The Government’s National Plan for Water Security

Senator Bartlett: My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Environment and Water Resources. I refer to the report by Laura Tingle in today’s Australian Financial Review which details an assessment by people within the Murray-Darling Basin Commission of the government’s National Plan for Water Security, which says that the plan:
… neglects crucial questions of land title, resource management and environmental water flows and could be underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Does the minister agree with the concerns expressed that the organisation charged with running the basin will need ownership rights and that this will cost billions of dollars, which will severely reduce the amount available for other measures? Does the minister also agree with the advice provided by people within the commission that the Murray-Darling should be run at arm’s length from politicians? If not, how can the minister assure the Senate and the Australian people that the government will not succumb to National Party pressure to unduly favour irrigators?

Sentor Abetz: Mr President, I thought that one of the hallmarks allegedly of the Australian Democrats was transparency and accountability, and one way that the Australian people get accountability is through the ballot box. I understand that the Democrats find that a painful experience but, nevertheless, in Australian politics you get accountability through the ballot box. Something as important as the Murray-Darling proposal, we believe, should be vested in those people who are ultimately answerable to the people. Therefore, we believe that there needs to be the sort of responsibility regime in place that we are proposing. To suggest that you can just park it off to the side to people who are unaccountable to the Australian people at the ballot box is not acceptable to us.

Having answered the latter part of his question, I have sought to go through the briefing notes that I have in front of me. I have all sorts of very interesting briefings in relation to the Murray-Darling commission and those matters that have been in the media in recent times, but not in relation to the article to which the honourable senator refers. Therefore, I will take that part of his question on notice.

Senator Bartlett: Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given the minister’s view on accountability, why is it okay to park the management of the Reserve Bank with an unaccountable body rather than with the government? What is different in this case? Also, given the issue of environmental flows, can the minister indicate to the Senate and clarify the total amount of water that the government is planning to release to the Murray-Darling Basin each year? In the government’s plan they believe their overall program ‘will generate water savings of over 3,000 gigalitres a year’, but 50 per cent of that will be shared with irrigators and 50 per cent is to address overallocation and sustaining river health. Does that mean there will only be 1,500 gigalitres returned to basin each year? Is that adequate, given recent scientific evidence about how much is needed to be put back into the Murray-Darling Basin?

Senator Abetz: Allow me to assist the honourable senator. The big difference between the Reserve Bank and the Murray-Darling commission is that the Reserve Bank does not actually spend hundreds of millions of dollars of Australian taxpayers’ money, and I think that there is a very fundamental difference there. In relation to water allocations from the Murray-Darling catchment area, I invite the honourable senator to note that part of the problem of lack of water in the Murray-Darling could be overcome if we had proper stewardship of the national parks by the state governments in reducing the bushfires. The regrowth that is now occurring in the Murray-Darling as a result of poorly managed national parks and regrowth now after fires is taking up to 20 per cent of the water catchment that would normally have flowed down through the Murray-Darling. That is a huge amount of water, and if those who claim to be environmentalists were genuine they would help this side of the parliament manage our forests properly for the benefit of the Murray-Darling. (Time expired)

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