Murray-Darling Basin Authority

14 Nov 2013 questionsarchive

I seek leave to make a brief explanation—or maybe just an explanation—before asking the Minister for the River Murray a question about the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: In the December Mid-Year Budget Review all South Australians were shocked by the Weatherill Labor government's move to slash funding to the MDBA and, in doing so, has tried to shift the blame to the New South Wales government. I understand that the New South Wales government's decision to cut its contribution was in response to a determination made by their Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal.

Today the South Australian government has indicated that it will consider reinstating the funding for one year but only if the New South Wales government reinstates its funding as well. My questions to the minister are:

1.Why does he continue to pass the buck on to other states rather than taking responsibility for his own government's actions?

2.At a time when South Australia should be leading by example and protecting the River Murray, can the minister please explain why the South Australian government is depending on other states' decisions?

3.Can the minister indicate whether he has actually had any discussions with the New South Wales government or, indeed, any other governments regarding funding?

4.Does the minister acknowledge that he is effectively cutting off the nose to spite the face because most of the funding or a significant amount ends up in South Australia on works and environmental measures anyway?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER  (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation)  (14:34): I thank the honourable member for her most important questions. I am very pleased that, in the spirit of cooperation that we have embraced today, she has asked one of the most important questions that I would like to be asked this afternoon.

I will be attending the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council meeting which is being held in Canberra tomorrow. The meeting will, of course, be the first since the election of the new federal Liberal government. The meeting includes a number of items which will have a significant impact on the management of the basin and on the people of South Australia. Members will be aware that in July 2012 the New South Wales government cut their funding to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority by 60 per cent and, of course, New South Wales has capped its contribution to the authority at $8.9 million in 2013-14 and 2014-15. This is a very unfortunate outcome for every South Australian—it is a very unfortunate outcome for every Australian—who relies on the river for their way of life, no matter what side of the border they are on and it is an unfortunate outcome for the river itself; a river that is only just beginning to recover from the years of overallocation, interstate bickering and, of course, drought.

This decision by New South Wales puts South Australia in a very difficult position. The state government, under the leadership of Jay Weatherill, fought long and hard for a basin plan which would ensure the health of the Murray-Darling Basin and we are committed to the work being undertaken by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. We are committed to the communities of the river and we are committed to the ecological health of the river. We are committed to the outcomes agreed to by all parties, prior to the change of government in New South Wales, that ensure we never push the river to the brink again. The river should never be about politics and the river should never be about one state over another. It is perhaps Australia's most important natural resource and it is time that New South Wales began treating it as such.

South Australia, despite our smaller population, has traditionally provided 24 per cent of the funding to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. This is despite the fact that New South Wales takes more than 47 per cent of the water extractions and South Australia only 9 per cent. Even though New South Wales capped its funding over the last two years at a shocking reduction, we have maintained ours. This is because we knew just how important that money was to ensure the work being done right across the river system to return it to health could be undertaken. It was vital that the states work together.

However, it has meant that our proportion of funding has now blown out from 24 per cent to 29 per cent of the authority's funding. With this massive cut foreshadowed by the New South Wales government in 2014-15, South Australia stands to pick up the tab for New South Wales—the state that draws the most water from the system. That is simply unacceptable, and that is why in October last year we foreshadowed a reduction in our contribution to the authority from 2014-15. That decision was not made lightly. It was made on the basis that this state could not afford to subsidise the New South Wales government, and that is why I will be heading to Canberra to tell the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council meeting that this is something South Australia cannot and will not sustain.

South Australia will not pick up the tab for New South Wales into the future. However, I will tell the council that if the state of New South Wales reverses its decision to cap its funding to the authority at $8.9 million and to fund the authority at its agreed state share, South Australia will maintain our proportion of funding because we will not give up on the River Murray as the Liberals opposite have done.

As I have said earlier, we have already done more than our fair share. Because of New South Wales' cap, we currently provide more than our previously agreed proportion of 24 per cent of the total funding to the authority, but you come to a point when you have to say, 'Enough is enough.' New South Wales now needs to pull its weight and everybody in this chamber and in the other place, particularly the Leader of the Opposition who has thus far, as far as I can tell, been completely silent on the matter, need to help ensure that this occurs.

South Australian Liberal senator Simon Birmingham will be at this meeting. He will be chairing it and it is my hope that the honourable senator, like me, will be pressuring the New South Wales government to reinstate their proportion of that funding. I am sure the honourable senator knows exactly how important this funding is to the communities of the river and the economy of our state but, if I am to be honest, I am not sure that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Marshall, in the other place, understands this at all. If he does, it is time for the Leader of the Opposition in the other place and all his parliamentary Liberal colleagues in both houses to finally put the politics aside and stand up for South Australia. Show the people of South Australia that you can fight for our state. Show the people of South Australia that you will put our state and our interests before that of your Liberal Party mates in the Eastern States.

Jay Weatherill and this state government did exactly that when we fought for the River Murray basin deal. We told prime minister Gillard and the federal government at the time that we wanted a better deal than what was on offer; a better deal than what the Liberals opposite were offering. They were saying, 'Take it, take it, you'll never get a better deal.' The Liberals were saying, 'Take the deal on the table that New South Wales is offering. You will never manage to get a better deal.' But that is exactly what Jay Weatherill did. He stood his ground, he fought for South Australia, and he got a better deal for the River Murray, a better deal for the River Murray communities and a better deal for our state. It is time that the Liberals learnt that lesson and stood up for our people.