Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (16:29): In the early part of this century Australia suffered a severe drought that was particularly intense in its effect on the Murray-Darling Basin. At its worst, the drought resulted in this great river system becoming dysfunctional. The wetlands of the Coorong at the Murray River mouth virtually dried out. The river mouth had to be dredged to accommodate the trickle that reached that part of the system, because upstream states had failed to properly limit allocations to irrigators in a manner commensurate with the effects of the drought. I, as the shadow minister for water, went to South Australia, down to the Coorong, and witnessed the dredging taking place. It was an extraordinary sight—that you needed to dredge at that point each and every day simply to keep the great Murray-Darling system open to the sea. It was an extraordinary circumstance, but it was one to which the then government, the Howard government, responded.
Droughts are a fact of life in Australia, but the real problem recognised at that time, by all sides of politics, was that there was a need for a basin-wide approach to manage the River Darling. You see, our great river systems did not recognise colonisation or the great state of New South Wales, or Queensland, South Australia or Victoria. Of course the rivers did not recognise that. But the way the system was managed failed to recognise that what occurred in any place in the basin impacted the rest of the basin, which is why you needed to have a comprehensive approach. The parliament at the time decided that cooperation was needed between Queensland, New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and South Australia. Cooperation was needed in times of drought, but, importantly, cooperation was also needed in times of plenty so that you did not assume that the times of plenty were never-ending, so that you took account of the changes that occurred in the normal weather cycle and also so that you recognised that there was a need to manage and to mitigate the impact of climate change. That was something that was recognised by people on the land, by the bureaucracy and by people in the cities and towns that depended upon the Murray-Darling Basin system for access to that most fundamental of human needs: water—the basis indeed for ongoing life itself, whether human life or growing through agriculture or through farmlands with cattle, sheep and other activity that is so necessary for providing food for our nation and indeed potentially for the world.
If you did not have a structure for that cooperation, then each state government, under pressure from industry, would face a great temptation to act in its individual interests rather than in the interests of the entire basin. And of course if that action took place on the basis of sectional interests, then in the long run that would be counterproductive even to the interests that achieved a short-term gain, because the system would not be managed properly to the benefit of the entire system. To its credit, the Howard government worked through the Council of Australian Governments to broker agreements for a more sensible approach to managing the system. It was never a case of choosing between irrigators and the environment. It was understood that, without sustainable management of the resource, the resource would become degraded. It was also accepted that it was important to ensure that there was enough water in the Murray-Darling system to sustain wildlife. Protecting the environment would protect its value as a tourism resource. A new, cooperative approach, the National Water Initiative, was designed to guarantee greater interstate cooperation in the national interest.
Part of the new apparatus of this approach was the creation in 2004 of the National Water Commission. Its remit was to achieve a nationally compatible market, regulatory and planning system that would manage water for urban and rural use and optimise economic, social and environmental outcomes. One of the commission’s roles was to audit states regarding the way they adhered to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was delivered by the former Labor government. Independent experts supported this reform process. They realised that it was in the national interest to take the management of water out of the combative arena of interstate rivalry and into the world of evidence based management. Yet today we are being asked, through this legislation, to abolish this organisation—the very organisation that was welcomed by organisations such as the National Farmers’ Federation, by experts in scientific research and by communities in the basin and was the subject of unanimous agreement.
As the shadow minister for water I had the great privilege of undertaking visits to places like Griffith, Leeton, St George and other places in the basin to look firsthand, as a guest of the NFF, at what irrigators were doing in investing to make their land more productive, and what environmental sustainability measures were being put in place. It was great privilege, as someone who is from very much an urban seat, to be educated by people on the land. What I saw was people doing their bit for their particular properties, but also saw people who understood that there was a need for greater perspective. That is precisely what the National Water Commission was designed to do.
The bill before us proposes handing responsibility for the triennial assessment of progress and implementation of the National Water Initiative and the five-yearly audits of implementation of the Basin Plan to the Productivity Commission. The Productivity Commission is simply not equipped for that task. It lacks the expertise. The idea that the Productivity Commission would take the place of the National Water Commission is simply not appropriate. These issues are complex. The Productivity Commission’s processes do not normally include the level of consultation with stakeholders required in such a contentious area. Proper management of this nation’s water resources is about economic productivity—there is no question about that—but it is also about the environment and sustainability. It is about much more than a narrow approach which the Productivity Commission, in its wisdom, is designed to facilitate.
I believe very clearly that it is worth the $20 million a year that we spend on the National Water Commission. If you consider the environmental degradation that can came from not taking a basin-wide approach, that $20 million is money well spent. Have a look at how much it costs us every time there is a drought or an issue in which farmers need special assistance—much more than $20 million; much, much more every single time. If we get the management of the basin right, the future costs at times of drought or at times of oversupply, in terms of flood, will be less because you will have management that is appropriate and right across the basin.
The government’s view is very much ideological. It comes from the Commission of Audit, put in place after its election to justify a slash-and-burn approach to public administration. Given that the commission recommended cuts to health and education spending and reductions in the pension and the minimum wage, I doubt the recommendation to abolish the National Water Commission was considered from any angle other than how much money it would save. I doubt also whether the commission considered the fact that a $20 million saving could lead to a much greater cost to government in the future as a result of not making sure that we maximise the appropriate management of the system.
This bill is opposed by all of the experts. The inquiry by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee into the bill found little support outside the irrigation sector. I take more notice of the National Farmers Federation, which opposed the abolition of the commission. I listened carefully to the experts at the NFF when I was the shadow minister for water. I found the NFF took a balanced approach, understanding the importance of sustainable management. During that period, I got across what is a very complex issue, which is why I think the area of expertise is so important. The Water Services Association of Australia and the Australian Water Association oppose this bill on the basis that it would remove national leadership on water. The Australian Conservation Council also opposes the bill, attacking it as a short-sighted and backward step in the absence of an enhancement of the Productivity Commission’s operation and mandate.
The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, which sets the standard for scientific rigour on water management, said in its submission to the parliamentary inquiry that the National Water Commission was central to guiding implementation of the 2004 reforms. The submission warned:
There are a number of signs that indicate we are departing from the strong leadership of the last decade …
It appears that our Australian governments are walking away from strategic water reform at the very time when we should be preparing for the next inevitable drought. The Wentworth Group believes that we urgently need to reinvigorate the reform effort in order to tackle issues that remain unresolved as well as emerging water challenges. Water reform must be seen as a long-term endeavour rather than a one-off endeavour.
Even the current government understands in its heart the value of the current approach. In 2004, the current Minister for the Environment—who does not talk very much about the environment these days—Mr Hunt, in a debate on the legislation that set up the commission, said:
It is now our—this generation’s—responsibility to take the steps in our national usage and in our personal usage to allow genuine health for the next generation.
Mr Hunt was right then, but he is wrong now. Another submission to the Senate committee inquiry came from Associate Professor Stuart Khan of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Professor Khan wrote:
Without the National Water Commission, there is now no clear avenue through which to drive and harness the benefits from national coordination in water reform.
He went on to argue that national economic growth could be impeded by the lack of national oversight over water management.
Let me conclude by picking up on the view of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and its observation that water reform must be seen as a long-term endeavour, not a one-off exercise. I fear that the Commission of Audit, with an approach based purely on reducing spending, failed to understand this important concept. National co-ordination of water policy and management of the Murray-Darling Basin serves Australia’s long-term interests. It is not just about the economy and it is not just about the environment. We hear much from this current government about intergenerational theft as it seeks to justify ideologically-driven spending cuts that hurt average Australians. Failing to exercise proper stewardship of our natural resources today could deny our grandchildren access to those resources. We want the Murray-Darling Basin to be more than just an environmental showpiece; we want it to also be a critical piece of economic infrastructure. It also has an ability to provide food for the nation and also to enable those people who live in— (Time expired)
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.