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In February I spoke on behalf of the ALP and supported the disallowance of the Basin Plan amendment instrument 2017 No 1 and at that time, I made clear that Labor was supporting the disallowance because we would not accept anything less than the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full and on time.
Now, our decision at that time to vote in support of the disallowance wasn’t a position reached lightly. We in the Labor Party know the significance of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan because we are the party that achieved that plan in government.
I spoke in February of my experience as Water Minister at the COAG discussions with former-Prime Minister Rudd where, after 100 years of conflict, Basin jurisdictions reached agreement on the future of the Basin.
That meeting came after weeks, some 11 weeks of negotiations by governments right across the Basin, signatories agreed to the 47 points in the MOU signed by the Commonwealth and the states. And as I have previously said, to describe that process as ‘taxing’ probably doesn’t even begin to describe what we had to go through to get all of the states as well as the Commonwealth on board, something the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull as Water Minister could never achieve.
We did it. We did it as a Labor government with the support of the states and I’m very proud to have been part of this achievement and I’m proud as Water Minister to have purchased and returned almost 1,000 gigalitres of water to the river. 1,000 gigalitres of water to the river, something perhaps Senator Hanson-Young might consider, what a Labor government delivered, 1,000 gigalitres of environmental water to the river.
It gave me firsthand experience of the difficulty of balancing and competing across the Basin. Tony Burke was the Minister in the Gillard Government when the Plan was achieved in 2012. That was an historic achievement. We reached agreement with the states, all Basin states, delivering a plan to return the equivalent of 3,200 gigalitres to the Basin.
We are very fortunate in the opposition to have Tony continuing as the Shadow Minister for Environment and Water particularly given his intimate understanding of the Basin Plan and his personal commitment to ensuring its protection and implementation. It’s an experience and approach I wish others had because, frankly, it is pretty easy to come into the place and lecture other senators about what you think the right thing to do is. We see again today the Greens intend to move amendments to alter the Basin Plan put in place by the Labor government. We have just endured another series of grandstanding and posturing from Senator Hanson-Young.
This is the party that, let’s remember, voted against the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, voted against the Murray-Darling Basin Plan just in the way they voted against the carbon price and sat with Cory Bernardi when the CPRS was voted on, because you wouldn’t want to actually have a plan that did something. You wouldn’t want to have a plan that actually did something because you might have to stop posturing. A thousand gigalitres of water I bought as Water Minister on behalf of taxpayers and you voted against the plan.
So people can decide who is grandstanding and who is posturing and who actually wants to deliver something because what we see over and over again is too much grandstanding and posturing from the Greens and too much from too many in the Coalition who are not committed to the Plan.
Well we in the Labor Party are committed to the Plan that we put in place, and we will do everything we can in opposition, as we are doing, to force this government to deliver on the Plan, notwithstanding the views of some of those inside the National Party, particularly the former minister.
We understand in the Labor Party that grandstanding and posturing might play to some but delivers to none. We understand that what we have to do is be responsible and achieve reasoned, well-informed positions that deliver outcomes, and that is the approach we will continue to take.
The review of the water recovery targets of the Northern Basin was always envisaged as part of the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We had a range of concerns about the review and about the implementation of the Plan more broadly, hence the Labor Party supported the disallowance of the instrument to which I have referred.
That was a big thing to do, given this is a Plan we put in place in government.
The Northern Basin Review came after years of backsliding under the Coalition Government and particularly under former Deputy Prime Minister Joyce. The review was delivered in the context of extraordinarily serious allegations of water theft and corruption in the Northern Basin, allegations which, frankly, confirmed the worst fears of South Australians.
These were bad enough, but worse still was the response from the Turnbull Government to these allegations. The then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Mr Joyce, responded to the allegations by saying “it’s an issue for New South Wales” – washing his hands of it. He told irrigators in Shepparton that the Four Corners report was a plot to steal their water.
So not only did he completely fail to act appropriately in response to, not just revelations of poor conduct and poor policy implementation, revelations of corruption and theft in the Northern Regions of the Basin, he also continued to actively undermine the plan.
That probably is a demonstration of why it has to be supported. If Mr Joyce thinks it should be actively undermined, it probably says it does something he doesn’t like.
Who could forget him standing up in the House of Representatives and declaring that a key component of the overall package required to deliver the equivalent of 3,200 gigalitres back to the river didn’t have a hope in Hades of being delivered? The bloke in charge of delivering it said, ‘It doesn’t have a hope in Hades of being delivered’.
This was the Deputy Prime Minister and minister responsible for the implementation of the Basin Plan, standing up in our parliament and undermining the very legislative instrument he was responsible for delivering. Not only do I blame him; I blame Prime Minister Turnbull, who gave this portfolio to Mr Barnaby Joyce.
The component that the then Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Joyce, was undermining was key to South Australia agreeing to the Plan. It was supported by a funding package of $1.77 billion that Labor delivered in 2012. Well, Labor was not going to see Mr Joyce undermine the plan and risk setting the Basin back another century.
Frankly, his statements and his attitude are no surprise. This is the same bloke who, during the millennium drought, told South Australians, ‘Move to where the water is.’
Remember, if Mr Turnbull complains about the problems that Mr Joyce has caused in this portfolio, well, Mr Turnbull has only himself to blame. He chose to hand the water portfolio to the National Party and in particular to Mr Joyce. That decision was made not in the interests of the Murray Darling Basin, not in the interests of the security of the Plan, not in the national interest, but in Mr Turnbull’s own narrow personal political interests: ‘How do I keep Barnaby onside?’
In the lead-up to the vote on the disallowance Labor made clear what we wanted to see from the Turnbull Government in order to support the Northern Basin proposal. We made clear we were willing to work with the Government and the Authority to resolve our concerns and deliver an outcome in the interests of the whole Basin.
We weren’t willing to support their proposal until the Government demonstrated it was serious about tackling the allegations of theft and corruption in the Basin. And given the statements by the former Deputy Prime Minister, we also wanted greater certainty that the full 450 gigalitres of upwater would be delivered, which is key to returning full equivalent of 3,200 gigalitres to the Basin.
I did acknowledge in February that Minister Littleproud seemed to be far more interested in dealing with the issues and prepared to clean up the mess left behind by Deputy Prime Minister Joyce. Negotiations ran up to the vote on the disallowance and unfortunately time ran out but we were confident there was a pathway to get the Plan back on track. Negotiations with the Government have continued and we have been able to agree a package which addresses our concerns.
In particular, we are pleased that we will see an expression of interest to commence the recovery of the 450 gigalitres and a commitment to link the payments for supply measures with efficiency measures for environmental water. So that means if the full 450 gigalitres isn’t being recovered the funding for the 605 gigalitres of projects that states are so keen on won’t be provided. I look forward to the Government ensuring that that compliance mechanism and funding pressure, whatever instrument is used to get that funding pressure, has some teeth.
Importantly, the New South Wales Government has also committed to start the 450 gigalitres process. That is also a step in the right direction.
In response to allegations of water theft and corruption, the package includes measures to ensure water purchased by the taxpayer for the environment is delivered to the environment. And the package includes new measures which we hope will go some way to addressing concerns expressed in the community about transparency of modelling underpinning the implementation of the Plan.
This package has been agreed with the Government and that fact provides some cautious optimism that the Plan can get back on track.
But it took significant political pressure to bring the Government back to the table. Irrigators, scientists, environmentalists across the Basin have been campaigning for the Government to change course. Communities and their governments have fought to ensure what they were promised will be delivered.
I acknowledge in particular the work of the former Premier of South Australia Jay Weatherill, and the whole of his government. Premier Weatherill was a fierce advocate for South Australia and he fought vigorously for a final Murray-Darling Basin Plan which would ensure the health of the River Murray and it was a fight he continued throughout his time as Premier.
And whilst there is insufficient evidence of this so far, I hope that the new Liberal South Australian Government will take just as seriously their responsibility to defend South Australia’s interests, because our state’s interests, regardless of which party one belongs to, our state’s interests are best served by ensuring the Plan is delivered on time and in full. And I can assure the new state government that all of us, all of the Labor people in this Parliament as well as in the state, will be fighting to ensure that they meet their responsibilities.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan isn’t perfect. But it is an historic agreement and it is the only agreement in 100 years that has the chance of ensuring the health of the Basin.
Labor in government fought to achieve the Plan and in opposition we are continuing to fight to ensure it is delivered on time. We want the Plan implemented in full, because it is the first time in our nation’s history that all of the Basin states and the Commonwealth have actually agreed to work together to secure the health of the river. We are committed to protecting the River Murray and we will always fight to ensure the Plan is implemented in full and on time.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.