This is the transcript of my speech, delivered on September 11, 2019 and 17:54 in the House of Representatives.
I’m very pleased to take the opportunity to speak to the Water Amendment (Indigenous Authority Member) Bill 2019. In doing so, I congratulate the minister for bringing this Indigenous member to the management of the Murray-Darling Basin to make sure that we take advantage of the knowledge that is associated with Indigenous water management and ownership—the way that they have been able to manage river systems into the past—some of the biodiversity issues and some of the damage that’s happening to our river systems, and the way that our Indigenous forefathers have been able to fix up some of the damage and simply manage the river system.
Some scientists in the not-too-distant past have tried to rewrite some of the history associated with the Murray-Darling Basin, and that’s been exposed. It is a really worrying observation that we now have a situation where some of the science that the Murray-Darling Basin was predicated on seems to have been false and seems to have doctored. A 2007 report that effectively says that the Lower Lakes were predominately saline was rewritten in 2009 to effectively say that for 7,000 years the Lower Lakes of Alexandrina and Albert were effectively fresh—whereas the original report accepted that they were saline.
We have a whole raft of issues out there around water management, river management and the forests associated with the Murray-Darling Basin. Last week I had the opportunity to host Minister Littleproud in the Barmah Forest where we were able to see firsthand some of the damage that’s associated with trying to run more water down the Murray River than what the Murray River can actually cope with. We know that the Barmah Choke has a limit of around 9,300 megalitres a day. The Millewa choke is actually even thinner and lets less water through. The only way that the water authorities can get the water that they need down the river is simply to flood the forest, and we were able to see that firsthand. We were able to see the damage associated with some our current practices.
I’m sure if there were an Indigenous person on the authority they would look at that in a very, very dim manner. They would look at this and say that this is not the way the river system is supposed to run as an ongoing, everyday way of managing water. So I think there are some real benefits for this.
We’ve also seen vast amounts of water being traded from one region, or one valley, into another valley. We have seen enormous amounts of erosion and degradation of the river systems taking place in the Goulburn. The way that the authorities have tried to fix up this erosion is to have further environmental flows. We had an environmental flow in the middle of winter which was valued at about $60 million—$60 million worth of water was just flushed down the Goulburn River in the middle of winter in an attempt to try and improve vegetation on the sides of the riverbanks.
Some of these objectives and the uses of this environmental water have to be questioned, especially when we look at some of those environmental objectives associated with water use in South Australia: to take more and more water down out of agriculture so that we can supposedly keep the Murray Mouth open. That’s not a natural occurrence. It has been scientifically proven that the lower lakes of Alexandrina and Albert were predominantly estuarine historically. We have spent $70 million putting water into the top of the bottom of the Coorong, whichever way you want to view it, to effectively try and improve the health of the Coorong.
There are a whole raft of management projects that have been going on under Minister Littleproud’s leadership, but we’ve still got this pain and the horrible impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We’re still seeing farmers being forced off their land because of the ridiculous prices that water is currently achieving—this ridiculous price of $800 a megalitre. Nearly every commodity is out of the market once water gets to that sort of price.
I don’t think mainstream Australians, by which I mean Melbourne and Sydney residents, understand truly the pain for agriculture that’s been associated with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I don’t think they understand that so many outstanding farmers, mainly in dairy but also now in horticulture, are being forced off their lands. They’re being forced to sell their cows or pull out their trees or leave fruit to rot on the trees, because they can’t finish off the crop if they’re not going to have the water to finish it off properly.
If we are to have a change of attitude, a change of understanding, about whether we really want to have an active, vibrant and dynamic agriculture sector—and the answer to that is we do—then we have to have a conversation about what we do with this limited amount of water. We have a finite amount of water, unless we do what the member for New England was saying and try to introduce new water out of Northern Australia or introduce new water into the Murray-Darling Basin system out of Tasmania. If we are going to stick with the finite amount of water that we have then we have to have a serious conversation about what is the best use of the water that we have available to us.
In times like those we’re seeing in the north at the moment, when it is incredibly dry and there are very low inflows into the northern basin, it would be wrong to try to replicate a wet, or normal, year. If our environmental managers were to try and fool nature it would be the incorrect thing for our natural assets. These are some of the learnings that we could benefit from when it comes to having an Indigenous member of the authority.
Let’s list our environmental assets. Let’s list our environmental objectives and outcomes. Let’s work out what it is that we want to achieve. But that list cannot be endless. We have to have a finite list of objectives. What sort of health do we want to have the river in? What amount of water are we prepared to let flow down the river to create the optimal breeding time for the various species of fish? Or are we going to let the environment create an endless list, which means that when they get as much water as they can possibly get their hands on they’re going to pull up another environmental objective, which will give them some environmental credibility to use that water on?
In the lower Murray system there is so much water going down the river that has been traded out of the areas of historical productivity—namely, the Goulburn and Murray regions—into the Sunraysia and the areas around Robinvale and Mildura, where some of the high-value commodity crops are being grown. At the moment in horticulture, it’s mainly almonds, table grapes and citrus that are able to afford far more than the other forms of horticulture and dairy.
There is a significant question we need to ask. There have been literally hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the dairy sector in the Goulburn Valley in the last two or three years: stainless steel going into Cobram, Girgarre, Stanhope, Shepparton, Tatura and some serious investment in processing in the dairy sector. Now we’re getting to a point where all of those processors are struggling to find the milk that they need to put through their processing plants. This has an enormous impact on employment, on regional development and on the lives and livelihoods of so many people throughout the Goulburn Valley. The pain is palpable. The hurt and the detriment that has been caused by taking water away from agriculture and putting it into the environment is real and is tangible.
So we have every right to question every drop of water that is taken out of agriculture. We have every right to have every environmental flow, every drop of water, calculated and to have identified the outcomes they are hoping to achieve with a particular flow. And when there is water left in the system at the end of the year, and the agriculture industry is screaming out for that water, then maybe there’s an opportunity for the environment to be a bit more flexible when it comes to loaning water back to agriculture so that communities can take advantage of that carryover water, water that wasn’t used in the previous year. Certainly, that would have been very highly regarded and appreciated had it been put on to the market or made available to those who have water allocations throughout the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District.
As I have said often in this place, water management is one of the most complex issues facing the state government, but also the federal government. We need to look at what we do with our water management, with all of those farmers and all of those secondary users of water products, such as food and/or fibre. We need to have conversations about water with those people fairly and squarely in mind. We need to look at the damage that has been done to these communities in the name of better environmental outcomes, and we need to compare one against the other. We need to make sure that everybody who thinks, ‘We have to avoid these fish kills at any cost,’ realises that the cost may be that we will lose human lives if we’re not careful. The chances are we probably already have. Making unattainable and simply unaffordable water that has always been plentiful, always been available and always been affordable for three, four and five generations of farmers has, without doubt, meant that farmers within northern Victoria and southern New South Wales have effectively taken their lives at the demise of their farms.
We need to be honest; we need to be real. We all want a better environment. We all want healthier river systems. But we also have to be honest about the pain and the damage that has been caused as we have gone after these objectives. Therefore, when we get to a situation where the environmentalists cannot clearly enunciate the benefits associated with various environmental flows and various amounts of water being used for what, in many instances, have been absolutely ridiculous outcomes, such as trying to regrow the vegetation on the banks of the river that was lost by sending down too much water, a high flow of water, in the middle of winter—if this is the way we think we should spend $60 million worth of water—and then also throw in the added benefits of improving fish-breeding seasons, then I think we’ve got every right to question these assets, these environmental objectives and the practices that have been put in place to try to reach those objectives.
I again want to congratulate the minister for this idea, this concept, of bringing an Indigenous person into the management process. Hopefully, that will have a really strong and positive outcome. We should always try to understand—to have even a basic understanding—that an enormous amount of pain and detriment has been caused by the amount of water that has left agriculture and been put into the environment, and we need to be very careful about how we proceed into the future.