Australian Water Summit

Senator BARTLETT: My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, and it relates to the water summit being held tomorrow. I note that the Queensland government has now, also, belatedly, been invited to that summit. My question goes to the approach the federal government is taking into the summit. Does the federal government believe that water is currently seriously over allocated—and is it prepared to do something to tackle that problem—and that unless water is properly priced it will not be used and allocated efficiently? Will the federal government ensure that there will not be a reduction in allocation for environmental flows, as has been called for by some local government authorities in the area?

Senator MINCHIN: As I said in my answer to an earlier question, the government does treat the issue of the drought, and particularly the pressure on the Murray-Darling Basin system, as very serious, and therefore has called a meeting with the relevant premiers and water ministers to discuss what options are open to governments jointly to seek to ameliorate the worst impacts of the drought on water supplies, essentially to irrigators and towns along the river and those who rely on the Murray-Darling Basin for their livelihoods.

It must, of course, be remembered, that there are interesting constitutional issues at stake here—given that the fact of the Constitution is that the Commonwealth does not have the primary responsibility for water—but increasingly, because of the obvious fact that rivers and water involve more than one state, the Commonwealth has been taking a role in seeking to ensure as cooperative an approach as is possible is taken to the careful stewardship and management of our water resources within the constitutional restraints.

I think it is accepted on all sides that, over the course certainly of the postwar period, there have been excessive calls upon our river system, that perhaps too many licences have been issued at too little recognition of the costs thereto and to the environment, at prices that do not reflect that cost. You cannot blame the irrigators or the farmers for that. If you are offered a licence, you quite properly and sensibly are going to take it. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it is now conceded on all sides that far too many licences were issued, particularly in the postwar period, and the pressure on the Murray-Darling Basin has been too great. The reality is that any number of communities have now developed around those arrangements and many livelihoods are dependent upon those arrangements. Unwinding those arrangements sensibly and in a mature fashion in the interests of the communities, the industries and the Murray-Darling Basin itself is going to take very careful management and, no doubt, the investment of resources on the part of taxpayers at the Commonwealth and state levels. From our point of view, we are doing that.

The Commonwealth has committed substantial sums of money to that. So far—I stand to be corrected—we have put in place arrangements to enable irrigators to seek to sell back into the system their trading rights to water. We are not contemplating compulsion in this area but we are very conscious of the demands on the river and its incapacity to meet those demands at the moment. This is a terrible situation facing many communities along the Murray River and the industries that are dependent upon it. I am glad all the Labor state premiers are attending the meeting tomorrow in a spirit of goodwill so that we can attempt to fashion some sensible responses to what is really a crisis.

Senator BARTLETT: Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Could the minister clarify the part of my question which he did not answer which was whether the Commonwealth would ensure there is no reduction in environmental flows as a consequence of tomorrow’s meeting, as has been called for by some local government authorities? Would the minister also indicate whether the water trading regime, which is planned to start from mid next year, will require realistic pricing of water? Can he also indicate, given that climate change will almost certainly lead to more prolonged droughts, high evaporation and reduced rainfall, whether tomorrow’s water crisis summit will include discussion about the need for state as well as federal governments to do more to meet the threat of climate change?

Senator MINCHIN: Tomorrow’s meeting is to be about the current drought that Australia is experiencing and the pressure that is putting on the Murray-Darling Basin, and what forecasts of very low water levels in storage dams will mean for those dependent upon them. It is not a general summit about climate change. As to the specific questions that preceded that last reference by Senator Bartlett, I think it better that I get some information for him as soon as I can and report back to him.

I move: That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance and Administration (Senator Minchin) to a question without notice asked by Senator Bartlett today relating to a water summit.

The water summit is being held tomorrow and involves the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian state governments. Belatedly, it would appear that the Queensland government has scored a last minute invitation as well, which is very nice of them! I also note the question that was asked earlier by Senator Ferris on the same topic. Let me say that it does not auger terribly well that the Queensland government was initially left out completely. I do not want to sound too miffed; in some ways, given that the summit is about how badly we have stuffed up water management, you might say it is a bit of a semi-compliment that Queensland was not thought of, although, having said that, I think Queensland is probably as much up there in misuse of water as the other states. It is not really a competition that anyone wants to win, but, as with any other state, I do not think we can really claim to be blameless or perfect when it comes to water management issues in Queensland.

I do think it is not a matter of parochialism; it is simply a matter of concern that Queensland was not thought of, particularly given all of the controversy over some of the water that flows out of southern Queensland into New South Wales, and Cubbie Station, of course, is the most notorious example of that. I do not know whether there was a desire to keep that awkward issue off the agenda of the water summit so that we would not have another stoush between the Nationals and the Liberals—Senator Heffernan and Senator Joyce might have been barricading doors at either end of the conference room or something! But it is an important issue; it is not a joking matter. Indeed I have seen reports today that proposals are again being floated for Cubbie Station to be bought, possibly by the federal government, as a way of trying to resolve what is clearly a significant problem.

But in the same way as it is not appropriate to have forgotten Queensland, it is also not appropriate to think that it is all about Cubbie Station. There are major problems with water management issues in the other states. Senator Minchin acknowledged in a roundabout way that, collectively, we—states and federal and all political parties—failed in the past. We have got to a stage where there is a drastic overallocation of water. There is a real problem in that we have calls at the moment, in this drought situation, for the inadequate environmental flows, which have slowly, finally been agreed to to try to get some water back into the river, to be suspended. I was concerned that Senator Minchin was not able to give a clear indication of whether or not that would absolutely be prevented at tomorrow’s summit. I appreciate that he is not the responsible minister, so I cannot expect him to know everything about this. But I think it should be absolutely clear right at the start of any discussion about fixing up the current situation with water issues in the Murray-Darling Basin that we do not go the other way—which some are urging, including some local government authorities—and suspend our allocation of environmental flows. That would be a serious backward step.

I acknowledge the minister’s comment that we need to have more realistic pricing of water. That is something we Democrats voice our support for. We make a point of doing so because it is obviously a bit more of a politically difficult issue. To put up the price of anything, let alone something like water, is never going to be particularly popular, so it is important to indicate that there is wider political support for that. And pricing needs to go somewhere near the realistic price of the water. There is not much point in having a water trading scheme coming into place if the price of the water being traded is not able to be accurately reflected as something approximating market worth.

The other point I want to make in this context is that the minister himself said that this is just about the Murray-Darling, just about water management in the context of the current drought. That is good as far as it goes, but the Democrats have been calling for a national water summit to address all these issues, including some that the minister mentioned in response to an earlier question about the management of metropolitan water and the failure of state governments to invest responsibly and effectively in water infrastructure. We have to start addressing all those issues in a comprehensive way. We are only going to achieve it if we have a national water summit that addresses all those issues. Tomorrow’s summit may be a good first step, but we need to go further and we need to do it urgently. We need to make sure that it involves everybody and that we do not forget states like Queensland along the way when we are holding such summits.

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