Dec 6, 2006

Matters of Public Importance – Environment and Water


6 December 2006

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (3.59 p.m.)—The report released today, Australia state of the environment 2006, is an important addition to the information which tells us that climate change is real and it is happening right now. The report indicates that greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise by 22 per cent of 1990 levels by the year 2020. It puts a hole in the government’s argument that it is taking action on climate change. It destroys its argument that it is meeting the Kyoto target of 108 per cent by the year 2012. The only reason it is within a bull’s roar of reaching that target is the one-off decisions of the New South Wales and Queensland governments to stem land clearing.

The report outlines how, over the last five years, there has been lower than average rainfall all over eastern Australia. It documents what is happening in our cities, including that Perth’s water supply catchments are yielding 50 per cent less water than in the years before the mid-1970s. It outlines how ocean temperatures have increased by 0.28 per cent since 1950. The trend spells a disaster for the Great Barrier Reef, but of course we know that that is one area where the government do have a plan. We had the tourism minister last month proposing a shade cloth for the Great Barrier Reef to solve the problem of climate change. So it is not true that they do not have any plans. It is true, however, that the plans that they do have are not practical and are just rhetorical.

We know that the government consistently speak about how much money they have allocated. But what have they done? Let us look at the issue of water. Australia is the third largest per capita user of water in the world. The report confirms that there are significant pressures on Australia’s inland river systems. According to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, we are facing the worst drought in 1,000 years. And today that commission showed that inflows into the basin from June to November 2006 have been only seven per cent of the long-term average for that period.

The report confirms that Australia is facing an extinction crisis, we have lost 56 per cent of our vegetation in river systems and wetlands, 20 new pests and diseases are introduced each year into Australia and two million hectares of Australian land shows signs of salinity. All of that adds up to the fact that, on each and every indicator, the Australian environment is going backwards compared with where it was in 1996. To give one example, water consumption increased by more than 10 per cent from 1996 to 2001.

This outlines what is happening with our biodiversity. We all know the effort the government went to so as to not act in accordance with its own environmental legislation to save that one theoretical orange-bellied parrot every 1,000 years. One theoretical orange-bellied parrot every 1,000 years has all of the arms of government trying to save it. At the same time, the report says 29 bird species significantly decreased in number over the years up to this report. We know that 39 per cent of Australia’s 85 bioregions, and more than 30 per cent of the ecosystems, have been described as threatened. We know there has been a massive decline in waterbird numbers across eastern Australia. When it comes to wetlands, we know that altered flow regimes have resulted in the loss of 90 per cent of flood plain wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin, 50 per cent of coastal wetlands in New South Wales and 75 per cent of wetlands on the Swan coastal plain in south-west Western Australia.

When it comes to water, we know it is over-allocated, undervalued and misdirected. And there is a lot of agreement between things that I have said and things that the parliamentary secretary for water, the member for Wentworth—who is at the table—has said about appropriate pricing of natural resources. The principles behind the National Water Initiative are essentially sound. We support market based mechanisms to drive water use to areas of higher value. But compare the rhetoric on water, even in the same speech sometimes. In the Prime Minister’s speech to the CEDA conference, he outlined the importance of market based mechanisms for water and then went on to say why emissions trading was bad. In the same speech!

The truth is that what we need, if we are going to address the environmental decline which Australia is seeing after 10 long years of the Howard government, is a consistent approach based upon the principles of proper pricing and valuing of our natural resources, the acknowledgment that they are finite resources and the establishment mechanisms which drive the change through. But that is not what we are seeing at the moment. What we see from the government is just more and more bureaucracy.

There is another report being launched today, which is the ALP discussion paper Protecting and restoring our precious natural environment and water supplies. I commend it to the parliamentary secretaries for water and the environment and heritage opposite, Bib and Bub, because what it presents is not just an analysis of what is wrong with the environment but a path forward—a detailed, comprehensive policy framework for moving forward to address these issues. It is a policy framework with climate change at its centre, because you cannot address issues such as water, whether it be in our agricultural areas or in our cities, without a plan to address climate change.

We see announcements from the government. Recently they announced the Office of Water Resources. The National Water Commission did not know about that announcement. They heard it on radio. I would be interested to know if the parliamentary secretary could outline exactly what the distinction is between the two offices. We know that this is a government that announces lots of programs with lots of overlap. What I want to see is the money and financing going into a streamlining of these programs. What the Labor discussion paper raises—and we have had discussion with the National Farmers Federation, with conservation organisations and with business organisations right across the board—is the need to actually move beyond rhetoric and into delivery. We need to consolidate land, water and biodiversity programs to ensure that the money is actually spent on the environment and not just on creating a bureaucracy so that the parliamentary secretary can say he is in charge of something.

Let us think about the programs that are there when it comes to natural resource management. We have the National Water Commission and the Office of Water Resources. We have the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, the Natural Heritage Trust, the National Water Initiative, the National Landcare Program, the National Reserve System framework and the Living Murray initiative. We have all those programs, but not a single drop into the Murray, in spite of the rhetoric of those opposite.

Mr STEPHEN SMITH — Two drips, not one drop!

Mr ALBANESE—I cannot not have that on the Hansard record: ‘Two drips, not one drop,’ the member for Perth says quite accurately. In spite of the rhetoric of the government that $700 million has now been allocated to the Living Murray initiative, we have not seen the purchase from willing sellers of one drop of water to put back into environmental flows—not a drop. When you look at the Living Murray website, it is terrific. It says things are projected and it has a state by state breakdown and at the bottom of it there is: ‘Amount of water delivered into the system’ and you get all the eggs in a row: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0. That is what you get, because they have failed to actually deliver a drop.

Labor, on the other hand, believes that you have got to establish targets. That is why we have a 30 per cent target for water recycling by 2015. That is why we support mandated targets as the basis of the Kyoto protocol and the global system. That is why we support a national emissions trading scheme, so that you drive that change through in the least costly way. That is why we support putting 1,500 gigalitres back into the Murray River within 10 years—the amount that the scientists tell us is necessary to save the Murray River, or face the consequences.

What is happening is that one by one community groups and businesses are coming on and adopting the agenda and strategy that Labor has set. Today we have seen the peak policy-making body of the National Farmers Federation make a unanimous decision to join with the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change in calling for early action on climate change. Why are they doing that? The NFF president says because climate change:

… threatens Australia’s agricultural productive base—an important contributor to the national economy, the ability for Australian farmers to put food on the table of Australian families, and the long-term sustainability of at least 60% of Australia’s landmass.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics records that Australian farmers spent $3.3 billion on natural resource management over 2004-05, that 92% of farmers have environmental programs in place to manage and preserve their land, and that farmers plant over 20 million trees a year for conservation.

Farmers know that climate change is real and it is impacting on them first. That is why today they have taken such a strong position.

We have seen the Leader of the Opposition this week put forward an agenda for reform of federal-state relations. That is very necessary is in the areas of environment and water. We need to stop the blame game. We need to actually have the Howard government and the future Rudd government take charge and take responsibility for delivering on the ground. A Labor government will do just that, because in spite of the rhetoric—in spite of the fact that you have ‘Australia’ and ‘National’ in all these programs—we are not seeing the results delivered on the ground.

A Labor government will deliver clarity of purpose, commitment to implementation, appropriate accountability and monitoring of progress, because there is no greater issue facing the nation than climate change and addressing the symptoms of it, including the reduction in our water supplies. We know from report after report that early action is cheaper—that early action is not just good for the environment; it is good for the economy and good for jobs. What we have from those opposite is an acknowledgement that Kyoto is ongoing and will be the basis of the international effort, but we should not ratify yet. There is an acknowledgement that emissions trading is the main driver, but we should not have it yet. There is an acknowledgement that we need to put in place water trading and take action to buy back water that is overallocated, but there is no action yet. I say the time is now. (Time expired)