I am very pleased to speak on this bill representing most of the New South Wales’ Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers that have been affected both by the Basin Plan and the recent floods. I appreciate the comments of the shadow minister who has responsibility for water in this place. My electorate liked him a lot more than his predecessor and appreciated their opportunity to engage with him. However, they would be very frustrated today to listen to a conversation that talks about environmental targets and environmental responsibility, even though I fully subscribe to that and we all do in the area that I represent. But environmental standards are a complicated issue to come to terms with when you are standing knee-deep in a mosquito-ridden swamp pulling your half-dead sheep out, your crops are ruined and your livelihood is under threat, and then you realise that this is effectively a flood that is not nature but is made by man or, indeed, by releases from the Hume Dam.
I am simplifying what is a complicated issue, and I understand that, but I want to reflect that frustration here in the House today. Everyone I have spoken to along the Murray River in my electorate—they have been very badly affected by these recent floods—have said that they do understand that they live and farm on a flood plain and what that actually means, but I would like to quote one landholder Rob Locke who manages properties along the Lower River Road just west of Tocumwal. He said:
We are trying to work with government and its agencies to explain to them that the situation we are seeing now is very likely to occur more often under the flow targets of the Basin Plan. The first wave of flooding was roughly equivalent to the flows modelled by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in the development of the Basin Plan.
For people to consider that the situation I described—the incursion of floods and the awful result it has on families and farms—is actually what they should expect under an operational Basin Plan is pretty terrifying. As he said:
When Mother Nature brings flood events there is nothing we can do, but when human management of the system leads to damaging flood events it is unacceptable.
He went on to say that it is a shame that locals who understand water management and river systems are not consulted more by the decision makers. We know that in this instance the decision maker is the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
I appreciate the efforts the authority is making to engage more with the communities, but, at this stage, it is not working very well. The confidence that I often talk about has been the indicator and the restoration of confidence in the authority would be an enormous sign to everyone that the Basin Plan is working. You cannot be the architect of these things from outside the basin, ignoring the pain that is produced and visited on landholders and farms, and then, in some way, say that their views, their confidence and their involvement is secondary, because it is not. It should be primary, and that is what we are not seeing. As John Lolicato, who I know well down there, says, this is tearing the social fabric of communities apart.
The floods we have seen have affected different parts of the river Murray differently. I convened a meeting on 31 October, attended by Neil Andrew, chair of the authority, David Dreverman, who supervises river management and all of the affected landholders from pretty much the Hume Dam to Yarrawonga section of the river. It is a complicated coordination effort, and it has failed. I have to say that because we cannot stand here and say, ‘Oh well, everyone is doing their best.’ Of course everyone is doing their best! We are all doing our best too, but the result is, as one comment was made, when somebody rang the SES panicking because their farm was going to be flooded, the SES said, ‘Well, we don’t even know when those gates are open. Nobody tells us.’ And the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts are general and in advance, there is no real-life website where you can go in and say, ‘Okay, this is the river height now. This is the expected river height in the next three hours’—because this is how quickly floods move—’What am I going to do about it?’
We know that the people who live and farm on these flood plains are pretty smart at working out water levels and the damage that is done to their property. Their constant refrain was that the water rose so quickly and with so little warning—that the releases from Lake Hume were very slow and then went to very fast very quickly. A diagram of that looks like an exaggerated zigzag. Someone at the meeting that I convened made a very simple point: why couldn’t you average out those highs and lows? You would release the same amount of water. It would not be an issue of not releasing the water, and there is a whole separate debate about when you start to release the water and when you start to make air space in a dam. If you release it early, it is not attached to anyone’s entitlement and therefore it might effectively reduce an irrigator’s entitlement downstream. I know that is a delicate balancing act and that water is effectively owned by people, including the environment. In this case I am pleased that no environmental water caused any floods.
The issue of when you make those releases, whether over a three-week or a three-month period, is vital. What we saw, as I said, was a graph that made these quite exaggerated waves; if that were simply evened out, the same result would be the same. My question to the landholders was: would you prefer if that were the case? And they said, ‘Absolutely.’ There was an alternative view put by the MDBA: that you would still end up with the same amount of water hanging around for the same amount of time. The response to that was, ‘But you wouldn’t get the peak of flooding and so you wouldn’t have the flooding spread out to as many locations.’ For example, the caravan park at Corowa and the River Deck Cafe at Albury were underwater. Small businesses had to walk away, because they did not have the information they needed to make the business decisions that they rely on for their income.
I come back to my main point: it is not good enough; it has to be sorted out. We have to do better in coordinating what is effectively a fairly substantial line-up of agencies. There is WaterNSW, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the SES, landholders, local government and probably more, because it is very much a local issue in the town. If this happens again, and I am sure it will, we need to make that coordination so that people are aware of what water releases are coming. They need some input by saying, for example, ‘Perhaps we would like them to be more gradual over a longer period of time, rather than sudden with little warning.’
There is much work to be done to keep the Basin Plan healthy, both in terms of the commitment of landholders and the operational results for the environment. I agree that we need this to be a bipartisan exercise. We also need to be constantly aware that local people are bearing most of the pain. While there are people who have an interest in what goes on in my electorate but do not actually live there and while I am happy to hear their thoughts and respect their passion for environmental flows and healthy rivers—and I want those things too—we are not consulting our local communities enough. We are not giving them enough buy in; we are not allowing them to be part of the resolution of what is an incredibly difficult issue. We cannot accept a situation where we have Basin Plan targets, even if they are aspirational, of 18 megalitres a day at the South Australian border and 48 megalitres a day in these floods, which caused untold damage between the Hume Weir and the border. I know there is also an opportunity for water to come down from the Menindee Lakes. It looks fine from the South Australian border, and I agree with my colleagues in South Australia that we have to keep the river healthy from the South Australian border to the sea—absolutely, no question. But, if in getting the water, we do not have a sophisticated enough model that is capable of predicting how much damage will be caused—on this occasion, caused naturally in part, but in part by the man-made releases from the weir.
If we have to cause that sort of damage on the way down, what are we really doing? We are not doing a lot of good. I have had conversations with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, David Papps—an extremely good guy and I am not speaking on his behalf—but I think he feels some of this frustration. As the manager of the biggest water holder, which is the Commonwealth, he needs some flexibility and some ability to have some say in when and how the water is released. If communities lose confidence, that will be reflected in responses at the Ministerial Council. We want everybody to continue to sit around that table and continue to talk constructively and to stay with this. Events like the flooding that I have described have the real possibility of fracturing that confidence, and that would not be a good thing.
We know that the water buybacks that were initiated by the previous Labor government did a lot of damage. There was about $2.2 billion in buybacks spent by previous governments in poorly targeted ways. We have spent over $1 billion in investing in on-farm infrastructure. So we, the coalition, have put enormous dollars into generating the infrastructure on-farm and in system. It might, for example, be inside the Murrumbidgee irrigation system or Murray irrigation that we realise efficiencies in the system and therefore give farmers every opportunity to run their businesses successfully. That makes it all the more important that the water, which is the key to their survival and their livelihood, be available at the right price, at the right time and that their farming operations are not compromised.
The Liberal and National Parties believe irrigation not only feeds the nation but feeds the world. The contribution that our irrigated agriculture regions make to the prosperity of this nation is enormous—it cannot be understated. My constituents feel a sense of great frustration that the rest of Australia does not appreciate their contribution. A lot of the dialogue about agriculture is about dryland farming which, of course, is just as important, but irrigated agriculture is overlooked in a way that it should not be.
I appreciate that the Deputy Prime Minister has given me the opportunity to speak on the bill and to sum up the discussion. I recognise by the way his intense interest in this issue—his visits to my electorate, the conversations he has had with my communities, for which they are very grateful, and his understanding of everything that I have said.
Water is a precious resource, and the Basin Plan sets out the processes for coordinated and sustainable management of our most important river system, the Murray-Darling Basin. It also sets out long-term average sustainable diversion limits, SDLs, and includes an adjustment mechanism to amend those limits by up to five per cent. The adjustment mechanism provides for the amendment of SDLs based through either supply measure projects that deliver Basin Plan environmental outcomes with less environmental water, or efficiency measure projects that recover more environmental water in ways that deliver neutral or beneficial social and economic outcomes. That is very smart, because of the 23 indicators of catchment health, only one is flow. There is a lot more we can do to make catchments healthy than just look at removing water and allocating it elsewhere. So we will continue to work in partnership with the basin state governments and industry and community stakeholders to deliver balanced economic, social and environmental outcomes in the Murray-Darling Basin. I thank the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.