Water Amendment Bill 2015 Bills

The Water Amendment Bill 2015 is an important piece of legislation that will have a great impact on my home state of South Australia as well as the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining my colleague the Hon. Bob Baldwin, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment, when he was in Adelaide announcing the results of the independent stocktake of levels in the Murray-Darling Basin, which confirmed that we were on track to meet our environmental targets. The sustainable diversion limits stocktake showed the projects were on track to deliver the environmental targets that were outlined under the Basin Plan. The report showed that over 500 gigalitres less water is needed to meet the environmental targets in the plan, and that means that the Basin Plan continues to be on track to deliver a triple bottom line outcome. That means that we are not just looking after the environment but, importantly, we are looking after the communities that live and work in the Riverland and looking after the economic impact and benefit that those communities and the agricultural sectors they represent deliver.

It is important to canvass how did we get to this point. For more than a century Australia has struggled with its management of water. We all know the history. Despite the fact that we have had centenary droughts and we have had floods—everyone knows Dorothea Mackellar’s poem—we have not managed water well. Various state governments have over allocated water to push development without due regard either to the environment or, importantly—and I speak as a South Australian—to the states who are downstream and suffer the consequences of inadequate flows. In 2007, when I was in the other place as the member for Wakefield—again representing communities in South Australia—it was fantastic to be part of a government that under the leadership of then Prime Minister Howard and environment minister Malcolm Turnbull put forward the National Plan for Water Security. This was not just a short-term, ‘let’s get to the next election’ type plan. Abraham Lincoln said that a politician has an eye on the next election but a statesman has an eye on the next generation, and this was one of those times when finally Australian politicians, the parliament, came to the point of having a statesman-like plan that said, ‘How do we try to fix a system that has been broken for over 100 years and make it work to the benefit of our communities, to the benefit of our environment and to the benefit of our economy in years to come?’

Under that plan some $10 billion was put forward—they put their money where their mouth was—to revolutionise the way water was managed. There were a couple of key elements. Traditionally, despite the hydrology of how waters run in catchment areas and usage, we had managed water according to lines that people had drawn on maps. Clearly that was foolish. The concept was to have a national authority and an independent expert body behind that. That was, of course, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I pause to note that my good friend the Hon. Neil Andrew, my predecessor in the seat of Wakefield, is currently the chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, having himself, before his long career in Australia’s parliament, been an irrigator from the Riverland. That group was given the task of setting sustainable limits on the extraction of surface and ground water based on what has become the CSIRO’s analysis of environmentally sustainable diversions in each valley. That leads us to that stocktake that I just talked about.

The act expressly requires the authority and the minister to act on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge and socioeconomic analysis and consider the consumptive and other economic uses of basin water resources. We probably all remember the consultations that went on from there. There was a fairly turbulent period when government swapped sides, and Minister Burke had a pretty rough time—I will not say it was his fault; it was just this process of bringing a new system to a century’s worth of management. A lot of people objected to what was being put forward and particularly to the simple solution from a bureaucratic perspective, which was to just go and buy water and throw it back at the environment. (Time expired)

Debate interrupted.