Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023

17 September 2023

I'm so grateful, as I'm sure most of my constituents are, to have access to the beautiful Murrumbidgee River which runs through the ACT and into the Murray-Darling system. In fact, Lake Burley Griffin, just a short walk from here, runs into the Molonglo River and into the broader Murrumbidgee. Over the entirety of the Murray-Darling Basin, my home town of Canberra is the largest population catchment.

Canberrans love nature, and they love our local natural environment. Our urban wetlands are stunning places to spend time outdoors in, and our continued access to the water is just one of the reasons that Canberra is such a great place to live. Beyond Canberra, the Murray-Darling Basin keeps all Australians fed. The agricultural industries, the river communities, our national environmental sustainability all rely on this great river system to be healthy. So it's of vital importance to my constituents that the future of the river system is secured.

I want to thank the Minister for the Environment and Water for introducing the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 and for the work that has gone into it. I also want to thank the minister for coming with me to the Jerrabomberra Wetlands, again, just down the road from this place, to talk with local Landcare groups and the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust about how this government is investing in our local urban rivers. It was a fantastic morning to be outside with some really passionate environmentalists to announce much-needed funding for these beautiful wetlands and all the wildlife that call them home.

In 1889, the great Australian writer Henry Lawson wrote the poem The Song of the Darling River:

The skies are brass and the plains are bare,

Death and ruin are everywhere —

And all that is left of the last year's flood

Is a sickly stream on the grey-black mud;

The salt-springs bubble and the quagmires quiver,

And—this is the dirge of the Darling River:

These lines demonstrate to us how this debate, this issue has been ever present since before Federation. Indeed, debates over water and water use were so intense, largely pitting the eastern states against South Australia, that when the Constitution was written section 100 was written. It reads:

The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or commerce, abridge the right of a State or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation.

The key words 'reasonable use' in that section are part of what brings us here today in this debate. What is reasonable use?

Drought has always been a feature of the Australian landscape—something we've always dealt with. But there is a broader context that has since arisen in this debate: the dual challenges of climate change and of industrial scale irrigation and irresponsible water use, which I will talk about a bit later in this speech. Australia has seen the consequences of climate change already. The drought we went through from January 2017 to December 2019 was the driest three years on record. And the Murray-Darling experienced its lowest water level on record in 2019.

Our government is committed to the Murray Darling Basin plan. This government is committed to restoring our rivers. This government is committed to protecting the Australian environment and leaving it in a better state than when we came to government. Our government is committed to strong action on climate change, and this bill is part of that. If you filter out the hysteria from those opposite about what this bill does, you will see it's simple. It will deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which they agreed to in full, including the recovery of 450 gigalitres of environmental water, which was promised under their government but not even attempted to be achieved. This bill acts to protect, repair and manage our environment so that it grows stronger.

Responsibly managing the water resources of the Murray Darling Basin is vital; it is so that, when climate change challenges us with longer droughts, more frequent floods and bushfires, and everything else, the basin can survive. It's worth remembering why the basin plan exists in the first place. The plan was established in 2012, agreed to by the federal, ACT, New South Wales, Queensland, Victorian and South Australian governments. It responded to the devastation of the basin following the millennium drought. The catastrophe of the millennium drought was at that time so unprecedented—environmentally catastrophic, economically catastrophic and socially catastrophic for basin communities. The plan was a promise to the Australian people that we could work together as one to protect what was precious to us all.

Now, I've been listening to some of the speeches from those opposite, and the amount of misinformation is extraordinary, but one claim really sticks out to me, and that's the claim that this bill is the end of bipartisanship on the plan. Bipartisanship on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan ended when those opposite tried to sabotage the plan over the last 10 years. It was only when we got into government that this sabotage was fully uncovered. The plan is supposed to be fully implemented by next year. It won't be. It won't even be close. That is entirely due to the damage done to the plan by those opposite. The advice to the government from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was unequivocal. Implementing the plan on time is impossible because of the vandals sitting on the opposition benches.

We are now at a critical juncture. Implementation of the plan takes action. The government received 131 submissions from groups and individuals right across the basin, and overwhelmingly those submissions supported the plan. The government heard calls for greater flexibility in achieving water recovery targets, calls to extend time frames and calls for investment in measures that deliver tangible environmental outcomes. We heard those calls and, when the environment and water minister met with her colleagues from the basin states, she worked hard and in good faith on this package of measures.

It is a package that provides more money, more options and more accountability; a package that extends the timelines to achieve water recovery targets and timelines for states to deliver water infrastructure projects that keep more water in productive use; a package that removes overly restrictive rules so we can recover the 450 gigalitres of water for enhanced environmental outcomes; a package that removes the cap on voluntary water purchase; and a package that increases integrity and transparency into the system so that those buying and selling water can have confidence that the market is operating fairly, that everyone is subject to the same rules and that everyone has access to the same information at the same time.

We on this side of the House know that the next drought is just around the corner. We know that the threats to the health of our iconic rivers and the people, plants and animals that rely on them are increasing. We know that it's more critical than ever to ensure that our rivers are managed in the interests of communities and industries. We know that we must finish what we started in 2012.

What would have happened if those opposite had remained in government? The environmental, economic and social vandalism of the Liberal and National parties would have continued. We would have seen more water theft, more improper storage, much reduced water flow and substantial environmental damage. It's been over half a decade since Four Corners exposed the greed and the protection racket that had been going on in the basin. Australians watched in horror as we witnessed industrial-scale cotton farmers rorting the system and stealing water that belonged to the environment and to communities. We watched as their profits were sent offshore to tax havens. We saw, and continue to see, downstream communities struggling to survive wondering whether they would have enough water to brush their teeth. We saw the environment buckle under the pressure with multiple mass fish kills at the Menindee Lakes—a true ecological disaster and one that was entirely preventable.

We've seen a South Australian royal commission which slammed the former federal government. The commission found that the Commonwealth committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions. It found that they all but ignored the catastrophic risks of climate change to the river system. The consequence of their gross negligence and of their horrendous disregard for the river system is that the 450 gigalitres of committed environmental water cannot be delivered on time. The former government delivered a grand total of two gigalitres—two out of 450. On their trajectory we wouldn't reach the 450 gigalitres until the year 3000.

Since we were elected we've already managed 24 gigalitres—12 times the amount that those opposite managed over the better part of a decade—because, unlike those opposite, we actually care about the future of the system rather than short-term political opportunism. We want our basin communities to prosper. We want our environment to thrive. We want to support sustainable agriculture. What is clear, and should be clear to those opposite, is that if the Murray-Darling Basin system disappears—if it dies, as it is currently on track to do—everybody loses.