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Murray-Darling Basin

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (2.24 pm) - My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Senator Conroy.

Senator Conroy, I hope you still have some voice left. Will the minister confirm that a requirement of the constitutional head of power, under section 51 of the Constitution, on which the Water Act is based, is to uphold our obligations under international environmental treaties and that therefore any reforms to the Murray-Darling Basin under the act must deliver environmental sustainability and protection?

Senator CONROY - As has been argued and discussed and debated in the last few days in this chamber, the government sought legal advice about the interpretation. It has been tabled, but I will go through it again. Broadly, the advice outlines that the Water Act gives effect to relevant international agreements, provides for the establishment of environmentally sustainable limits on the quantities of water that may be taken, provides for the use of the Murray-Darling Basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes, improves water security for all users and, subject to the environmentally sustainable limits, maximises the net economic returns to the Australian community.

The international agreements which underpin the Water Act recognise the importance of social and economic factors. The act specifically states that, in giving effect to those agreements, the plan should promote the use and management of basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes.

So it is clear from this advice that environmental, economic and social considerations are central to the Water Act and that the basin plan can appropriately take these into account. The key challenge before the parliament is for this to be the term in which action is taken across the basin to restore the system to health. We need to do this in a way that delivers three core outcomes: healthy rivers, strong communities and food production. Sensible reform will find a way to provide all three. The government trusts that the issuing of this advice provides a level of confidence that it is possible to provide sensible and lasting - (Time expired)

Senator HANSON-YOUNG - Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer. The minister referred to the requirement under the act to restore the river to health. We know that in order to do that we must see a return of no less than 3,000 to 4,000 gigalitres. That would be upholding our requirements under the act. Will the government confirm their commitment to delivering this?

Senator CONROY - As Minister Burke has repeatedly said, ultimately this will be a vote of this parliament, as is set out clearly in the legislation. We remain firmly committed to getting the balance right between the environmental, economic and social considerations. The minister will comply with his responsibilities by putting legislation, regulation, before this parliament for this parliament to determine what the final outcome is. So the question is a little premature. What I think we have seen in the last couple of weeks is a realisation that further consultation is needed, further analysis is needed - and that is exactly what the minister has set in place.

We are in a circumstance where the government will follow the letter of the law as we are required to. Minister Burke will comply with all of his obligations and ultimately this parliament and this chamber will be part of the process. (Time expired)

Senator HANSON-YOUNG - Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Given the lack of commitment to delivering the minimum amount required to return the river to health, it seems as though the public have no other option than to assume that the government is backing away from upholding the requirements of the act. Could I please ask the government whether they will rule out any amendments to the Water Act?

Senator CONROY - I reject that assertion and the assumption underpinning the question. I do not think it is in any way possible to characterise Minister Burke's statements in the way that you have described. This was an act of parliament that started off on that side of the chamber with all support and that was amended, with everyone's support, in the previous parliament. This is an act that people are very comfortable with. If we have differing interpretations, that is the reason that the minister sought the advice. So we are comfortable - 

Senator Hanson-Young - Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I put a very specific question to the minister: will the government rule out amending the Water Act? That is the question that has been put to the minister. I would like him to answer it.

Senator Ludwig - Mr President, on the point of order: I assume that Senator Hanson-Young was attempting to indicate, on the basis of relevance, that the minister was not answering. However, what Senator Hanson-Young then did was to reinterpolate her question. That is not the question that was asked. In fact, it is a different question that has been taken on the point of order. The minister has been answering the question that was asked by Senator Hanson-Young. I submit that there is no point of order.

The PRESIDENT - Senator Hanson-Young, I am going to rule on the point of order that you have taken, and if you want to take a further point of order you can. There is no point of order. I cannot instruct the minister how to answer the question. I believe the minister is answering the question but I cannot instruct the minister how to answer the question. I can draw the minister's attention to the question, which I will do, and there are 23 seconds remaining.

Senator Hanson-Young - I would like for the record to be correct and that Hansard fully reflect that the question about amending the Water Act was clearly part of my final supplementary question. I would like you to consider that.

The PRESIDENT - The Hansard will always reflect the business that is transacted in this chamber, so it is up to you to look at the proof of the Hansard when it comes out. If you disagree with the proof of the Hansard then you have opportunities to correct it.

Senator CONROY - I do appreciate the show we are getting today from Senator Hanson-Young - shameless campaigning ongoing, really. It is just shameless. There is nothing that Minister Burke has said that could possibly be interpreted in the way that the senator has sought to try to imply, absolutely nothing.

(Time expired)


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