Mr COULTON (Parkes—Chief Nationals Whip) (18:45): I would like to speak tonight about the Murray-Darling Basin and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I’m prompted to do this by comments from the Minister for the Environment and Water, who said that she plans to deliver the plan in full, and then referenced the 450 gigalitres that was promised to South Australia.
In two days time I will have been in this place for 15 years. When you’ve been here for a while you have a memory of what has gone on before. Just to clarify, when the Basin Plan was introduced I voted for it. Not all of my colleagues did. I think the member for Riverina and maybe the member for Hume at the time did. There were a couple of Coalition members who did not support it. I supported the Basin Plan.
The 450 gigalitres was not part of the plan. It was a political announcement made by the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, with the then water minister, Mr Burke, to gain votes in South Australia. The figure is not based on science. It is not based on anything other than gaining political support in South Australia. The problem with doing things like that, without doing the science and the research to understand the system, is that they are very difficult to deliver. Part of the safeguards for that was the triple bottom line that it couldn’t have any negative social, economic or environmental impacts. What has been shown is that it’s pretty well impossible to deliver that 450 gigalitres without affecting one of those three bottom-line impacts. This gained a lot of traction during the drought.
What is coming to light now is that the Basin Plan may extend the flow in the rivers a little bit further into a drought but, basically, nature is still in command. When the drought really hit and there was no rain and no more water to come down, whether there was a Basin Plan or no Basin Plan or an extra 450 gigalitres or not made no impact. The frustrating thing was that at that time, members of this place and of the Senate—knowing that the northern basin is an ephemeral system that for millennia has gone from flooding to dry and everything in between—aided by the ABC and others, made political mileage of the dry river and created a myth that the drought was man-made and that the water had been sold to National Party donors and corporates. It was a nonsense story. Now we are having major flooding.
I can tell you in my electorate now there are about three peaks coming down the system. I am very concerned about South Australia because they are dealing with flooding in the Murray now, and there is a lot of water coming down the Darling system from the northern basin. All the storage dams are full, and basically, mankind does not have the ability to stop this flood. While we are tinkering around the edges, Mother Nature is clearly in command. I represent a third of the basin, and every square inch of it is in flood at the moment. The storage dams and some of that did help at the start, but once everything is full, it is full, and, with the La Nina season, we are seeing a very wet time.
With man in his vanity wanting to control everything, we’ve actually seen some very negative things happen. I’ll go back to the last time the Labor Party were in government. Senator Wong, who was the minister, made some large purchases of water, taking it from productive use and putting it back to the environment. Now, I guess that in theoretical terms that’s fair enough, but it wasn’t strategic, and, of course, there are always willing sellers, because the government is in there with a lot of money. I’ll give you a couple of examples. When she purchased the water from the Kahlbetzer family’s Twynam Pastoral Company—from memory it was over $300 million at the time—basically, the biggest and pretty well the only employer in the town of Collarenebri ceased to exist. I think over 100 jobs went out of the Collarenebri region with the water going from Collymongle station.
At the same time, the water that was purchased from Twynam Pastoral Company in the Macquarie Valley had a severely negative impact on Warren. It’s not just the water that goes; the cotton gin at Collarenebri has now been dismantled, moved and sold somewhere else. Similarly, a lot of the businesses in Warren have had a negative impact. When Senator Wong purchased Toorale station, 10 per cent of the rates base of Bourke shire was removed, as well as the jobs that went with it. The irony of all of that is that it was found that the dams that were to be decommissioned were actually habitat for native fish and waterbirds and actually had environmental benefit. There’s still some frustration in the western part of the Darling region that the Toorale infrastructure hasn’t been decommissioned.
I’m not saying that everything that happened at that time was bad. A good example of what was instigated at that time under Minister Burke was the reconfiguration of the irrigation systems in the Macquarie Valley. There were three irrigation systems that were reconfigured. They weren’t effective in the way they were delivering water; there was too much wastage. Some of the farms that were more distant from the source of the water went onto poly pipe for stock. Money was allocated to put in trickle irrigation, centre pivots and the like. The productivity and the sustainability of that region is now much improved through those processes.
I’m a firm believer in improving efficiency. In our term in government we funded a program that helped deepen farm dams so that irrigation losses were lessened. Money went into helping improve efficiency, whether that was lateral move systems, centre pivots or over-bank irrigation. There was some work to re-engineer irrigation farms, so there were some real water savings made without impacting the productivity of the region. What concerns me now is that, with indiscriminate buying of water, we will see the cotton gins not being viable and the like. I wish we could just take the politics out of this. I think the minister has been given a job to do of ticking the box to say that we’re protecting the environment and saving the basin. I think that, through lack of knowledge and understanding, we are ultimately going to see very, very negative impacts with this. There are some projects that I’m in support of, and I’ve been supportive of purchasing some of the licences along the interconnecting streams that come from Queensland into the Darling-Barwon system in northern New South Wales, which would help some of that connectivity of water that’s already been purchased. But they need to be very strategic, with the idea of not cruelling entire communities by indiscriminate water buying just to tick the box on this. So please be careful because decisions now will impact these communities for now and evermore for, I believe, very negligible impact on the environment.