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Speech: Water Amendment Bill 2015 second reading

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 9 Sep 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:44): The Water Amendment Bill is a sloppy piece of legislation. It is very confusing, and when you sit down and read it you really wonder what the purpose of it is. What is the intent? Clearly the government has an aim here. You start to wonder what the driver is. What is the political interest going on here? What was the intent of the Liberal and National Parties when they came up with this? You would have to conclude that it is to support their constituency-agricultural big businesses-and it looks like the Nationals were probably a key driver, because the more you look into this legislation the more you come to the conclusion that it is about unravelling the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This is an incredibly serious point with regard to water policy in this country, the driest continent on earth. We have already seen under this government the demise of the National Water Commission, effectively, and the National Water Initiative. Now the intent is to unravel what was already a compromise-the Water Act was already a compromise-and we should remember that as the government now pushes to have a cap in the legislation.

The starting point for any legislation on water should be that we live in an increasingly climate changed world. That should mean that we address the long-term certainties around water in the Murray-Darling Basin. That is how the Greens approach the critical issue of managing the Murray-Darling. But, as I said, this bill undermines the Water Act that it seeks to amend. The Water Bill overrides the Commonwealth's obligations to achieve the sustainable diversion limits mandated in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The bill limits how much water can be bought back from willing sellers. It is an extraordinary change. It really is incredibly serious. Now we hear that Labor is going to be sitting there with the Liberals and the Nationals and allowing this to go through.

The bill removes flexibility to achieve the aims of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It is essential to managing water that we recognise the importance of the current plan. In a political, budget constrained environment, and into the future, the responsibility of the government to invest wisely in cost-efficient and proven effective outcomes should also be a given. The bill risks substantial expenditure of public monies on projects that may further reduce the net amount of water available to groundwater or downstream water users across the basin. With this in mind, the Australian Greens do not support the passing of the bill. When you look into issues around water policy, certainty is so important, and that is something that this bill removes. The health of the Murray-Darling river system-the protected wetlands, basin communities, the flood plains, agricultural soils and crops-requires certainty at some level of water flow. To achieve the health of the basin rivers, certainty of flow is absolutely paramount. This is particularly so for the downstream ecosystems and communities. The River Lakes and Coorong Action Group remind us that the Coorong and surrounds-and this is from their submission-'bears a great deal of the risk if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails to restore the health of the River system and achieve the objects of the Water Act 2007'.

What do we mean by certainty? Certainty of a guaranteed buyer is central. The water licensees who wish to sell water entitlements surplus to their requirements need the certainty of a guaranteed buyer in the Commonwealth, especially when times are tough. The Commonwealth itself needs to be certain that it has flexibility to meet its legislative and ethical obligations to achieve sustainable diversion limits through the purchase of environmental water licences from willing sellers when needed. The bill itself needs to provide certainty in its aims, definitions and outcomes. But it contains no certainties. It is a confusing piece of legislation. Again, it is about unravelling the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. So much time and so many resources went into that plan, with such a fundamental compromise already. It was a small step forward, but now it looks like we will be left with nothing.

Any speakers in this place who say otherwise-that it is not full of uncertainties-are misleading the public. What you see here, I believe, are the proponents of the bill walking both sides of the road. We said this regularly with the Nationals and I will be interested to hear their comments. It is classic: selling themselves that they are there for the farming folk and there for the farming communities. When you look into this bill you see that on the one hand they say that, but on another hand: who do they deliver for? This bill delivers for big water interests-big irrigators. Do not come into the debate and distort the Greens' position. We are not against all irrigation. We are about getting the balance right so that farming can be sustainable in this country as we face the incredible challenges of climate change. That is what a responsible government should be doing.

The 2007 Murray-Darling Basin Plan, with its supporting legislation, was written in response to what was then one of the worst droughts in Australia's written history. It is recognised that the overallocation of water from the Murray-Darling Basin has affected not only the ecological wellbeing of the rivers but also the long-term sustainability of the communities that run the length of those waterways and their water catchments and the amazing flood plains that make up the Murray-Darling Basin. Without healthy, flowing water in the Murray-Darling rivers and their tributaries, their irreplaceable environmental values and the communities that depend on the health of the basin's water will wither and die. This is not guaranteed, and this bill puts it under much greater threat.

The current Murray-Darling Basin Plan is informed by a shared recognition that a nationally coordinated approach to water reform is vital to addressing the overallocation of water out of the Murray-Darling Basin. As noted by the River Lakes and Coorong Action Group, the plan represents well over 20 years of planning and negotiation between many competing stakeholder interests. In their submission, the group states that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan should be implemented and evaluated as it was designed to achieve the agreed objectives of the Water Act 2007. I emphasise that point again, because this is what is being lost with this bill-a deep undermining of important legislation, the Water Act. Yes, the Greens criticised it at the time, but it was still something of an advance. We cannot go backwards to that point; we cannot see another fundamental aspect of managing our water resources cut up and divided in such a sinister way.

Central to the plan is the reduction of water extracted and diverted from the Basin to sustainable limits by 2019, stated in the 2012 Plan to be 10,873 gigalitres per annum. Now 2750 gigalitres of environmental water must be recovered each year with the option of offsetting this volume by supply measures. The ability of the Commonwealth to purchase water licences to meet the previously mandated recovery of 2750 gigalitres per annum of environmental water is the safety net of the whole Plan and thus a central plank to achieving the objects of the Water Act 2007.

I emphasise again that the 2750 gigalitres was a major compromise, and it is worth remembering just how much of a compromise it was. Remember the years of debate, all the resources, all the experts and all those discussions. The scientific experts identified that what was needed was the return of an additional 7600 gigalitres per annum of water to provide a high level of certainty to achieving the required environmental outcomes. Remember that when we use the term 'environmental outcomes' you should not try to narrow that down in a reductionist approach to this debate. Environmental outcomes are about the health of the whole system; it is about the health of the communities and about the productivity of the region. That is what we mean by 'environmental outcomes'. That is what many experts recommended in 2007. As I say, the 2750 gigalitres per annum was a major compromise; that amount was seen as minimal for the health of the Murray-Darling river systems. We know that the Commonwealth is responsible for ensuring that the sustainable diversion limits or SDLs are achieved.

The SDLs should be able to live up to their name and be sustainable. Retaining the ability to purchase environmental water if any shortfall in water recovery occurs is essential to the Plan. That is how it should work, but this bill does not pass that test of being able to restore water. The bill imposes a limit of 1500 gigalitres per annum on the volume of environmental water the Commonwealth may purchase to meet its obligations under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This is where it becomes incredible: the cap of 1500 gigalitres in the bill is a rigid limitation. We know there are complexities in managing the water and we know terrible droughts can come, but putting such a low cap into the legislation will make it so much harder.

It really is a very deep betrayal, particularly when we see Labor, the Nationals and Liberals lining up on this. Surely, there should be more debate and surely we should be listening to the excellent submissions that warned us about what could happen if this bill passes. To share another voice from those submissions, let me quote that of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations:

By placing additional costs and restraints on the Commonwealth's ability to recover water for the environment, the Bill will severely hamper its ability to meet Water Act objects...
That is the essence of the problem that we have here. This bill does not line up with the intent of the Water Act. It is actually about dividing it up. There was also a joint submission from the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria and Environmental Justice Australia. Their submission stated:

Our primary concern with the Bill is that the cap will be in the Water Act itself. Since the Water Act takes precedence as a legal instrument over the Basin Plan, honouring the cap will take precedence over honouring the SDLs.
That is why I keep saying that it is about unravelling the very important work that was done in bringing forward that Water Bill.

If the Commonwealth cannot meet the SDLs via infrastructure upgrades or efficiency measures-because, for example, they become prohibitively expensive or they simply do not deliver the amount of water required-it will not be able to use buy-backs to bridge the gap. That is the advice from the ACF, Environment Victoria and Environmental Justice Australia, and that advice should be followed. The warnings are there and they are clear. There is no indication in the bill as to what would happen if the Commonwealth finds itself in this position, because as further noted by that joint submission and that from the EDOs of Australia: if the Commonwealth cannot meet its obligations to bridge 100 per cent of the gap to meet the SDLs, the gap would then become the reasonable excuse-remember that is the term: 'the reasonable excuse'-trigger in the Basin Plan that would allow the states to exceed the SDLs, the sustainable diversion limits. Again, the proof is there and we had it laid out before us. The submissions clearly show how this bill will unravel and undermine the Water Act to such a dangerous extent where we are left with no plan for the Murray-Darling.

This bill creates a framework that effectively allows governments to walk away from their commitments to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. With no remaining liability to meet the SDLs, with no requirement to meet the sustainable diversion limits-that is what we are talking about here. This is simply unacceptable. It should be unacceptable to all senators and to all parties, but again we know that the Labor, Liberal and National Parties are all working together in this most backward piece of legislation. I have described the bill as 'sloppy' and 'confusing' and that is shown even in the fundamental definitions. The expression 'long-term annual average quantities of water' is used, but what does it mean? There is no certainty as to whether the 1500-gigalitre limit is on entitlements or on long-term annual average entitlements. Because so much of it is unclear, that is why you start to question the intent. It is not just about the cap at 1,500, it is not just about 1,500 gigalitres, it is not just that the cap is actually this time in the act, it is also about the definition, it is about whole piece of legislation. You are left wondering what the intent here is.

Submissions by the EDOs of Australia-ACF and the organisations that put in the joint submission-take up this deficiency in the bill. They have questioned it very deeply. The Inland Rivers Network stated:

... there is no definition of what this means or how it is to be calculated, over what period of time.
It is an extraordinary way to craft legislation. We do know that unbundling of water from land has created a new asset that many irrigators have chosen to sell to create new wealth. This bill puts this asset at risk. Again, how extraordinary that we have the Liberals, the Nationals and Labor putting this asset at risk. This is another very serious outcome if this bill is passed.

The bill removes the current surety businesses have that a guaranteed buyer-the Commonwealth-will be available should they wish to sell water entitlements surplus to their requirements. The Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales in their submission examines the case of a farmer who has achieved required water efficiency and seeks to sell any part of their water entitlements as a positive investment. In their submission the NCC New South Wales stated:

Constraints on the purchase of water for the environment through the market will reduce demand and therefore market prices, reducing the potential for financially viable investments.
This bill is contrary to the notion of open markets. The coalition is supposed to be the party of open markets, and there are times that they work and do assist, and this has been an example of it. Here we have a bill that is contrary, as I said, to the notion of open markets that this government trumpets. It is contrary because it seeks to remove the choice for farmers to sell surface water entitlements in the open water trading market.

A number of submissions to the inquiry, including the ones from the EDOs of Australia and the Inland Rivers Network, reminds us that a 2012 Marsden Jacob Associates survey of the MDB water entitlement sellers found that 80 per cent of irrigators considered that the sale of their water had been a positive or very positive outcome and that a large number of those sellers remained in the area and continued farming. I share that information because it contradicts one of the myths that has been put around to try to justify this change with regard to water assets.

The EDOs of Australia note that contrary to assertions that, 'banks directly forced irrigators to sell water', the 'survey results suggest that irrigators made the decision to sell by themselves, in consultation with family and advisors taking into account their assets and liabilities, uncertainty about future water availability, and other factors.' We saw the way that the water assets system was set out under the plan has worked very well.

The Greens do share the concerns of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, the River Lakes and Coorong Action Group, and the other groups that have put in very well thought out, very well argued submission to the inquiry on this bill. The Murray-Darling Basin is already suffering deep decline. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was important and is a contribution and is certainly a positive, but probably so much more was needed. Rather than going forward, with this legislation we are going backwards.

For that reason the Greens will move a second reading amendment. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

But the Senate is of the opinion that water purchases managed under the Act should be driven by an evidence based approach premised on the latest climate and hydrological science.

This legislation is a great set back. I recommend our amendment. It is the one contribution we can make to try to get water policy in this country back on track.



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