Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (10:12): Hell has truly frozen over in this place this morning, because we just received a lecture on economic and fiscal responsibility from the Australian Greens! The Australian Greens-the big taxing, big spending party of this parliament, who put even the Labor Party to shame with their spending habits-have just attempted to give the parliament a lecture on economic and fiscal responsibility. As I recover from the shock of hearing Senator Hanson-Young try to lecture us on how to return water in the most fiscally responsible way and for the least cost, I think it is important that we put some context to the issues around buybacks, the issues around the buyback versus infrastructure debate and, of course, the amendment that is related to this.
Last night and this morning we have heard, frankly, plenty of sanctimonious BS coming from that corner of the chamber-plenty of it. I am tired of hearing it. They are pretending that they are the only ones who care about getting a result for the Murray. Occasionally they drag the communities of the Murray into this debate somehow and pretend they are also standing up for all of those irrigator communities as well as the Lower Lakes communities. That is just not true. The Greens seem to be obsessed by headlines about what the number is that is going to be achieved. It is not about the number; it is about the outcome. And the outcome is about ensuring that we get an environmentally sustainable plan, but a plan that is delivered in a way that leaves us with sustainable communities as well.
In an earlier amendment, Senator Hanson-Young had the gall to pretend that she wanted and was arguing for even greater water cuts so as to protect Riverland citrus growers. Well, hello? If you have greater cuts, there is going to be less water available for those Riverland citrus growers to use.
Senator Hanson-Young just does not seem to appreciate the fact that every drop we put back into the environmental flows has to come from somewhere, and that it comes off the productive capacity. We took the bold step in government of saying: ‘Yes, we acknowledge the system has been overallocated’-and I am going to turn to whose fault it is that it was overallocated in a second because I think you totally misunderstand whose fault that is-‘and we’ve got to return water to the environment. We want to get the system back to a level of sustainability, but we want to do so in a way that preserves and protects the fabric of the communities up and down the river system.’
If infrastructure projects and environmental works and measures can be undertaken, and if they can deliver the water necessary for sustainability, why are they better and preferable to buybacks? They are preferable because they ensure we keep farmers on farms along the river with productive capacity, growing food for this country’s future. There seems to be a misconception, and it is often spread around, that farmers and irrigators are to blame for overallocation. It is certainly not the farmers or the irrigators and it is most definitely not the communities they live in. Those who are to blame for overallocation are state governments. Let’s lay the blame firmly where it sits.
If we could manage to get the state governments to foot the bill for all of the adjustment costs, I would be very happy-and no doubt Senator Ludwig, Senator Conroy and Mr Burke would all be delighted. But, of course, the state governments will not meet the bill for the costs of adjustment. The state governments issued the licences and farmers went out to those communities and set up. Taking advantage of those licences, communities were built around them and now 2.1 million people, I think, live in basin communities, and rely, in large part, upon irrigation activities to sustain the social fabric and the economic basis of those communities.
This is a devil of a problem when you boil it all down, because you are trying to get water back-water that underpins the economic base of those communities without destroying that economic base. That is why the Howard government prioritised spending on infrastructure. It is why Senator Joyce, Senator McKenzie, I and others have been so critical of the government for not fulfilling those expectations and delivering the priority when it comes to infrastructure spending. We welcome the fact that the government seems to have rediscovered that as a priority. It will allow us to achieve the objective that we all want, that I know deep down you want, Senator Hanson-Young, and that I certainly want which is to get sustainability into the river system. That will ensure that those whom I spoke about yesterday, those Lake Albert farmers and irrigators on the Lower Lakes, have water that they can use to irrigate. That is what I think would be a good and equitable outcome: that they should be able to pump water that is of a quality and a standard for them to irrigate. But, as I said yesterday, it is not the volume of water in that case that matters because there has been more than enough water flowing through the Lower Lakes in the last three years.
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting–
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Don’t roll your eyes, Senator Hanson-Young, or shake your head around. We have had three years of floods and it is the management of the lakes and the management of the system that is in large part why Lake Albert has not recovered from drought-it is not from a lack of water.
To ensure that in future droughts there is greater resilience in the system, we need to ensure that there is more water flowing through, especially in those average years. It is the average years that provide the resilience for when we come to the droughts. The flood years provide the recovery when we leave the droughts. That of course is exactly what is happening.
This attempt to constantly second-guess what the headline figure should be, I find to be the most appalling part of this debate.
Senator Hanson-Young: How about listening to the scientists?
Senator BIRMINGHAM: How about listening to the independent authority? Have a look at the members on the authority. There is a scientist on the authority. There is an environmentalist on the authority. There is a respected former public servant running the authority. There has been more than $100 million spent on research and on consultation to get to this point and they are now saying, ‘We’re going to return at a starting point 2,750 billion litres of water into the system’ and the government is now committing to try to get a further 450 billion litres of water on top of that. Are you suggesting that this is not a big step forward? It is a big step forward.
But I have no doubt when I see the plan that I am going to see problems with it. I have no doubt that I am not going to think that it is perfect. I have no doubt that there will be concerns with aspects of the water recovery strategy. I have no doubt that there are some issues throughout this. We are on the cusp of taking a big step forward, but Senator Hanson-Young and the Greens just seem intent on tearing down and destroying what should be a good step forward in the management of the Murray and what should be acclaimed in South Australia. If we can get this plan in place and if we can get an outcome that protects the Riverland communities of South Australia just as much as it protects the communities upstream, we should be hailing that as a good result.
That is what we on this side are trying to work towards-something that will see the eastern states actually cooperate in this process. They want to protect their communities just as much as you or I, Senator Hanson-Young, or Senator McEwen, or any other South Australian, want to protect our communities. We need to find a way that ensures that they feel that there is protection for their communities whilst giving the win for our communities that we want and need.
Do not come in here and lecture on fiscal responsibility because it suits your political ends. Nobody believes the Greens when they talk about fiscal responsibility. Understand that there is a very good reason that governments of both persuasions now-us, when we were in government; the other mob now that they have worked this out-support and prioritise infrastructure outcomes because they can give the win-win result that gets us the water we want for a healthy river and does so in a way that actually leaves the socioeconomic fabric of this community intact.