Oct 18, 2006

Matters of Public Importance – Rural Policy, Climate Change and the Drought

Matters of Public Importance

Rural Policy, Climate Change and the Drought

18 October 2006

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (4.35 p.m.)—I congratulate the member for New England on proposing this discussion of a matter of public importance today. I certainly associate myself with comments from all sides of the House in praise of the work being done by men and women, families, on the land who are doing it extremely tough. I indicate that drought assistance has been bipartisan in terms of a recognition on both sides of the parliament that people need assistance. I do, however, take exception to some of the comments that have been made in the debate. In particular, I was intrigued by the comments by the member for Hume. He just said that there is more to come, implying that announcements will be made when they are politically convenient rather than when they are actually needed. In terms of playing politics on the issue of drought, surely that statement by the member for Hume was quite extraordinary and completely inappropriate.

I do find some of the comments attacking the Wentworth group rather over the top. The Wentworth group, by and large, is made up of people who have worked for the CSIRO and scientists who have brought their scientific expertise to the policy debate. I certainly do not think that these people of goodwill should be subject to personal abuse, as has occurred in this debate.

We have heard in this debate, quite extraordinarily, from the member for Page that the Murray is going well. I have been to the mouth of the Murray with my colleague Steve Georganas, the member for Hindmarsh, and I can assure the House that the situation whereby the mouth of Australia’s most important river system has to be dredged for the river to be kept open is just beyond belief. The truth is, of course, that the Murray is in a dire situation and there has never been in more than 100 years of our recorded history less water in the Murray. We know that the Darling system is also in total crisis. I have seen this with my own eyes. I find it quite extraordinary that there are members of the government saying that this is not an issue.

We also want to make a contribution to this debate on the issue of climate change and what that means for our future water supply and, particularly, how these issues affect rural Australia. In her opening contribution on behalf of the government, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said that we should not talk about that because that would politicise the debate. This is a debate about politics; this is the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia. Unless you address climate change you certainly will have no opportunity to address the issue of water.

Australia is drying out because of climate change and yet the Prime Minister is sceptical that it is even happening. We heard the Prime Minister on 27 September state that he was not interested in ‘what might happen to Australia and the planet in 50 years time’. That was an extraordinary comment from the Prime Minister given that climate change is happening, it is real and it is happening right now. The fact is that today in the Bulletin the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and responsible for water, Malcolm Turnbull, said that it is happening now and that it is real. The government has a dual strategy. On the one hand, there are people such as the Prime Minister and the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, Ian Macfarlane, who said on 20 August:

‘Well, I am a sceptic of the connection between emissions and climate change.’

On the other hand, people like Malcolm Turnbull go out and say that it is real and that we really need to do something about it. But, of course, we do not see anything happening.

Peter Cullen has been discussed in this debate. The member for Kennedy dismisses the CSIRO, but one of the things Peter Cullen has said is that the climate we are now seeing in some parts of Australia is what the CSIRO climate change model seemed to predict for about 2050. So either it is happening much faster or we have a gradual climate change with a severe drought on top of it. What we really have is a Prime Minister who prefers to stay 50 years behind.

Addressing Australia’s national water crisis is an urgent task which requires leadership and action from all levels of government. Australia’s water resources are highly variable and range from heavily regulated rivers and groundwater resources to rivers and aquifers in almost pristine condition. Over 65 per cent of Australia’s water run-off is in the sparsely populated tropical north, but Australia’s large urban areas are in southern Australia and irrigated agriculture is principally located in the Murray-Darling Basin. This is where only 6.1 per cent of the national run-off occurs. As a nation, we have never really valued water. Our water supplies have been taken for granted, undervalued, overallocated and misdirected. We are starting to see the early development of a water market, something begun by the Keating government with its COAG reforms of 1994, but the fact is that we still see a very slow move to action.

The Living Murray is almost on life support. In November 2003 we were promised by the Howard government 500 gigalitres within five years. The promise was warmed up in the 2006 budget but, despite that, we have not seen a drop of water returned to the Murray. The parliamentary secretary has said that 35 gigalitres have been returned. He said that on the 7.30 Report two nights ago. He repeated that in the Bulletin today. But the truth is that 35 gigalitres was not recovered following action by the Commonwealth under the Living Murray first step program; 25 gigalitres was in fact recovered from the Snowy River and there was a donation of 10 gigalitres from South Australia. The parliamentary secretary must know this, but again we have a situation whereby the federal government wants to be seen to be doing something.

The reality is that a lack of investment in national water infrastructure has brought us to this crisis. We must stop our profligate waste of water, both in our cities and in agriculture, mining and industry. Climate change will have a massive impact. The government’s own reports say that by the year 2030 water supplies for cities will drop by 25 per cent, rainfall in the Murray-Darling Basin will fall by 25 per cent and evaporation rates will rise. Climate change and water are the two sides of the same coin. Rising temperatures are cutting rainfall and increasing evaporation in rivers and dams. Rising sea levels threaten to increase salinity. This is happening in the Pacific and it threatens Australia. Increasing temperatures increase our thirst for water while, of course, our population is growing. With less water, more people and increased temperatures, this drought is a terrible crisis for rural communities. I honestly think it will get a lot worse unless we are prepared to take action to avoid dangerous climate change. I have had good discussions and dialogue with the National Farmers Federation, who are increasingly of the view that there is a direct link between climate change and drought. The processes that have been there in the past—the Landcare program and other programs—point towards the way forward.