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Matter of Public Importance - Murray-Darling Basin

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 25 Oct 2010

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia)

(5.48 pm) - Today's debate comes in good time, as the minister has tabled a ministerial statement regarding legal advice received today from the Government Solicitor in relation to the Water Act. Unsurprisingly, the Water Act clearly shows that the necessity of ensuring environmental sustainability, coupled with looking at the social and economic costs and benefits for the community, has always been there.

Any reform regarding the basin needs to give the river and the communities that rely on it the best fighting chance. Reform to management of the basin has been such a long time coming. We know that we have grossly overallocated the system for decades. We have played the river off - state versus state, community versus community and state versus federal government. This is not a new debate that we are having.

It was a debate that happened around the formation of the Constitution when states did not want to have to give up their water rights. It is a debate that we are now suffering the consequences of - generations on - because we did not make the necessary reforms we should have 50 or 60 years ago.

I obviously come from South Australia. I can see for real the effects of an overallocated system - a system that has had so much water come out of it that it has started to kill itself. The river system is dying. Yes, the rains that have fallen in the last couple of months have been blessed and wonderful for all of the various sections and communities within the basin - and no-one is rejoicing as much as those  communities down on the Lower Lakes - but we rejoice with the concern that, unless we get these reforms right, there will simply be another time when this river system is in crisis.

If we do not tackle the overallocation problem, if we do not take into consideration the issues of  climate change, then we simply will not be able to rely on those good rains when they come.

We know how hard communities throughout the basin have struggled in the past few years - through the drought and as a result of over-allocation. We did not leave enough in the system for those drier times. There will always be wetter times and drier times. With climate change it will get drier and drier, particularly in the south. That is what the science tells us and that is what the modelling shows us. We need to ensure that we leave enough water in the system for when times are poor.

The government's legal advice as suggested in the Water Act says that of course the government must look at the social and economic costs and benefits of any reform that puts the river on a sustainable footing. Why is that? Clearly it is because if we do not give back to the river the water it needs - if we do not keep the river living and do everything we can to revive it and put it on a sustainable footing - of course there is going to be a significant impact on both costs to those communities that rely on it and food production in Australia.

If we want to have a basin where communities are vibrant and have security and if we want there to be a future for our basin communities, we need to make sure there is a future for the river. If we want food production to be secure in Australia, we need to make sure that the places that produce our food are sustainable and therefore have security into the future. The best way for us to do that is to tackle the river crisis.

To do that, the best available science tells us that we need to put a minimum of 4,000 gigalitres back into the system and that if we really want to save the river we need to be looking at 7,600 gigalitres.

That is what the best available science tells us and that is what we need to be talking about. These figures are now on the table. We should  not be debating the figures; we should be looking at how we engage with those communities to find out how we can work with them so that they can be sustainable in a future with less water. That is the reality. Otherwise, this river is going to be dead and the communities are going to suffer.

So the government has an amazing opportunity here. Rather than seeing the government find every which way to backtrack and back-pedal on these reforms let us see a true commitment to the volume of water that science tells us the river needs, and then let us get out and engage those local communities in how they can be helped and how they can be innovative living in a future with less water. The government has an amazing opportunity because there is money on the table.

We do not have to fight about that - there is $9 billion sitting there. The government needs to go out and engage with these local communities about how they can transition and how they can take ownership of their participation in this necessary and urgent water reform.

The money is there. If we have the political will, we just need the resources to go and do it.Of course those communities are concerned, because there has been enough fearmongering about their future to scare anyone. But most of these communities in South Australia, in Victoria, in New South Wales, in Queensland and even here in the ACT know that they have no future if there is no river.

What they want to know is how we can help them in a drying climate where we need to put more water back into the river to keep it alive and how they can work sustainability, efficiently and effectively with less water. We have the money, so let us engage those communities.

Let us give them some ownership of this reform. That is what the government needs to be doing rather than backtracking on the best  available science. We have to listen to that. We know that this water needs to be returned to the river. Let us not go back to the drawing board. Let us not talk about amendments to the Water Act. We have done that hard work. There is meant to be tripartisan support for these reforms, so let us figure out how we can deliver them.

That means engaging with communities; it does not mean scaremongering and it does not mean a government trying to distance itself from some really necessary reforms that have been outlined by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. We have to remember that one of the best things about this process is that we all agreed some years ago that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority needed to be independent of politics if it was going to deliver the necessary reforms.

In the last couple of weeks the saddest thing has been the backtracking on that - the sense that politics is now playing into it. If we are to get this right, we need a commitment again from the government, from the opposition and from all the crossbenches to put politics aside and put our communities first.

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