SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (18:01): I, too, join this debate to take note of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee report on the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. I will be keeping my remarks relatively brief, but I congratulate the members of that committee led by Senator Heffernan, all of those who participated in this long inquiry and the secretariat for their work in producing what is a substantial report that deserves appropriate consideration from all involved in the Murray-Darling process.

As this chamber well knows, I viewed the adoption of the Basin Plan at the end of last year as a positive step forward. It was by no means perfect, but it was a step forward in what has been a long and difficult debate around the management of the Murray-Darling. However, what this report demonstrates is that that Basin Plan is a work in progress as much as it is a static document. It is not a static document, it is a work in progress and it is something that future governments of whatever persuasion will have to look at as to how they adapt, manage and improve upon it in the years ahead. We are awaiting at present the National Water Commission’s report on the Basin Plan. In the interim and, I am sure, even beyond the release of that NWC this Senate inquiry’s report will stand as a very important guide of the types of ongoing work, analysis and future review that the Basin Plan requires.

The report canvasses the full range of topics that need to be considered in the evolution of the Basin Plan and Murray-Darling management. It highlights the importance of considering the impacts of climate change and what impacts that will have in terms of future run-off scenarios and future water use capabilities. It highlights the need to look at the range of intercept scenarios that could occur in the future and to recognise that we are dealing with by no means a set or static system in the Murray-Darling but something that varies dramatically from year-to-year and season-to-season. The report identifies the fact that there is a lot of work still to be done in terms of environmental watering requirements, how environmental watering occurs, what environmental watering will actually mean and how it can most efficiently be delivered. Equally and very importantly, as a number of my colleagues have touched on, it looks at the socioeconomic costs and benefits of the types of things that occur as part of the Basin Plan and are mooted as some of the further activities, especially when it comes to constraints management, constraints removal, which, as I and Senator Joyce-who I note is in the chamber-have often reflected is not some amorphous thing but is very much an activity that can have real effects on real property and people’s livelihoods as well.

Within the realm of the socioeconomic considerations it says that governments need to be mindful of and act on is also, of course, the matter of distressed sellers. I note the comments that have been made already about issues of buybacks and once again state the coalition’s very firm commitment and belief that future buybacks should be minimised. We are deadset committed to ensuring that infrastructure projects and proper environmental works and measures are given the priority they deserve so that that is where the water is recovered from, rather than the types of non-strategic buybacks that have been prioritised by those opposite over the last few years.

The committee has highlighted again that there is a lot of work to be done as to what localism is in terms of the delivery of the Basin Plan and those issues of localism which the government has highlighted and talked about as being important to both the approach to water recovery and the use of that water in future. Yet it has really failed to spell out just how those principles of localism will be applied in practice.Communities, at too many times during the development of the Basin Plan and the debate around the Murray-Darling Basin, have felt like they have been cut out of the process. Local communities need to be front and centre in this, whichever part of the basin they are in. They need to be front and centre in providing the solutions for how water can be recovered from their communities and they need to be front and centre in ensuring that where environmental water is to be used in their communities their local knowledge, expertise and skills are applied to ensure that water is used as sensibly, effectively and efficiently as possible.

Importantly, as well, the committee has identified the fact that we need to do some long-term work to ensure that the Murray-Darling Basin remains a leading food bowl for Australia and, I would certainly hope, for our region-investing in R&D and policy initiatives to drive agricultural productivity to ensure that every drop of water is used as efficiently as possible, that our farmers and irrigators are as efficient as possible and that their costs are minimised as much as is humanly possible. One of the tragedies of what we are seeing at present-as government policies, in particular the carbon tax, have driven the cost of electricity up so much-is that the nation’s most efficient water users are the ones who have been penalised the most by those very policies. If you spend a lot of money piping and pumping water and, in doing so, are ensuring that you are treating every single drop preciously-that it is not evaporating, going back, leaking out of your system or anything else-you are paying a very high price for that under the policies of this government.

I do commend this report. I am confident that I, like everybody, probably do not agree with every single word in the report, but that is the nature of this debate. It is a very important and solid body of work that contributes to it. There are concerns that I continue to have about what seem to be continued delays in the Murray-Darling Basin process and the work around the Basin Plan-continued delays that see Minister Burke failing to reach an intergovernmental agreement that is so important as to how the Basin Plan will be delivered. We expected this would have been finalised at the end of last year. Here we are now, in March, still waiting to see that critical body of work done. Given all the other delays we have seen in the Basin Plan process that saw its end date pushed out from 2014 to 2019 to 2024, I really do hold concerns that we are seeing a range of other delays. But those are debates for another day. Today is a day to praise the work of the rural affairs committee on this report and to commend it to all those who have an interest in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin.