Please find the following Ministerial Statement by The Hon Bob Baldwin MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment – 26 March 2015.

I rise to update the House on the government’s policy priorities in regard to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Water reform in our nation has progressed over many years. I speak on this matter today as one of the many members from both sides of the House who have been given the responsibility of managing this nationally important issue. I acknowledge the work done by former Prime Minister John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull as the minister for water and their courage to continue on the path of bold reforms in the water sector building on the COAG reforms of the mid-1990s and the National Water Initiative and the Living Murray program of the early 2000s.

In a continent such as ours, with such variable climatic conditions, managing water resources sensibly, equitably and sustainably is the most important aspect of the Commonwealth’s role in leading the nation’s water reform agenda. The making of the Basin Plan in 2012 by the then minister for water Tony Burke, with bipartisan support from the coalition, represented the culmination of 20 years of substantial water reform. Under Prime Minister Abbott each state has now signed up to the intergovernmental agreement for implementing water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin, a historic achievement that all members of this parliament and state parliaments can be equally proud of. This plan is the epitome of bipartisanship and recognition of the dire situation highlighted by the millennium drought. It shows what can be achieved through federal and state collaboration, negotiation and cooperation.

I have only been in this portfolio a short time but I immediately commenced travelling throughout the regions of the Murray-Darling Basin listening to and observing the concerns of all sectors of the community. I have travelled the length of the Murray River. I have visited parts of the Goulburn and Murrumbidgee rivers. I have travelled to the Menindee Lakes to see the dire situation with their water shortage, with water now only remaining in Copi Hollow. I look forward to continuing my travels down the Darling River with the members for Parkes and Maranoa after Easter. No matter where I go, it is clear to me that there are two key issues facing communities in the basin. The first is the policy fatigue that has set in after more than 20 years of water reform. The second is the sense of urgency for certainty regarding the implementation of the Basin Plan.

The communities of the Murray-Darling Basin understand the need for the reforms that have gone ahead, but they, rightly, want assurances that the implementation of these water reforms will achieve a win-win-win that delivers good outcomes for the environment, for the farmers and irrigators and for the communities and businesses in the plan. I want to make it abundantly clear that the coalition government is committed to delivering the Basin Plan in full, on time. The coalition is completing the water reforms that we started. It is what we pledged and it is what we are delivering. However, we recognise the concerns and challenges that the plans create for some communities, and we must and we will find a way to deliver the best possible outcome for basin communities and the environment. It is our responsibility to ensure the long-term environmental and business sustainability for our communities to prosper. The coalition is cognisant of the need for certainty for all businesses, to enable them to invest in the future of their community and industry. This is true from the north of the basin to the south, as it is from the east of the basin to the west.

We are listening to the environmentalists, to the townspeople, to the farmers, to the irrigators, to the businesses, to the tourism operators, to industry and to fishermen alike. Every person and every group in the basin matters and they must all be considered. This is why we are aiming to implement the Basin Plan to achieve a win-win-win outcome and provide a level of certainty that has been missing. That is why we are now moving to legislate the 1,500-gigalitre cap on water buybacks in the basin, to place a ceiling on the amount of water recovery that can be achieved through water purchase, in line with the coalition’s Water Recovery Strategy released in June 2014. To date, 1,162 gigalitres have been recovered through water purchase, 607 gigalitres recovered through investment in infrastructure programs and a further 182 gigalitres through other state recovery actions. That is 1,951 gigalitres, 70 per cent of the water recovery required under the plan. There is still more to be done, but it needs to be done with the least detrimental impact on all sectors of the community. For the remaining water recovery efforts, we have prioritised the remainder of the Basin Plan funding for investment in infrastructure, particularly through more efficient on- and off-farm irrigation systems and environmental works and measures to achieve the outcomes of the Basin Plan to the full extent.

People often talk about the Snowy Hydro scheme as the biggest infrastructure project that rural Australia has ever seen. While the project is an impressive hydrological engineering feat, let me tell you that the $820 million that government spent over 25 years pales in comparison to the $13 billion that will be spent implementing the Basin Plan reforms. From now to 30 June 2019, the Australian government will spend $2 million per day investing in infrastructure right across the basin, investing in the future of sustainable farming and irrigated agriculture and investing in our environmental sustainability as well as community sustainability, all with a level of certainty. That is $2 million per day invested in regional communities. We will do this working in partnership with our state counterparts, who are key and critical to delivering the Murray-Darling Basin reforms.

Throughout my travel with local members, I have seen the positives of this investment by the Commonwealth government. With Sharman Stone, the member for Murray, I visited the dairy farm of Nick and Nicole Ryan, who have upgraded their farm with laser levelling and automated pressure pipe-and-riser irrigation technology. Irrigating paddocks through automation reduces watering time, delivers water to the soil more efficiently and effectively, reducing the volume of water required to maintain healthy pastures and reducing salinity impacts. These infrastructure works increase farm productivity and reduce the labour demands of farming, all while delivering water savings for our environment.

I also visited Deniliquin with Sussan Ley, the member for Farrer, where I saw infrastructure investment in new remote-controlled regulators and metering and met with the Wragge family, a father-and-son rice-growing team. Again, they are benefiting from the on-farm laser levelling, which is reducing the amount of water needed but also increasing crop yield. Innovation is the Australian way, and this rice farmer is looking for further means to increase his yield per hectare. He is doing it by putting freshwater eels into the flooded paddocks, which is achieving a dual benefit of eel production from market and improving the environmental footprint, through bug control, as the eels feed on the insects, reducing pesticides and input costs.

I encountered similar stories of efficiency and effectiveness in the electorate of Tony Pasin, the member for Barker, visiting grape and citrus growers who are achieving similar feats of increased efficiency and productivity. While in Renmark, I also visited the Chowilla regulator, which is an impressive example of the type of work being done to achieve better environmental outcomes through effective control and delivery of water and, just like irrigators, achieve a more efficient use of water. This project is part of the $1 billion for the Living Murray works for environmental icon sites in the Murray. The regulator will allow for regular inundation of up to 50 per cent of the 17,750 hectares of wetlands. I also saw the fish ladders and gates in action, which now span the entire length of the Murray River, restricting the passage of non-native carp, which destroy our river system, whilst providing safe passage for our native species—an engineering feat in itself. Similarly, I saw the works at Koondrook-Perricoota Forest on the New South Wales side of the Murray, which covers 32,000 hectares of flood plain and is home to significant bird, fish and native flora populations, including iconic river red gum and black box colonies. Over $100 million invested through the Living Murray Initiative is finally delivering water to the wetland. I have seen the success of this recent environmental watering, with the trees, scrub and wildlife responding slowly but positively.

Andrew Broad, the member for Mallee, and Michael McCormack, the member for Riverina, despite the distances between their electorates, have good examples of the positives from government investment in off-farm delivery infrastructure.

In the Sunraysia, Lower Murray Water are converting their channel system to pipe, which reduces water losses during delivery and improves water quality to the farmers, through the $103 million in federal government investment. In the Murrumbidgee I saw the innovation and drive from the Coleambally Irrigation deliver world’s best-practice farming techniques and water management. They also highlighted increased investment in the region due to more efficient water delivery and certainty of access through these irrigation networks.

In a sign of confidence in the future of irrigated agriculture, six local cotton farmers have banded together, investing $24 million to build a cotton gin. I was so impressed by the enthusiasm in this small but very dynamic community. I met with Leeton mayor Paul Maytom, who was upbeat about the investment that the reforms were delivering to his community. However, when meeting with him and local businesses such as JBS meats, SunRice and Walnuts Australia, they highlighted the need for certainty from government—the need for the 1,500-gigalitre cap to be legislated.

At the end of the day, all of the above projects are investments in agriculture that are delivering improvements for our farmers and water for the environment. We recognise the challenges for all groups, from townspeople to farmers, irrigators, environmentalists, business and tourism operators, industry and fishermen alike—indeed, everyone. That is why we are determined to deliver a triple-bottom-line outcome. The basin as a whole depends on it. As I have said, delivering the plan is not without its challenges or issues that we must address. We will work with the states to finesse and deliver a plan that meets this aim, and we will make sure that it is effective.

From my visits to the basin I can see and understand the emotions, but I can only address the facts—and I will address the facts. I have heard clearly the concerns surrounding the constraints management strategy and the delivery of environmental water. I thank those groups on the Edward and Murrumbidgee rivers that showed me around their farms and highlighted the issues in some of the modelling and what the model means for those on the ground. It is clear this is an area that the states need to examine more thoroughly as a part of the development of the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism. I have listened to the calls for improved transparency and greater community engagement. I have directed the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the Department of the Environment and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to address this with a level of urgency.

There will be challenging times as we again go through dry periods, as we did with the millennium drought—as much as we will go through challenging times during excessive wet periods, as we did in 2010, 2011 and 2012. As Dorothea Mackellar wrote in those immortal words of the poem My Country, on the deck of the Torryburn house, near Gresford in my electorate of Paterson, this is:

A land of sweeping plains,

Of ragged mountain ranges,

Of droughts and flooding rains.

We—and I mean all of us—need to take people on the journey with us. We need to provide greater certainty so that communities can understand where the journey in these reforms will take them from now to 2019 and beyond. We need to work together in a bipartisan way to provide a level of certainty to address the challenges together with our basin communities, not against them. Communities have a need and a right to know what the plan will deliver and what their future holds. We need to build a strong future in the Murray-Darling Basin, and that is why the next step is to legislate the 1,500-gigalitre cap. It is so important as a means of providing confidence and certainty to the basin community as a whole. They deserve nothing less.