SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (21:21): Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President, and it is a pleasure to see you in the chair. Can I say as I rise to speak and congratulate you on that role. It is also a pleasure to follow Senator Joyce in speaking and to have heard some of his remarks and commentary, particularly about the process of Murray-Darling reform and the example that this legislation can set in that regard. I too want to touch on some of those issues.
On the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Amendment (Scheme Enhancements) Bill 2012, I would like to reflect briefly that, yet again, in this couple of weeks, I rise to speak on a bill that is, as they like to put it, ‘time managed’. ‘Time managed’ is of course a euphemism for applying the guillotine and, to be frank, it is preposterous and ridiculous that this bill is being time managed. It is lunacy that it has come to this for a piece of legislation that enjoys bipartisan support, that is relatively noncontroversial, that makes some sensible changes and that is, of its nature, legislation that you would expect to go through quite simply in a noncontroversial debate in this place without the need for these types of extreme measurements.
It is not my fault, it is not my problem, that the government wants to make a fool of itself, that the government wants to expose itself, in conjunction with the Australian Greens, for having such contempt and such disregard for democratic processes that it is happy to rack up the statistics on the number of bills that it guillotines through this place. But it does show all those opposite for being hypocrites. It does demonstrate the hypocrisy inherent in all of those who have railed against the application of guillotines and the curtailing of debates in the past, in all of those who, especially when the coalition briefly held a majority in this chamber, talked about how that majority was abused and how outrageous it was that guillotines were applied-and Senator Polley is nodding. Yet, Senator Polley, this government has guillotined far more bills in the life of this Senate than the coalition ever did when we had a Senate majority.
The Labor Party, together with the Greens, have thrown out the window any semblance of regard for process of debate here. This example is just sheer lunacy, as I said before, because it should never have needed this. If the government had managed the chamber as you would expect a government of the day to manage this chamber, this bill would have appeared on a non-controversial list, there would have been a couple of speeches of not particularly great length from each side and it would have all been dealt with in a relatively simple way. But, no, the government have to decide that they, with the Greens, can exercise some brute force, can force this chamber to consider everything they want, when they want, how they want, under the terms they want. When you take those steps it elicits a reaction, and the reaction is that you get to sit here and listen to us give speeches on these topics because you have decided these things will be dealt with in a certain manner. Well, there are consequences for everything we do in life. This is the consequence for the government of deciding to set up this ridiculous process-a ridiculous process where bills like this that should be dealt with in a relatively seamless way will probably take longer than would have otherwise been the case. But that is the government’s choice; that is their foolish choice. They may want to reflect on their worth as legislators for making these foolish choices, but I guess in the end the Australian public will make that decision for them in terms of why it is they have taken this ridiculous approach not just with this bill but with other bills that genuinely warranted sensible debate in this place and that could have been improved had the proper legislative processes been applied as we have come to expect.
As I said, this bill is an eminently sensible bill. The coalition welcomes this bill. It provides for some improvements to the operation of the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Scheme, the WELS Scheme, which relates to how water is used and, most importantly, how water is saved for various products. The operation of the scheme aims to conserve water by reducing water consumption. It aims to better inform consumers about the water efficiency of various products and to promote the adoption of more efficient and effective water-saving technologies. These of course are all admirable goals.
The bill is born out of the WELS scheme and the review in particular that the Howard government put into place when this scheme was first established back in 2005, with the passage of the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act. The act set out objectives around the conservation of water supplies, the provision of information and the adoption of efficient and effective water-saving technologies. It required a five-year review. That review was conducted and has provided the types of recommendations that are contained in the bill that is before us tonight. Back in 2005 when the Howard government took this very important initiative of putting in place the WELS Scheme, it was the first scheme of its kind providing for the star-rating water efficiency labelling that we see today when purchasing dishwashers, washing machines and fixtures and fittings, amongst other things. It was an important reform because it provided simple, clear information to consumers which helped them to select the most efficient products.
Efficiency is something that we are all concerned about today when it comes to household information. It is certainly something that those on the other side of the chamber should be very concerned about, because at a time when water, gas and electricity prices are soaring and will soar even more thanks to the government’s carbon tax, star-rating labels that can help consumers to make informed decisions about the relative running costs of different products are more critical than ever before.
We all know that with the introduction of the carbon tax in just a few days households will be paying more for their electricity, their gas and, yes, for their water. Water utilities, which are major users of electricity to pump water across urban areas and townships and the like, will of course pass those costs through. In South Australia, the home state of the Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water-our home state-SA Water, the provider of water services to most South Australians, faces a direct carbon tax liability in excess of $6 million. That $6 million will of course be passed through to all South Australians on their water bills. So they will pay more for every drop of water that every South Australian uses because of the Labor government’s carbon tax. That is a pretty simple equation to understand and it is why it will be more important than ever before for South Australians to have the type of information that the Howard government’s WELS Scheme sought to provide them about efficiency of the products they choose to purchase. So we will see water prices rise not just for urban consumers, who might be worried about the types of products covered by this program, but also for many irrigators. They will end up paying a lot more for water as well.
One of the great ironies when it comes to water efficiency and the operation of the carbon tax is that the carbon tax will penalise Australia’s most efficient irrigators more than it will the least efficient irrigators. Why is that so? Because the irrigators who are most efficient when it comes to the use of that scarce and finite resource are those who have invested in the highest cost forms of service delivery, either for the system of piping and pumping water or for drip-feeding type systems for their individual irrigated lands. The least efficient are those still using gravity fed open channel systems and flood irrigation systems on their properties. How do these stack up in terms of energy usage? They stack up with a very stark contrast. At the system level it is pretty clear that those who pipe and pump water pay enormous electricity costs to do so, whilst those who use gravity fed open channels pay no electricity costs to do so. Those who on their farms and properties use drip-feed irrigation practices have individual pumping costs that come with that, yet those who use flood irrigation practices often have very low pumping costs. So the carbon tax will actually make water efficiency for farmers a harder goal to achieve. That is the idiocy of the government’s policy. They have implemented an arrangement where one of the government’s policy objectives, namely the carbon tax, will operate in conflict with another of their policy objectives-namely, achieving water efficiency on farms.
I will use another example of the types of costs that will be incurred. The Central Irrigation Trust in the Riverland region of South Australia, for just one of their pumping stations, has an electricity bill of up to $400,000 per annum. They will, of course, face the 18 per cent price increase for power coming down the line in SA. As a result of that, the costs that they pass through to all of those irrigators in the South Australian Riverland districts will be greater and will ultimately flow through into higher food prices and produce prices for all South Australians.
So I do understand the importance of water efficiency. It saddens me that, although the government may be doing the right thing with this bill and doing the right thing by ensuring that this bill makes more efficient the operation of a scheme that provides households with greater information about how they can be efficient water users, in the end other government policies and in particular the carbon tax will make it harder for water users and especially irrigators to achieve the type of efficiency that they should.
Senator Joyce reflected a little on Murray-Darling Basin reform. I think it is important to again look, as he did, at a scheme that has worked well, that has been rolled out well and that dates back to the Howard government, as this scheme does, and compare it with another program of Murray-Darling Basin reform that was also initiated by the Howard government but that has gone so far off the rails under the Rudd and Gillard governments. There is indisputably a real crisis of confidence throughout the Murray-Darling Basin about the state and progress of basin reform at present. Whether it is upstream or whether it is downstream, you struggle to find people who agree with the approach taken by the government. They may have polar perspectives in many ways, but they very vehemently disagree.
The government has lost the confidence of people throughout those communities. People have lost confidence in many different ways. The government has particularly lost the confidence of those who are in irrigation communities, those who fear for the future livelihood of their communities, by failing to deliver the type of program the Howard government outlined for the $10 billion that was budgeted for basin reform. The government has failed to demonstrate that it can deliver a program that prioritises water efficiency, that prioritises keeping farmers on the land so they are able to grow food and produce using the least amount of water possible whilst returning water to the environment.
The government has instead prioritised buybacks-buybacks undertaken in a very random and sporadic way rather than buybacks or other activities that could return water for environmental flows without having a negative, devastating impact on those communities. So the government has lost the confidence of those communities, in part because when it comes to water efficiency, when it comes to the way they have tried to help those communities with water efficiency, they have not provided the assistance required.
So we have a situation under this legislation where households in urban areas may achieve water efficiency objectives, but in rural areas where the government has promised to spend valuable money on infrastructure projects that could achieve water efficiency it just has not followed through. It has not delivered. Meanwhile, downstream an equal crisis of confidence has occurred. Part of it is the federal government’s fault for not selling its policy effectively, for setting false expectations around what Murray-Darling reform might deliver for South Australia, for not making sure there is an understanding that the reforms in the Murray-Darling are not just about getting a healthy, sustainable environment but also about maintaining healthy, sustainable river communities. But also in part in South Australia the crisis of confidence is, to be fair, not the fault of this federal Labor government. It is the fault of the state Labor government and in particular the new Premier, Mr Weatherill. Mr Weatherill was put there with Senator Farrell’s blessing. I acknowledge that fact. I hope that Senator Farrell will be able to talk some sense into Mr Weatherill as time goes by, because he is doing more than perhaps any leader in this country at present to destroy confidence in Murray-Darling reform. He is doing more than perhaps any other leader to seriously undermine and jeopardise the capacity of this federal Labor government to deliver for the Murray-Darling for the long term.
Mr Weatherill seems to have forgotten that he was the environment minister in the Rann government that signed up when Mr Rudd was Prime Minister to the historic reforms for the Murray-Darling in 2008. He agreed to exactly the process that is being undertaken to date. He seems to have forgotten that all six members of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority were appointed by this Labor government, three of them by Senator Wong when she was the water minister, his close friend from South Australia and factional ally. He seems to have forgotten all of those very salient points and, while it is actually an independent authority proposing this plan, he seems to be hell-bent on trying to argue that they are just a political body bending to the will of the eastern states.
I suggest that nothing could be further from the truth and that they are, in fact, a body grappling with a very difficult situation that is being made worse by the failure of the Gillard government to outline and enunciate a clear plan for the implementation of whatever basin plan the Murray-Darling Basin Authority comes up with, an implementation plan that demonstrates it can be done in a manner that minimises the impact on regional communities, keeps farmers on the land and maintains sensible food and produce production levels into the future.
While I may despair in many ways at the state of Murray-Darling Basin reform and just hope that Senator Farrell can use his factional influence over Mr Weatherill and his influence over Minister Burke to try to get this reform back on track and restore some level of public confidence, I at least do not despair tonight for the WELS Scheme. I recognise and support the amendments that are proposed. They will hopefully ensure the scheme operates as smoothly as possible, provides a streamlined approach to ensure prompt registration of products, avoids the need for too many amendments to supporting state legislation and provides clear civil penalties for the way any contraventions to the act are dealt with in future. This type of streamlined approach to these types of schemes is something the coalition supports because it makes regulation simpler, it is something we hope to see more of in the environmental space and it is why we have advocated a one-stop shop when it comes to land based environmental approvals that can reduce the extent of bureaucracy and duplications and ease the cost of doing business into the future.
I do hope that this legislation achieves the water efficiency outcome that it seeks to and that it builds on the success of the Howard government’s WELS Scheme. I pay tribute to those who established that scheme-Mr Howard, John Anderson, Greg Hunt, Malcolm Turnbull and others-and pioneered water reform. I just hope to see more successes like it in the future.