Select Committee on the Findings of the Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission

Committee, In Parliament

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Leader of the Opposition) (20:03): I move:

That the interim report of the committee be noted.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (20:03): I rise to make a brief contribution. During the debate, when we first established this committee, I said at the time that this parliament and the public deserve to know just why a government would capitulate, why other states act the way they do, and that all of our interests are being served or, as has been claimed, that the best interests of this state, for our river and for our communities that are crying out for help, are being served.

That is as true now as it was then. But what we still do not have, as far as I am concerned, is any proper reasoning from this government and from the relevant minister, the Minister for Environment and Water, that would explain or make up for this gross capitulation. We have not even had tangible results from that decision.

The Greens have been saying this for a while, but while many in the community—stakeholders, experts, farmers and environmentalists; a quite diverse list—know that the government is not doing enough, or not doing the right things, to deliver that vital water for our state, this committee saw quite clearly during our hearings that this was the case. Many submissions and witnesses raised concerns about the plan not delivering the outcomes required, particularly for the state of South Australia.

I wish to look back on the Minister for Environment and Water’s comments made in 2019, when he was quite chuffed with himself about the deal he had struck with the other states on the socio-economic criteria. I quote the minister for the anti-woke brigade:

In December, a historic agreement was struck between the Murray-Darling Basin states and the Commonwealth. In a significant moment for our state, Victoria and New South Wales finally agreed to participate in the full range of water-saving projects that could deliver 450 gigalitres. We did this by bringing all the states to the table and led to the development of a package that will lead to actual water being delivered back to the river—

Well, there is not much actual water so far. I continue the quote—

while ensuring regional communities are not ripped apart—just as the original plan from 2012 demands.

I have said it all before and will say it again: what rips regional communities apart is not even having an environment that is healthy to sustain that community regardless of the socio-economic factors. Indeed, in particular this minister of this Marshall government capitulated to the other states on the socio-economic criteria that are contributing to the failure to return that goal of 450 gigalitres of water to the system.

We have a minister who continues to stand firm behind these efficiency measures and who continues to stand against using buybacks, despite the fact that we have been told repeatedly by the federal government’s own research agency, the previous Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, experts and the community that water buybacks are a more effective and less costly option for recovering that required 450 gigalitres of water.

We cannot here tonight in this parliament on behalf of our state stand by while we get barely a trickle of water coming down the river. Minister Speirs has sold our state down the river for, of that 450, just over two gigalitres—two; single figures, one, two. The evidence that this committee heard was incredibly sobering and made that quite clear. It is now 2021. The deadline for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is 2024. I have very little confidence that the current approach, and this current government, is necessarily going to deliver that water, that necessary water, those 450 gigalitres of water, in that short time.

I wholeheartedly concur with the recommendations of this report, but in particular that, as recommended by the Murray-Darling Royal Commission, in 2019 the SA government revoked its endorsement of the socio-economic criteria agreed to in December 2018 relating to the water efficiency projects designed to deliver the 450 gigalitres of environmental water.

My thanks go, of course, to all who provided evidence to this committee and indeed to my colleagues on the committee as well. It is shameful, however, that our so-called Minister for Water agreed to such a dud deal. What we have now is the clear evidence and the opportunity to change that decision and ensure that this life-giving and life-saving water is finally delivered for South Australia.

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (20:08): I rise to speak to the dissenting statement that the Hon. Heidi Girolamo and I tabled in this chamber yesterday. Firstly, I would like to place on the record that I come from the Riverland, have grown up on a horticultural property and continue to live on a horticultural property with my family.

As members of the Legislative Council Select Committee on Findings of the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and Productivity Commission as they relate to the Decisions of the South Australian Government, the Hon. Heidi Girolamo and I would firstly like to thank the witnesses who appeared before the committee and gave evidence. We also thank the Chairperson, the Hon. Kyam Maher MLC, and the other honourable members of the committee, and committee secretary, Mr Anthony Beasley, and research officer, Ms Leslie Guy.

We have prepared this dissenting report, as we do not agree with all aspects of the interim report of the Legislative Council Select Committee on Findings of the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and Productivity Commission as they relate to the Decisions of the South Australia Government.

In our view, the interim report is unbalanced in its use of the information that was available to the committee in the way of submissions. There is clearly more evidence that is available that should be included to make this report more balanced, particularly to show where the basin plan is working well for South Australia.

In rising to speak, I acknowledge some of the words that the Hon. Tammy Franks has said on the report, not many of them, but some of them, and certainly those words about the importance of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the need for it to succeed. It is also critical that we understand and appreciate, as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority stated, ‘To get a system-wide improvement, you have to make system-wide change’ and the basin plan was designed to achieve just that.

I find it ironic that, for the first 15 months of being in this chamber, I was hardly aware that this committee existed because we did not meet during this time. In fact, when we did finally meet on 3 August this year, we accepted minutes from the previous meeting held on 20 November 2019—minutes from almost two years ago. So, I find it utterly disingenuous when the opposition and some of the crossbench want to sit and lecture the government about South Australia’s involvement in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Let’s look at Labor’s track record in this area. In December 2018, the Productivity Commission reported that zero gigalitres of efficiency measure water had been delivered for South Australia, 1.9 gigalitres was under contract and 448.1 gigalitres remained to be recovered—zero gigalitres returned to the environment and only 1.9 gigalitres under contract under the former Labor government’s reign and the relationship between basin states was sour.

As of 30 December 2021, the Australian government’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment reported that 1.9 gigalitres of water had been delivered, 16.6 gigalitres was under contract and 431.5 gigalitres remained to be recovered. What is more, we are now seeing non-South Australian basin states contributing to the 450-gigalitre efficiency measure water for the first time ever, with 15.9 gigalitres of water contracted with Victoria and New South Wales currently consulting on a 6.2-gigalitre water efficiency project.

The government is getting on with the job. We understand that there is much more to do, and we are continuing to work with the federal government and the New South Wales and Victorian state governments productively. The state and federal governments are committed to delivering practical projects for farmers to improve water efficiencies on their properties, as well as investing in off-farm projects, such as lock and weir maintenance projects and improvements to irrigation channels to reduce water losses in the Murray-Darling Basin.

On-farm projects have been and continue to be delivered, such as investment in netting. Crop netting results in using less water due to less evaporation, while drip irrigation is also easier under netting but consistently results in a higher yield whilst using up to 40 per cent less water. Netting also has the added benefit of reducing wind damage, protecting crops from harsh weather conditions, reducing sunburn on crops and improving pest and disease management, resulting in higher-quality fruit and greater pack outs for growers.

Other projects that both the state and federal governments are implementing include the on-farm emergency water infrastructure rebate scheme, which assists with the purchasing and installation of new on-farm water infrastructure for livestock and permanent horticulture that addresses animal welfare needs during drought and assists primary producers to be more resilient for future droughts by protecting high-value horticultural assets.

These projects highlight practical measures that can be taken by farmers to become more efficient in their water use, whilst creating business and job opportunities for other industries within their communities. Liberal governments have always been about and will always be about delivering practical outcomes and ensuring taxpayers’ money is spent efficiently and wisely. The Marshall Liberal government is also continuing to investigate opportunities to more effectively utilise Adelaide’s recycling water, stormwater capture and reuse networks with the support of the federal government.

Water is a finite resource. Those of us whose homes are on the Murray River and whose families and communities are reliant on this resource know all too well the importance of the health of the Murray-Darling Basin. This plan is not perfect—far from it—but there are a number of success stories across the basin that we should acknowledge and build on. For example, recent environmental flood plain watering events have resulted in three flood plains in the South Australian Riverland region—that is, my home; the Chowilla, Pike and Katarapko flood plains—all operating concurrently for the first time ever, signalling a boost in the health of the state’s River Murray system.

Furthermore, there are many individual success stories across the basin about environmental water supporting environmental outcomes. For example, the number of baby black bream in the Coorong estuary has recently increased due to an environmental water delivery of 500 gigalitres to the Lower Lakes and Coorong.

Now is not the time to abandon our approach. As Mr Humphrey Howie, chairman of the Renmark Irrigation Trust put to the committee, ‘We recognise the faults and the flaws, but the idea of having a plan is so much better than having no plan at all.’

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Leader of the Opposition) (20:16): I thank the members of this committee for the work that has been undertaken. I note, as the Hon. Tammy Franks has, the recommendations of the majority of the committee have passed. I note the contributions made by honourable members tonight, and I do express sympathy with the Hon. Nicola Centofanti for having to put up the defence from the Liberal Party, for having to read out what her colleagues have given her in defence of what the Liberal government, state and federal, have not done for the river.

I will try to mount a defence for the Liberal Minister for Environment, who we found out just this week does not want the job. He hates the job of the Minister for Environment. On Monday night, he was at a Liberal Party function, where he said he does not want to do this job. He was asked by Liberal supporters at the function, and he asked them to lobby the Premier for another portfolio. This is the defence that is forced upon members of this chamber from the other side to mount for a person who does not want the job and does not stand up for the environment.

If we look at the comments that gave rise to this parliamentary committee in relation to a royal commission, Bret Walker SC, one of Australia’s most respected barristers, commented in relation to decisions that the minister, the minister who does not want to be the environment minister, made at the time. The royal commissioner said about decisions that were taken in relation to the Murray by the Hon. David Speirs, the minister who does not want the job:

It is nothing short of a capitulation to the interests of the current Commonwealth Government, and those of Victoria and New South Wales.

The royal commissioner went on to say:

It is so contrary to the interests of South Australians that the decision by the Minister responsible is almost certainly a breach of at least [clause] 2.5 of the South Australian Ministerial Code of Conduct.

As an aside, we know how this government treats ministerial codes of conduct, so it is not surprising that the minister who does not want to be environment minister kept his job. The royal commissioner went on to say:

No minister acting reasonably could consider these changes to the criteria to be anything but totally antipathetic to the interests of South Australia, and the South Australian environment.

These were the comments of the royal commission, and we heard nothing as a committee, not a single thing as a committee, that was persuasive that changed the view from that of the royal commission. South Australia has been sold down the river by a minister who does not even want the job.

Motion carried.