Murray Darling Basin Plan - 03/06/2021

03 June 2021



I rise today to speak on the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. It's been two years since the Morrison government announced the establishment of a tough cop on the beat for the Murray-Darling Basin, two years of this Morrison Liberal government kicking the can down the road again and again. What we are seeing in the Murray-Darling Basin is an unfolding ecological, cultural and social disaster. It's been over two years now since people around Australia saw images of fish in Menindee choking for air in that water, and they were shocked by it. Just over a year ago one of the last events that I went to before COVID hit was to speak at a FanForce screening of the documentary When the River Runs Dry. I had the opportunity to meet Rory McLeod and Peter Yates, who are the makers of that incredible documentary. I would urge anyone who has an opportunity to see it to do so because it really brings home the scale of the disaster that we are seeing.

To put it in perspective, the Murray-Darling Basin covers more than one million square kilometres of the Australian mainland, or 14 per cent of the total surface area of this country. The Barwon-Darling river system is over 2,700 kilometres long. The mighty Murray-Darling river system that begins in Queensland and run through New South Wales and Victoria before emptying into the Southern Ocean near Adelaide has been the lifeblood of this continent, particularly in times of drought. But what we're seeing at the moment is the mismanagement of this critically important river system. The When the River Runs Dry documentary is so important because it really shows the scale of this ecological and cultural disaster that we are seeing unfolding. Importantly, the filmmakers talk with the Barkindji people, the traditional owners of the land there, about the importance of that river to them culturally and the full extent of the environmental degradation we are seeing as part of this mismanagement.

The documentary has several key messages: first of all, just how important water is globally to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples; that water trading can lead to perverse outcomes if economic values trump social values; and that First Nations people should have rights to water and should be directly involved in water management decisions on their river systems. The documentary explores how not only the rights but also the knowledge and environmental practices of First Nations people have been ignored for too long in terms of water management. Australia needs to be honest about what is happening in this centrally important river system. The management of Australia's rivers needs to be consistent with the Water Act. The documentary also calls for a federal royal commission, which is needed to restore confidence. The Murry-Darling Basin Plan needs to be reviewed. The documentary makes the point that a river system is a system and it must be managed as a whole for the good of all.

Labor will support this bill because we understand that the basin communities have been crying out for reform for years. We support this bill, because supporting farmers and supporting the regions is incredibly important. Labor don't just talk about supporting the reasons; we actually stand up and do it, which is more than can be said for the National Party at the moment, and I'll speak more about this later.

The purpose of this bill is to amend the Water Act to effectively split the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and create a new agency with responsibility for its compliance functions, headed by a new inspector-general of water compliance who will monitor and provide independent oversight of water compliance. The bill will also implement new offences and penalties for unlawful conduct, including fines of up to $1.1 million for individuals and $11 million for companies who engage in water theft. The inspector-general would be appointed by the Governor-General and confer with the existing compliance functions and powers of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The inspector-general would also replace the existing non-statutory interim Inspector-General of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources, which in turn had replaced an earlier interim inspector-general, which had replaced the Northern Basin Commissioner. So here's hoping the fourth time is the charm.

The inspector-general's functions would include monitoring and providing independent oversight of Commonwealth agencies in the performance of their functions and exercise of their powers under the act; regulations of the Basin Plan and water resource plans; monitoring and overseeing basin state agencies in relation to their obligations in the management of basin water resources; monitoring the implementation by all jurisdictions of various specified agreements related to the basin and Basin Plan; community engagement; and exercising the proposed new enforcement provisions, which include both civil penalty provisions and offences. These functions would be supported by new inquiry powers and the power to issue guidelines and standards. The power to undertake audits would also be transferred from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to the inspector-general.

Labor has been able to secure some positive changes to this bill from the first exposure drafts. Labor argued for assurances that the position of inspector-general would be independent from the department. We also argued for a fit-and-proper person test to apply to authorised compliance officers not covered by public sector employment arrangements, and I'm glad to say that the government has accepted these changes. However, unfortunately this bill won't commence immediately after the parliament passes it; the act will only commence after all basin states have approved its provisions. So, in that vein, I urge basin states to immediately approve the provisions so that the inspector-general can get to work.

The changes this bill makes to the current scheme are undoubtedly a good thing. For far too long, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has not had the power it needs in ensuring the stakeholders complied with the law. In its five-year review published in 2018, the Productivity Commission raised concerns that the authority's conflicting roles would 'create conflicts' and potentially lead to it 'marking its own homework'. In that report the commission recommended that the authority be split into two separate institutions, an agency and a plan regulator. Labor accepted these recommendations and committed to restoring integrity to the plan as part of our 2019 election commitments. As part of those commitments we pledged to move the compliance arm of the authority to a dedicated environmental protection agency, an agency which I note Professor Graeme Samuel recommended to be established in his review of the EPBC Act, which the Liberal government has so far refused to accept. So it is about time this bill was introduced. It's about time that the Morrison government actually did what they promised in 2019.

Since 2019 the Morrison government have appointed two inspector-generals, who without legislation to empower them were toothless. This isn't the first time such a role has been established. In August 2018 the government appointed the Northern Basin Commissioner. The Northern Basin Commissioner had no statutory powers and was supposed to be funded for three years, yet only a year later the government decided to scrap this role to establish the inspector-general. In the meantime they set up those interim positions with no statutory powers and no authority to refer matters onwards. You might have thought that the government would act with some degree of urgency to ensure this new role would have some powers—apparently not, because the interim inspector-general's term ended last year. They actually appointed someone and waited for their term to expire before they even had actual powers conferred on them.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a $13 billion plan. It is of absolute vital importance to farmers, regional communities and consumers all around the country. It is key to Australia's ongoing agricultural success, and it is absolutely appalling that, after eight long years of this tired Liberal government, they're only now getting to these important reforms. But that's typical of this government, isn't it, Deputy Speaker? This is the government that, after countless corruption and integrity scandals, promised a federal ICAC. Yet 2½ years later we find out in its budget that not a single cent, not a single person, has been allocated to establishing this long-overdue reform—just another case of Scott Morrison kicking the can down the road, another case of this government being all about the announcement and never about the follow-up. The great irony is that the inspector-general that we're voting on today was promised the power to refer matters to the Commonwealth Integrity Commission—which doesn't exist yet. So how on earth is it supposed to do that, when we have not even had this government take the necessary steps to establish that commission?

The truth is that this government is terrified of accountability. It is terrified of the Australian people becoming aware of the dodgy things that it does. A prime example of that is in the Senate estimates going on right now, where ministers are failing to answer the difficult questions asked by Labor and the crossbench. It's been four years since Four Corners exposed the corruption, the greed and the protection racket that has been going on in the basin. Australia watched the program with horror as we witnessed industrial-scale cotton farmers rorting the system, stealing precious water that belonged to the communities and the environment and sending huge profits to offshore tax havens. We saw downstream communities struggling to survive, wondering whether they would have enough water to brush their teeth. As I said earlier, we then saw the environment suffer with the mass fish kills in Menindee Lakes, a true—and preventable—ecological disaster.

Since then we've seen a South Australian royal commission which slammed the federal government. The commission found that the Commonwealth committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions. It found that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan all but ignored the catastrophic risks of climate change to the river system. That's like making a car and forgetting the minor step of adding an engine. We've seen clearly in recent years the problems that ignoring climate change mean for the plan. From 1996 to 2010 this country suffered through the horrendous millennium drought, and from 2017 to 2019 our regions were decimated yet again by another historic drought. New South Wales was declared to be 100 per cent in drought in 2018, remaining at 98.6 per cent through 2019. The Bureau of Meteorology found that, for the Murray-Darling Basin, this drought was the worst ever recorded.

Despite what the climate deniers in the government's ranks would tell us, we know that climate change is causing and exacerbating these disasters. We know this. We know that climate change directly contributed to the latest drought. We know it contributed to the devastation we saw in the Black Summer bushfires. And we know that, without urgent action, these disasters will only get worse. Farmers know this better than anyone else. Farmers know that their livelihoods, their businesses, their animals, will continue to be impacted by rising global temperatures. Farmers understand that we need to take urgent action. They understand that they will have a role to play and that their business practices will have to change. The National Farmers Federation have matched Labor's commitment to get to net zero emissions by 2050, but this government fails to do so. The National Party, for all their talk of sticking up for the regions, are abandoning them on this pivotal issue impacting the industries that power those communities. Labor will never abandon the regions and we will never abandon farmers. And we will never shirk the responsibility to fight for all Australians and our planet by taking serious action on climate change.

The government doesn't just abandon farmers when it comes to climate change. Right now farmers across New South Wales, Victoria and southern Queensland are experiencing one of the worst mouse plagues that this country has ever seen. Millions of mice are currently ravaging farmers' crops, some of the first good harvests these people have had since the drought ended. These mice are destroying the hope that had only just returned to these farmers. They are destroying livelihoods. What is the response of the Liberal-National government? Crickets. Just today the Morrison government shut down debate on the member for Franklin's motion calling for an urgent federal response. How is that even controversial—helping our suffering farmers and families through something that this government refuses to even talk about?

It is time that this government actually did something to fix this mess and to restore confidence in the Murray-Darling Basin. It's about time that this government took its blindfold off and realised that some leadership is required on this issue. Labor has been calling on the government to do something for years. We have put forward positive, practical solutions which have fallen on deaf ears. I am glad that they have finally acted but, seriously, what has taken so long? This government has had eight years to fix this issue. The government committed to these reforms two years ago and it is only now that we are seeing this bill introduced.

It simply should not be taking so long for a government to follow through on its promise and to address clearly urgent issues that we are seeing in the Murray-Darling Basin. It is an ecological disaster as well as a social and cultural one that this government is turning a blind eye to and belatedly bringing in this bill. We support this bill, but it could have happened so much sooner and with more urgency. It is just another example where this government does just enough to say that it is doing something but not to address the critical issues facing Australians every day, facing our environment and facing our world—which will be destroyed by climate change, as the government will not even commit to net zero by 2050.