Senator LEYONHJELM: I’m tempted to vote in favour of this disallowance. What holds me back is that I’m not sure if New South Wales and Victoria would, in fact, stand by their decision to walk away from the plan. But I wouldn’t be too upset if they were to walk away from the plan, because the plan is deeply flawed. It requires social, economic and environmental issues to be equally balanced in terms of managing the water in the Murray-Darling Basin. However, the problem is that only one of those three—environmental issues—is seriously taken into account.
The plan arose in the context of the millennium drought, the most severe drought for 100 years. It prompted panic about climate change and it led some to conclude that droughts were the new normal, that it would never rain again, that water would always be scarce and the environment was facing catastrophe.
Sensible people knew otherwise. Droughts always end, and, in 2010-11, that happened. There was widespread flooding and the recovery of wetlands. Birds bred enthusiastically, frogs and fish proliferated, and life carried on as it always has. Dorothea Mackellar’s Australia—’a land of droughts and flooding rains’—was never better demonstrated.
During the drought, this plan was devised—first by the Howard government and then by the Rudd-Gillard government. Its intention was to remove water from agriculture in order to save the environment. The details were negotiated during the Labor government period against a background of panic over the drought, state bickering over water sharing, and the threat to Labor from the Greens. As a result, the plan was one per cent science and 99 per cent politics.
The plan calls for the return of 2,750 gigalitres of water to the environment, to be obtained both by buying back water rights from farmers and efficiency measures. There is a further 450 gigalitres to be returned, subject to certain conditions. Water rights have been bought back from farmers in southern Queensland, the northern basin area, New South Wales and Victoria, and a small quantity from South Australia.
In 2015 and 2016, I chaired a Senate inquiry into the effects of the plan’s implementation. We held hearings all over the country. What we found was that the loss of irrigation water in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria was having a very profound impact on rural communities. Farms that previously grew irrigated crops—fruit, cotton and pasture for dairy cows—were now growing dryland crops or running a few sheep. They required far fewer inputs—machinery, fertilisers, seeds and so forth—and, as a result, those input suppliers were the ones who were missing out and their workers.
The farmers who sold their water were fine, but everybody else who benefitted from those farmers and those farms being active were really suffering. Workers moved away from towns. Communities had fewer people. There were fewer children in schools, volunteer firefighters weren’t there and there were fewer customers in local shops and so on.
What we also found was that there’s very, very poor understanding of the plan. There’s this almost religious belief that the environment simply needs water—just add water and it will all be okay. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s in the right place, in the right quantities or at the right times—just add water was pretty much what we heard. The fact is, of course, that too much water in the wrong place can do more harm than good.
There is another factor, which nobody seems to be addressing, and that is the river at the moment, in particular the Murray River, is running pretty much right up to the top of the bank. More water added to it, as the 450 gigalitres extra would do, couldn’t be carried. The river could not carry that amount of water. Nonetheless, it is often heard that unless that water is added some sort of environmental disaster is going to occur.
I struggle to see why this was ever a South Australian issue, particularly in relation to the Northern Basin Review. The northern basin is all about the Barwon-Darling rivers. The amount of water from those two rivers that ever reach South Australia, or even join up with the Murray at Wentworth, is tiny—on average, across all years, six per cent. It’s a tiny amount. It wouldn’t matter if irrigation stopped in the entire Queensland and New South Wales areas, where it currently occurs; there would be very, very little additional water ending up in South Australia.
The other problem is: when it does end up in South Australia, what’s it used for? It’s not as if irrigation in South Australia has been suffering. It ends up in Lake Alexandrina. Lake Alexandrina is kept artificially fresh. It is not a natural freshwater lake. It is an artificial freshwater lake. Large amounts of water, an estimated 900 gigalitres, evaporate in Lake Alexandrina.
Here we are taking fresh water, which could be used for agriculture, away from what were thriving rural communities—used for irrigation and so forth to produce food and fibre—and it is running down the river and ending up in South Australia to be evaporated. It’s an absolute travesty. If that plan were to blow up and not be re-established unless on more sensible terms, I, for one, would not really mind.
The other issue is South Australia’s water supply; it was never in doubt. There is plenty of water for Adelaide. There is plenty of water for South Australia. In fact, there is a guarantee in the plan of 850 gigalitres—more than enough. I am hugely sympathetic to those poor farmers in northern Australia, in Queensland, and in northern New South Wales, who, in the Northern Basin Review, have lost their water. I’m immensely sympathetic to them.
Taking more water off them, which would occur if this review were not implemented, would be an absolute tragedy. I will be voting against the disallowance, but, if I thought that voting in favour of it would blow up the plan then that’s where my vote would be going.