Ms LEY (Farrer—Minister for Health, Minister for Sport and Minister for Aged Care) (19:15): I am very pleased to speak on the Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2015. I believe it is an important first step on the road to a better Basin Plan. I am delighted to follow my colleague the member for Parkes, who, as he just explained, will get the support he talked about wanting to get. I know he will be the next member for Broken Hill and he will, like me, fall in love with the far west of New South Wales—the far west that he does not already know—and also come to appreciate the real difficulties that are being faced by people on different parts of our river systems when it comes to how we best support our communities in the context of this Basin Plan. The redistribution in New South Wales will see me take on the areas of Griffith, Leeton, Narrandera, Coleambally and Hillston and I am very excited about that. I am sad to lose the territory that I have just talked about. I believe the electorate of Farrer will indeed become the home of irrigated agriculture.
We have an opportunity to speak up for what we do, how well we do it and why we need to continue to have the access to the infrastructure that enables farmers and farming families to be innovative, to grow food, to do it differently than their fathers and their grandfathers did, to come up with new ideas for new investments, to add value to a commodity and to transport that to market. We have seen that so successfully with the rice industry. I know there are increasing plantings of cotton in my area and also in the area of the member for Parkes. Clearly the vertical integration of our agricultural industries is something that does add value, that does employ people and that does grow jobs. It is interesting and it is fascinating to acquaint yourself with the many different farmers, their families, their livelihoods, their histories and their contribution to this nation.
I am sometimes very sad by the lack of understanding on the eastern seaboard. If you look at New South Wales, it is very much defined by the Great Dividing Range and that is indeed the city-country divide. I am sad that there is such little understanding of what happens on the western side of the range. Even in my 15 years in parliament, I have noticed that that trend has only increased. We are facing a challenge when it comes to the implementation of the Basin Plan because when we talk about it in this place, when the member for Parkes talks about it, when the member for Barker—who will be in after me, who represents irrigators in South Australia and who is in doing a fantastic job in his electorate and I say that with my Minister for Health hat on—talks about it and after the contribution we heard from the member for Murray—also a great friend of mine across the river in Victoria—we get a sympathetic hearing but we do not always feel that we are getting our message across, not just in here but out there in the wider population, because 85 per cent of Australians now live 50 kilometres or closer to the coast.
I talked about vertical integration and the rice industry and I am very sad that recently we lost 50 jobs, most of them in the Deniliquin rice mill and some of them in Leeton. Sunrice is indeed an iconic Australian company. It punches above its weight in world markets. During the drought the way it kept its brand alive was truly remarkable. So when you buy your Sunrice packet, you might not always have Australian rice in there but you know that you have the quality that you have come to expect and you also know you are supporting a great Australian company.
So because of principally low water allocations this year, we do not have the rice crop that we had last year and those jobs have had to go. Whenever you lose jobs in rural areas, the effect is much bigger than it is anywhere else and indeed it is big enough in the cities as well. While I am sad, I am not despondent about the future; I am optimistic about the future. I know that while we had low allocations this year, those allocations can increase next year. We have had 100 per cent allocations before and we will again. The lack of inflow into the catchment has been the primary reason for general security allocations in the New South Wales Murray River system being around 12 per cent. That is not enough. While some farmers were able to run a dryland program and did very well because cattle prices and prime lamb prices were pretty high as were the prices for other cereals. They did not, in many cases, use their water to grow a rice crop. They sold it and, while the sale price might have been reasonable, effectively, that production went down the river to somewhere else.
There is always good and bad when it comes to reform. The good in the freeing up of the water market does mean that your water has a value. You can sell it on the temporary water market and you can realise a reasonable income from it. That, as I said, is a good thing. The bad thing is that you do not grow a crop—the jobs in the rice mill are not there. You do not have something happening on your farm that is producing income for Australia and your community tends to suffer as a result because activity becomes depressed. We are not happy with the state of affairs with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in my area and we want the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the architects of the plan to deliver the flexibility that I know is in there.
Some people are asking that the plan be torn up and thrown away or paused. I do not support that. I support some aspects being placed, if you like, in a holding pattern while closer observation is made of the effect that some things are having—particularly the constraints management strategy—on those who have their farms along the river, who are simply looking at being flooded by this delivery of water further downstream. We need to take a close look and do that in a sensible way. But there has been a massive coming together around this plan, and all of the pain that it has caused needs to be worth something. We will get there. We will get to a point where farmers and communities can feel that they are confident in what is being done—often, they feel, to them—by government.
I have a simple measure of when this will be achieved. It will be when people can say they have confidence in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, they have confidence in its policies and they have confidence in what is happening around them on their farms, in their river systems, in their local land services—and that simply is not the case. So I simply stand here as a local member reporting those feelings, those passions, those views and those concerns. But, again, I am optimistic. We will work with local communities. Yes, there will be changes to the plan, and some of those changes have been foreshadowed in this water amendment bill, and I support all of them.
My communities were consulted very strongly. They had the opportunity to have their say, and there is broad support. I thank the Minister for Agriculture and Water, because he has taken a close interest in this bill and in what we might do next. I do not want communities to say, ‘Okay, governments have done what they are going to do. That is it. They think it is all sorted,’ because I know it is not. So this is an important first step, as I said, on the road to a better Basin Plan—one that does not give everyone everything that they want, because it never can, when you consider the variety of needs in the basin. But I know that I can agree with my colleague the member for Barker, who represents South Australian irrigators, and I can agree with a lot of people in the city of Adelaide, and they can agree with us. What national governments have to do is to capture all of these views and put them together in one place.
There needs to be recognition that the massive social upheaval that has happened in irrigated agriculture in parts of the basin has changed the face of these communities forever. People have accepted that, but we need to acknowledge what it has done and we need to acknowledge the changes that have been wrought upon families and their farms and of course their finances. We have to acknowledge that it has not been easy. When we are in a position to make some changes to the plan, in consultation with the authority or through the authority—because it is, after all, an independent body that manages these things—then we should stand ready, and we do, to support that.
So I am really pleased that the minister is just finding a date to come and talk personally to my communities and hear from them directly, even though, having had the portfolio in opposition, he is familiar with our needs and where we are coming from. I am pleased that the new CEO of the MDBA, Phillip Glyde, took the time to come through some of my communities, principally Deniliquin, recently. It was about his first week in the job—he had not even got his feet under the desk. That was terrific, and it was terrific that, as he sat down with the various groups that I asked him to meet, he said: ‘Give it to me straight. Tell me what you have not liked. Tell me about your interactions with the authority. Tell me what it has meant to you and where you think we could improve.’ I do not think I have seen a CEO with his guard down to the extent that Phillip Glyde had on that day, and we really appreciated it.
As I said before—and it is not an easy thing to say—we do need a change of culture at the MDBA. We actually need the people who work in areas quite remote from the basin to spend more time in the basin. It would be great if some jobs could be located there. I know that is not always going to be possible. We certainly need those people to spend some more time in the basin. Their consultations have not always been good ones, and sometimes it is a challenge and sometimes they need to spend a bit more time listening and a bit less time talking. Their consultations need to be more meaningful and they need to explain, to understand and to take these messages back, because, if the authority takes messages back to the agriculture minister, with that can come the impetus for change, can come the requests that we are making. This is not about us and them, and it cannot be, but it is about improving the lot of the people that I represent.
I talked about confidence. The confidence that we need could come, for example, from an audit of what is going on with the environmental watering system, because the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, constrained by legislation, less constrained after these water amendments pass—again, that is a really good thing—is responsible for the watering plan. When you go through all this pain that I have talked about, when you go through this massive social adjustment, you want to know that the water that has been bought by the Commonwealth, that is being retained and that is being delivered across the basin is actually delivering the positive environmental outcome that underpins the policy in the first place. That will go a long way to providing the confidence that we need.
I am very committed to our local land services playing a role in that, because they work in the basin; they live in the basin. They are foresters, fishers. They are absolutely networked with our farm communities. They know everyone. They know the history. They are not there as a partisan group; they are actually, in the best possible way, a disinterested party when it comes to allocations, to productivity, but they understand the geography and the landscape and what works and what does not work when it comes to the important issue of environmental watering. We cannot go through all this and not have the environmental tick that we know we need. It would be a mistake to think that the people I represent do not want to see healthy rivers, healthy systems. But, my goodness, they want to see healthy communities, and they deserve the investment that this government is making. There are a lot of dollars attached to this process. The minister has talked about them. They deserve that investment to work for them, to deliver them a future for their children, a future that they can be confident is a bright one.