Murray-Darling Basin Commission of Inquiry Bill 2019 Bills

I rise to make a contribution to this Greens bill, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission of Inquiry Bill, calling for a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin system and its management. I direct my remarks, in part, to the school children I see sitting above and who I welcome to this place. It’s important to understand that what you read in the papers and what you hear in places like this are the opinions of one group of people, and it’s very important to test the facts before you accept at face value what one particular group says. That’s because, whilst often there are elements of truth and good intent, bias, whether conscious or unconscious, can very definitely flavour what people say.

In the time that I have I’d like to address some of the facts and issues that Senator Hanson-Young raised. I’ll have look at some historical context around our environment, our climate in Australia, the Murray Darling Basin and the use of water in this country, and then go specifically to the management of the Murray Darling Basin system and the irrigators—and the communities that in fact rely on irrigation, as well as our broader community, that sees it, rightly, as one of the great food bowls of Australia.

Senator Hanson-Young talked a lot about the river in crisis, and I do not deny that up and down the river there are areas that are in incredible stress—historically, it has always been thus. And yet the benefit we see from management means that last year, in the middle of this period where the east coast of Australia is suffering a very bad and prolonged drought, South Australian irrigators had 100 per cent of their allocation from the river. The current forecasts from the South Australian environment department indicate that even under dry conditions they can expect to get 100 per cent of their allocation this year. Even under very dry conditions allocations are expected to get to 97 per cent this year. So in a time when there is stress on the basin as a whole because of factors such as drought, the management of the river means that from a South Australian perspective we should actually look at the fact that we have had 100 per cent, and have every expectation that, after environmental and critical human needs have been accounted for, our communities that rely on irrigation will again receive 100 per cent of their allocations. That is a good news story. We should actually look at that and say that in a time where there’s great stress on other parts of the basin, the Murray-Darling management means our irrigators are in a good place.

I think it’s also important to look critically at some of the reporting on some of those areas under stress. I go in part to the issue that Senator Hanson-Young raised about the Four Corners report. We would expect, given the criticisms of that report and the comments that Senator Hanson-Young has made, that groups like the National Farmers’ Federation would indeed come out, as they have done, to criticise the kind of reporting and the lack of objective evidence—the lack of a broad range of witnesses from different sides of the argument—that Four Corners came out with. The NFF have made quite strong statements about the fact that since 2012 the plan has returned 2,100 gigalitres of water to the river system, with almost 700 gigalitres coming from efficiency and infrastructure projects, and that the majority of those projects were not carried out by large corporates but in fact by family farming operations with works valued on average at less than $152,000. And they went on to talk about the fact that for farmers to access the scheme they actually have to agree to sell water entitlements to the government—that is, return the water to the environment—and they ran through a number of the checks and balances.

I understand that some people would go, ‘Well, obviously, they have an interest’. I’m disappointed, personally, that if the ABC claims to be an organisation that puts forth news to the Australian people—and I think their little jingle says ‘without bias or agenda’—they didn’t, in fact, have an unbiased and wide set of witnesses for that report.

But let’s put aside even the National Farmers’ Federation and look at the open letter that was written by a group of top scientists, people who work with water and the environment, that criticised the ABC’s reporting over that. They said that the ABC Four Corners episode propagated myths and misrepresented the science of the plan. They highlighted that the letter was written because of a growing frustration among experts that there was a widening gap between the broader public perception of the basin and what was actually happening on the ground. So the comment I made to the previous group of children, who are here from schools, was that they need to test the facts of what they see in the media. They need to test the facts of what people say in places like this so that they actually understand what is happening on the ground and not just take one perspective. The beauty of a democracy like ours is that there is an opportunity for people to come here with different perspectives. But if we are to work as a cohesive society then we need to look at a range of perspectives and understand how to work cohesively together to benefit our whole community.

I will make a few historical comments because I think they are important, particularly in the context of a bill which is seeking to set up another inquiry—in fact, a royal commission-style inquiry. In going back and looking at various, what I would call, independent groups—including the National Museum of Australia—and looking at the history of our environment and the Murray-Darling Basin system, they highlight that historical accounts and scientific analysis indicate that south-eastern Australia experienced 27 drought years between 1788 and 1860 and at least 10 major droughts between 1860 and 2000. So, well before any of the human-induced factors that people blame for either the management of the Murray-Darling Basin or broader climate impacts, here in Australia what we have is a country that has periods of good weather, of rains, and periods of droughts.

What my own state of South Australia, and my own family, who come from a broadacre farming background, saw in the 1870s and into the 1880s was an unprecedented period of good rains in the far north of the state. Despite the work of the well-renowned surveyor, Goyder, who drew the now infamous Goyder’s line which separated arable land from pastoral land, people started believing that rains would follow the plough. We saw people—including my own family, who bought land at Tarcoola—who went north, bought land and planted crops with an expectation that rain would follow the plough. And, indeed, during the 1870 and 1890s, that did occur for a period, and there were productive areas in the far north of South Australia. But those areas then reverted to type and are now regarded, as, indeed, Goyder forecast, as pastoral lands with occasional good rain. They are not areas with reliable rainfall.

In that period, around the time of federation, Australia suffered what was known as the Federation Drought between 1895 and 1903. To quote from the National Museum of Australia, the CSIRO:

… said that more than 60 bird, fish, mammal, reptile, and plant species were severely affected across more than a third of Australia’s land mass.

…   …   …

“In New South Wales, most rivers stopped flowing and dust storms filled dams, buried homesteads and created ghost towns as people fled,”…

“Wildlife and stock starved or died of thirst. Native birds and mammals died under trees, in creeks, and on the plains.

So what we see is that, well before there was a Murray-Darling Basin Plan, well before any of the factors that people say are accounting for climate change, Australia had a very variable climate. So we need to be careful to not attribute things like the fish kill that was widely reported in the media recently to something like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, or the management thereof; we need to understand that the plan is an effort to moderate the impacts of an extremely variable environment, which, in Australia, throughout its recorded history, has included periods of floods and rains as well as devastating droughts.

But the important part that comes from the National Museum of Australia and its history was: what was the response of governments to that? One of the criticisms that was made was that the responses of governments were a number of commissions and inquiries as opposed to practical measures to help. In terms of opposing this bill today from the Greens, that’s the point I’d like to start from, because history tells us that these things occur as part of Australia’s natural climate and that governments have been quick to put in place inquiries, whether they be commissions or parliamentary inquiries or others, but have been slow to put in place practical measures. After decades of disagreement between the basin states here in Australia about the Murray Darling Basin, we have a plan that we’re only halfway through which is seeking to invest in a collaborative approach and productive measures that will return water to the environment and will support communities who rely on irrigation through those systems, so that the water that we do receive is better managed for the benefit of all.

The government’s focus—and I note the fact that the opposition has in a very bipartisan manner over the years and commend in particular Mr Burke for his role in this—has been very much part of trying to bring together a plan for the benefit of Australia and the states and communities that rely on the river. It provides certainty for them. Having said that, I recognise that, as the plan continues to unfold, there will be areas, particularly around transparency and compliance, where we need to continue to invest effort. We have seen already, as a result of the 2017 inquiries of the MBDA and others, a huge investment by the government and agreed plans across the ministers of the states and the Commonwealth around additional compliance and transparency measures so that the Australian public can have confidence that those who do the wrong thing—and there are some; we know that—will be held to account and the full force of the law will be applied to them. But we don’t throw out the whole plan because some people have done the wrong thing. We increase compliance checking and we increase the amount of resource we spend in encouraging the kind of behaviours that have seen 2,100 gigalitres returned to the environment through this plan, which has secured that water for the environment each year on average.

The basin plan, as I said, can’t prevent drought nor is it the cause of drought. In focusing on compliance and enforcement, the government is putting in place the 2017 review recommendations, and in 2018 the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council approved the basin compliance compact, and that was endorsed in September last year by the Council of Australian Governments. In 2018 also, Mick Keelty AO was appointed the Northern Basin Commissioner to monitor and to advise on compliance commitments. So here is someone who has served Australia in many years who is not associated with agricultural industry or the environment but who is associated with broader governance and compliance in Australia who will be running that effort. The government has also committed some $9.1 million specifically to the issue of compliance, and this year already we have announced an additional $35 million to expand metering as well as satellite remote-sensing technology in the Northern Basin as well as $25 million for the installation of metres so that we can do the kind of compliance checking that is required.

The findings and recommendations for things like the South Australian Royal Commission have been contested by a range of people, including the federal government, because of the simple fact that the plan, whilst not perfect, is still being rolled out and is working. There are benefits being delivered and, despite talks about calamities in the river, despite the fact that we have the dreadful stressors in the north of the basin, I repeat the fact that, as a senator from South Australia, we currently have 100 per cent allocation and we expect, according to the South Australian environment department, to have 100 per cent allocation next year even under dry conditions. That is not the mark of a system that is failing because of the plan. The plan is there to moderate the impacts of the extreme variability in climate that we have. We do see, particularly in the southern basin, concerns raised about the impact of water trading and how that has worked. Minister Littleproud has referred to the ACCC the requirement for them to look at how that trading is working and whether that system can be improved to make sure that it achieves the impacts that we’re after: having the best possible use of available water being the thing that drives the trading in water systems.

The government also—Senator Hanson-Young and others have mentioned this—has the Productivity Commission’s five-year assessment of the basin plan. That report does make the comment that significant progress has been made. The Commission said that arrangements for environmental water are working well, with evidence of improved ecological outcomes. So we’re not going to support yet another inquiry into the basin and its management. We welcome transparency. We welcome the fact that people have had previous inquiries, and we are currently implementing funding both around compliance and transparency. But we do not resile from the fact that we would rather invest in efficiency measures, ensuring that water that is saved goes back to the environment, as opposed to taking away water from the very communities that make the Murray-Darling Basin Australia’s food bowl. If you don’t have water, then you can’t actually grow the food that those communities and broader Australia rely on.

Senator Hanson-Young:
You can’t eat cotton!

Senator Hanson-Young talks about cotton. She knows or should know that in times of water stress allocations go down, so while South Australian irrigators have 100 per cent allocation, cotton growers have zero allocation. They have the ability to carry over water from previous years, but even if you banned cotton they will just go to the next most profitable crop, because irrigators will use water to generate revenue. There will be the use of water, and in a country that allows people to use things that they own for the purposes that they intend, as we look at the system in the river we see that those with environmental needs, critical human needs and then other high-value crops—for example, trees that need water for them to sustain—get an allocation well ahead of things like rice or cotton.

So that’s where it’s important to understand the facts of this argument, as opposed to just pulling out the easy political batting boy to say, ‘Cotton and rice are bad; irrigators are bad.’ In fact the system recognises the differing priorities for those crops that sometimes get zero allocation, which is the case at the moment in those northern regions. I come back to the point that the evidence that the plan, even in a time when there is great stress on the river, particularly in its northern regions—in South Australia, the state with most to lose if this plan collapses, has 100 per cent allocation for its irrigators because the plan is in place. By all means, we should continue to implement and improve, but we certainly won’t be supporting the waste of millions of dollars that would come from yet another inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.