Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023
Second Reading Speech
House of Representatives, 13th September 2023
Cast your mind back to the last drought, some three years ago, when the Darling River stopped flowing for more than 400 days, when farming communities were brought to their knees, desperate for water, when millions of native fish died and gruesome environmental images were broadcast across the world. Last month the Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, struck a deal with basin state and territory governments in order to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This historic agreement reflected the policy that Labor took to the last election to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full. For me, as an ACT representative, this is important. The ACT is one of the signatory governments. I note that the minister who's responsible, Shane Rattenbury, has talked about the importance of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to the ACT.
This bill offers more time, more options, more money and more accountability, and it comes after a decade of sabotage and delay from those opposite. Upon coming to office, the coalition waged an insidious war against the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. They tied up projects in impossible rules so they couldn't deliver water savings, they blocked water recovery programs and they tried to cut the final recovery targets. Over nine years, of the 450 gigalitres of environmental water, guess how many they delivered? Two—just two gigalitres. On that trajectory, they would have eventually delivered the 450 gigalitres by about the year 4000. That is how much they undermined the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There were resources there to help deliver the 450 gigalitre target in the Water for the Environment Special Account. But there is still some $1.3 billion in that account unspent.
Those opposite like to talk about the power of markets. They like to talk about the ingenuity of business. They like to suggest that they're somehow the party of the free market. But, when it comes to voluntary water buybacks, they suddenly throw up their hands and say: 'No, that's impossible. Markets couldn't possibly deliver.' We aren't arguing that water purchase is the only tool in the box. We're not arguing that it's the first tool at hand, but we are arguing that it needs to be part of the solution. Under this bill, we'll be able to purchase water from willing sellers where it's needed to deliver the plan. In doing so, the minister for the environment is putting in place important rules which ensure that water markets operate as intended. Right now there are no laws against market manipulation, the insider trading prohibition is too narrow and the legal requirement to maintain proper records is too weak. So, as the Assistant Minister for Competition, I'm pleased that the Competition and Consumer Commission will be allowed to monitor water prices and investigate misconduct allegations. That'll bring water markets in line with other markets in Australia.
Climate change means that we're going to see more variable rain in the north and less rain in the south-east. It's been forecast that basin flows could fall by as much as 30 per cent by 2050. Hope isn't a plan. We need to recognise that the transition from La Nina to El Nino could well worsen challenges in the basin. We need to put in place a sustainable solution that will operate in the face of climate change. There was a leader in the millennium drought who had words to say about the Murray-Darling Basin. He said:
… the old way of managing the Murray-Darling Basin has reached its use-by date.
… we need to confront head on and in a comprehensive way, the over-allocation of water in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Those words were spoken by former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard. He was right then, and it is right now to ensure that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is implemented in full. I commend the Minister for the Environment, as well as the states and territory that are working with her on ensuring that we deliver this important outcome for the health of the system, for the sake of farmers and for the sake of future generations.