Murray Darling Water Amendment


Senator WILLIAMS (New South WalesNationals Whip in the Senate) (20:07): I rise to contribute to the debate on the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limited Adjustment) Bill 2012. I want to make it perfectly clear that the Murray River will never ever again be the river it was 300 years ago.

Mother Nature looked after the Murray for tens of thousands years and then, in the 19th century or earlier, man intervened and built the five barrages down at Lake Alexandrina and at Lake Albert, the locks up the river—lock 4, at Berry, and lock 5, at Renmark—and the dams upstream in the catchment. It is a wonder the Greens have not pursued a policy to tear that all down, to return the Murray to how it was for tens of thousands of years. In the days when Hume and Hovell crossed the Murray, it was a dry riverbed. Because of man's intervention, the river has changed. I am not for one minute suggesting that we go and put it back to its natural state of 250 years ago or so. No matter what we do, the river will be different. From the front of the Renmark Hotel a couple of hundred years ago or so and in a drought you could walk across the river bed. Now it is 200 or 300 metres wide. The water is there because of the dams and catchments upstream. That is simply a fact.


Some absolute fool many years ago suggested that European carp be put in the River Murray. My brother was telling me that in the sixties when he would cross the river at Murray Bridge in South Australia it was a clear, blue river. Now it is a brown mud bowl because some scientist or some fool suggested we bring European carp here and put the carp in the Murray to do away with the weeds that were gathering in the river. The carp ate all the weeds out all right, feeding off the bottom of the river. Now of course the weeds and grass are not there to protect the banks of the Murray, so the banks of the river are eroding away. What an absolutely idiotic thing to do: introduce a foreign species of fish so detrimental to our river system. The carp are all the way up the Darling now—I have travelled upstream—but luckily not into the Macintyre River at Inverell where we live because we have the Macintyre Falls and the carp cannot jump a couple of hundred feet.

If anyone thinks it is going to return to the river of old, they are wrong. It is not going to do that. So we need to manage the Murray as best we can with that triple bottom line—the environmental, social and economic impacts—as my colleague, Senator McKenzie, just said. If you go back to the old times of the Murray when the river was low, the ocean came into the river. Some say years ago you would see dolphins up towards Tailem Bend. Most of it was saltwater in a dry time. We now have the interstate argument: South Australia demands that those barrages stay there and that the Lower Lakes be pure fresh water with very little salinity in them—quite different to how Mother Nature built them. Those upstream get accused of storing water in dams. Yes, dams do store water, and that is what they are built for. But during drought times, the reason there is water in the Murray at the other end is because water has been stored at the top end and let out. The question now is: how much do you let out? It is a very controversial issue.

On behalf of New South Wales, when it comes to the buybacks New South Wales has given plenty. In fact, the previous Labor government of New South Wales had a water minister called Phil Costa. When Senator Wong was the water minister she bought water back but 97 per cent of the water buybacks came from New South Wales. In actual fact, Minister Phil Costa put a moratorium on any more sales of water licences out of New South Wales. This is the question: who pays the penalty? I agree with my colleague Senator Nash that buybacks should be capped. There was $5.3 billion budgeted for improvement in infrastructure and water efficiency—in other words, growing more food with less water. But the government did not carry out that investment. It went on a crazy buyback scheme.

One of my colleagues, Senator Nash, mentioned the Twynam Pastoral Company and the Kahlbetzer family. They sold all their water licences to Minister Wong at the time for $303 million—if my memory serves me right. Some of those rivers do not even run into the Murray. They bought water licences from one of Twynam's properties up on the Gwydir River, and that river runs out on the Gwydir Wetlands. They bought water licences from the Macquarie River but that runs out onto the Macquarie Marshes. They bought water licences out of the Lachlan River—perhaps once in 100 years, in a monster flood, some water might trickle into the Murrumbidgee but 99 per cent of the time nothing gets through the Lachlan. The government spent $303 million to buy water back to increase the flows in the Murray and half of those licences are for rivers that do not even run into the Murray. What a great investment of taxpayer's money that was. Of course, I am being sarcastic. That is the stupidity of this.

I would like to commend our shadow minister and my leader in the Senate, Senator Barnaby Joyce. The Greens get it their way, working with a gun at the head of the government. We know how the Greens operate: they shut down all industry, shut down all food supply and get a scientist to design a digestive system so man can consume trees only, because we are not allowed to grow food. 'Go back and live in the caves and we will give you three sticks a week to maintain your food and warmth'—that is basically the Greens' policy.

Senator Payne: Only three?

Senator WILLIAMS: Yes, only three, Senator Payne, and that might be excessive as well. At the same time, they are destroying our environment with the crazy policies of locking up country and leaving it uncontrolled.

This is going to be a terrible summer for fires. We have had a few wet springs. The fuel levels have increased enormously. I hope I am wrong but I said the red gum forests down in the Millewa State Forest near Deniliquin will not stand fire. You will see the Greens policy at work there with the National Parks Association and with a gun at Mr Frank Sartor's head—the former minister in New South Wales—locking it up for Green votes. You watch it get destroyed.

I have been down there. There is 900 hectares there now and it is just dead trees; it was burnt. The country was grazed with cattle when the forestry owned it, but of course now that it is national park you cannot graze on it.

When the new Victorian government put cattle up into the high country, in the alpine region, to lower fuel levels, the Greens said, 'No, take them out'. Minister Burke said: 'No, get them out of there. Don't control your environment.' When it comes to fire there are three things that destroy the environment: fuel, wind and heat. We cannot control the heat and we cannot control the wind, but we can control the fuel. But the Greens policy is to just lock it up and leave it and then let Mother Nature destroy it. That is why they are so damaging to our environment. And it will be no different with the Murray. They will just say, 'Let's all stand around the Lower Lakes and hold hands and be happy while all the water runs out to sea, and to hell with those people upstream who grow 40 per cent of our nation's food.'

In the Murray-Darling Basin, where one-seventh of our nation lives, there are local economies who rely on and work so hard to produce food for either domestic or export markets. They are feeding people around the world. I say this: desperate people do desperate things. If you want to see trouble on this planet, have people starving. Those desperate people will do desperate things. The thing we need to do in this nation is not only feed all Australians well but also feed the millions and millions of people on this planet who are going to rely on Australia for food. If we go down the road of the Greens party, we will have billions of people literally starving as we all watch Mother Nature destroy our environment with fire. As I said, this summer is going to be a dangerous fire season and we will learn a lesson about the Greens' lock-it-up-and-leave-it attitude to national parks-very much supported by former Premier of New South Wales Mr Bob Carr—now Senator Bob Carr I might add—when he said he was going to have the greenest government New South Wales had ever seen. That title might change by the time this ICAC investigation has finished.

Mr Deputy President, 1,500 gigs have been bought back. The infrastructure spending has not been invested; the efficiencies have not been made. This bill amends the Water Act to allow the adjustment of the long-term sustainable conversion limits under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It is meant to provide transparency for all stakeholders. We will not support changes from the government based on trust. They must be subjected to proper scrutiny because we support the future of the 2.1 million people who live in the Basin. I will quote Senator Doug Cameron again. He was in the media this morning saying how the people of Western Sydney do not trust the Australian Labor Party—this government. I agree with him totally. We do not trust them to manage our rivers. We do not trust them to manage our money. We do not trust them to secure our borders. That is why we have had to be involved in this. The government have an abysmal track record on the Murray-Darling Basin. All they have managed to do is get everyone offside with their boots and all tactics, upsetting those communities that depend on the basin and its infrastructure for their survival.

The coalition has been unrelenting in its pursuit of a fair outcome for the 2.1 million people who live in the Murray-Darling Basin. The coalition put the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on the path to national management in 2007. We started the process of fixing the Murray-Darling and we remain committed to doing exactly that. I remember when the first Murray-Darling Basin draft plan was released and community meetings were held across the three states. I attended one of those meetings in Goondiwindi in southern Queensland and the anger was at fever pitch. There was a cross-section of farmers, rural contractors, business people and representatives of community groups, and they believed their livelihoods were about to be pulled from under them. The fact is that the many of us who live in regional Australia understand regional Australia. The Greens make out they understand regional Australia, but they are fly-in fly-out politicians. I do not think any of them live in rural Australia, but they do fly-in fly-out and grab a bit of press. I noticed in some press clippings that Senator Hanson-Young was saying Senator Barnaby Joyce was uninterested in the irrigators upstream, that he does not care about South Australia. That is wrong. Senator Joyce has done an outstanding job playing the balancing act to getting this fair and right for those three pitched bottom lines. It is not only the environment; it is also the social ramifications and the economic effects on those communities that is the most important thing.

As I said, the Murray-Darling Basin produces 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural output, over 90 per cent of our tomatoes and almost 50 per cent of our fruit. It is Australia's fruit bowl and worth millions and millions of dollars to our economy. I do hope this comes out well. It has got to be a balance, as I have said. It is not only about the environment; there are two other factors to take into consideration.

I have lived in rural Australia all my life. I have seen those who work so hard. I have seen the Riverland of South Australia. I have seen them up there pulling out the fruit trees and going into grapevines; I have seen them pulling out the grapevines and going back into fruit trees. I went to school in Adelaide with people from Loxton, Renmark and Berry who came from those fruit-growing properties, who worked hard as youngsters whenever they went home for school holidays, whose parents were battlers—many of them migrants who came to this nation after the Second World War with basically nothing. We know what they were like, the immigrants—the Italian immigrants and the Greek immigrants. Many of those Italian immigrants came here as prisoners of war. After the war the nation said: 'Okay, war's over. Pack up and home you go.' And they said: 'We're not going home. This is our home. We'll stay in this country.' They grew to love Australia; they helped to grow our nation. As I said, they did not have anything, but what they did have was a will to work. And if those opposite think that on this side of the parliament it is acceptable to now go and shut down their livelihoods so that people can stand at the Lower Lakes and watch water ran out into the ocean, then they are wrong. That is simply wrong and it will not happen. There must be a balance.

I grew up in South Australia. I know the state well. There is probably not a town I did not go to when I was driving semitrailers delivering livestock. There is probably not a country town in the state that did not have someone go to boarding school with me in Adelaide.

I realise that South Australia is the driest state in the driest nation and they need to be protected as well. That is why everyone has got to work together on this. But if we leave it to the Greens, the guillotine will drop and there will be no fair triple bottom line; it will be all-out chest beating for the environment while our local economies go down the tube.

In winding up I would like to once again thank Senator Joyce for working with Minister Burke, for being involved in the whole debate and putting up proposals. I commend him for his hard work in putting the future of everyone in the Murray-Darling Basin, not just the extreme environmentalists, first and I look forward to his amendments, where some common sense can be brought into this whole Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Hopefully we will be blessed with more good seasons, because the drought from 2002 to 2010 did not help one bit. Some said it was climate change. It is funny: we had a drought from 1895 to 1907, a 12-year drought—I suppose that was climate change then as well! Many were saying that the dams would never fill again. Tim Flannery was one: 'Brisbane dam—Wivenhoe. That won't fill.' It filled all right. It overflowed that fast it caused extensive damage for the people of Brisbane and the local communities there. I noticed Minister Penny Wong said that we must get more water down the Murray, but she was quick to sign off with Melbourne for a north-south pipeline to take water out of the Murray. So there is a lot of irony in this whole plan.

That is why I think, now that Senator Joyce has been involved in these discussions with Minister Burke, a fair framework and a fair policy can be developed. Hopefully it is a long, long time before we again see an eight- or 10-year drought, which put so much stress on the whole Murray system. As I said, the last one was 1895 to 1907. Let us hope that the 2002 to 2010 drought does not return for many, many decades ahead. We know we will get droughts again. We know we can manage the environment to the best of our ability.

As I said at the start of this presentation, the Murray will never be the river it used to be, because we have intervened with it, we have interfered with it, we have built structures in it. Not even the Greens are proposing to pull those structures down, which is quite surprising, because if they did they would not have that freshwater down the end of the Murray—and, of course, Senator Hanson-Young would not have the votes come next election. That is what is behind all that. Normally the Greens would say: 'Put it back to Mother Nature. Let's let Mother Nature look after it.' But they are counting on votes in the next election. That is why the Greens have done a backflip.