation. The other half of the equation is to address how the water is returned. With that, the coalition still has some grave reservations about the capacity and commitment of this government to do it in the most socially and economically sustainable ways for the communities who are being asked to return this water to environmental flows. The government has released a very worthy document, the Environmental Water Recovery Strategy for the Murray-Darling Basin. What it seeks to do-what it indicates will happen-is worthwhile and will manage to ensure that the economic fabric of our river communities is preserved. If it is implemented as the government has indicated could be achieved, it should ensure that our river communities maintain their productive capacity and have a strong, viable and robust future. But my concern about this document is that in large part it is indicative.
The commitment of the coalition is that we will apply the strategy outlined here. That is why in the other place we have moved amendments to make aspects of this strategy, including a cap on buybacks, law. That is a commitment we will stand by, because we believe you must deliver on the infrastructure parts of the deal. You must get the win-win projects off the ground where you can make our farmers and our river systems more efficient and return water to the environment from those efficiencies but leave their productive capacity intact so that they can continue to grow the food and the exports that we want for this country into the future. So this must be done in the most sympathetic way possible because, as I said before, it is not the fault of the farmers or of the irrigation communities that we have seen the problems that have necessitated this action. They instead deserve our support and our assistance to ensure their future is as sound as that of the river system we are trying to protect.
I want to pay tribute to some of my colleagues who have worked with me through this process-in particular to Senator Joyce. We have been in some ways described as the yin and the yang of the coalition on water. Senator Joyce is from St George and, yes, I am from Adelaide-opposite ends of the system and opposite concerns in many ways. But I think we have managed to come together to a common understanding of the need to get the environmental outcomes and the need to ensure the protection of the river communities. Many other colleagues have engaged along the way-House of Representatives colleagues as well. If I start to name some, I will end up missing some, so I will not name any, but I do acknowledge the work of my South Australian colleagues in fighting for this reform but also the work of those upstream colleagues who have equally fought for a fair outcome for their communities and who have got the commitment of the coalition to make sure that that happens.
I am pleased the disallowance motion was just defeated. It was critically important that that happen to allow for reform to occur. To borrow from Voltaire, we should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. In this instance, the plan is not perfect-of course it will have problems-but equally there are many review processes built into this. Some may say there are too many review processes built into this, but I have faith that those processes and the independent authority seeking to deliver and implement this plan will address problems as we proceed through it. This plan does represent, if not perfection, at least a very good step forward that, if implemented correctly, will leave us in a situation where we have a healthier Murray-Darling system and a better environmental outcome and still enjoy robust river communities producing the food and produce this country wants for the future. I welcome this reform. It is 120 years overdue, but better late than never.