Reform and Planning in the Murray-Darling Basin

I seek leave to make a brief explanation before directing a question to the Minister for Water and the River Murray on the subject of the River Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

River Murray Darling Basin Plan

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK ( 14:29 :24 ): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before directing a question to the Minister for Water and the River Murray on the subject of the River Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Leave granted.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: As reported in today's paper, the ANU Centre for Water Economics has published—

The Hon. I.K. Hunter: Which paper was that?

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: The Advertiser, today, the only one—we are a one paper town. The ANU Centre for Water Economics released a report entitled, 'Water Reform and Planning in the Murray-Darling Basin', and has called for an urgent rethink of the plan as it is based on 'rhetoric and special interests' rather than specific evidence and that there is 'very little to show' for the $5 billion spent on it. My questions for the minister are: is he aware of this report, and what is his agency's response to its findings?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 14:30 :26 ): I thank the honourable member for her most important questions and can I say, 'Come in spinner'. As I understand from the precis of this report that I have been given from the ANU—but, of course, we have heard from the ANU on these issues in the past, where they have made claims that the Murray Darling Basin Plan doesn't go far enough, that it is a compromise, that the scientific information has not been adhered to and more water needs to come out of the system to protect the environment.

We all know that. We all know that the basin plan was, in fact, a compromised position because it was fiercely fought by New South Wales and Victoria, who don't want to see any more water go out of productive use and go back into saving the environment of the River Murray. As far as they are concerned, any water that goes over the border is wasted water. You have to understand, of course, as many of us have heard, that they're often saying, 'We should just blow up the barrages and let salt water flood all the way up.' They have absolutely no concern for the Ramsar list of wetlands, sites of international significance. They have none at all.

Of course, these are scientists who have been putting together the best position and saying to us that you also need to take into consideration climate change and saying it doesn't go far enough, the Murray-Darling Basin plan. The agreed package that was, as I say, a compromise in 2012, made a commitment to that water recovery of 3,200 gigalitres, made up of two components (three components in a way), including the extra 450 gigalitres of so-called upwater that was negotiated by this state to give us the ability to say we are putting more water back into the river right up and down the system.

The best available science told us at the time that we needed a minimum of 3,200 gigalitres and that target was enshrined in the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement. That was the absolute minimum, and even at that minimum level we know that at certain times, over a period of a hundred years or so, that would be insufficient water, still, to protect some of our natural environmental assets. But, as I say, in the spirit of compromise we agreed with that extra 450 gigalitres being added into the plan, but noting as well that that can be written down by up to 650 litres in terms of what is called downwater, where there is an equivalence test in terms of environmental outcome.

The ANU work probably, I suspect, has erred on the side of wanting to be conservative in terms of their environmental outcomes for the river. I can understand that completely. When you are talking about analysing outcomes, looking at the climate change that we may be facing over coming years, you would want to err on the conservative side. However, Murray Basin politics, which has been practised in this country for the best part of a hundred years or so, requires us, given the way the constitution has appropriated powers to the states in terms of the River Murray, to work with other states and reach a compromise, which is exactly what we did.

The facts are that around 1,800 gigalitres of water is now available from the environment, which is an achievement in itself, which we would not have got without the Murray-Darling Basin Plan being put into place and worked on. All of this would have been available for irrigation diversions prior to the plan. Work is continuing towards the 3,200 gigalitre target under the oversight now of COAG, which is fortunate that this has been taken out of the hands of Barnaby Joyce, the Deputy Prime Minister, who has said to me and then confirmed in various media outlets and, indeed, in parliament that he has no intention on delivering the 450 gigalitres of water in terms of the upwater that South Australia requires for us to agree to 650 gigalitres of downwater.