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Senator Penny Wright speaks on the Murray River

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 20 Nov 2012

I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. As someone who was born on the banks of the Murray—in Red Cliffs, Victoria—and spent my childhood there, this is a very important river to me.

I am thinking it must be quite comforting to be a member of The Nationals: to be able to pretend that life can go on as it always has; that things like climate change are a fantasy; that we do not have the environmental challenges that we face this century on a very small, fragile planet, with a population of seven billion and growing; and that the industrial activity that the human species has engaged in, with increasing effect on our environment over the last several hundred years, has had no effect. Because then we could tell the people who vote for us: 'Don't worry, nothing needs to change. Business as usual can go on. We'll have droughts occasionally but we'll get through those. The mental health effects that we saw from the most recent drought, long lasting as they are, we will get through. It's fine. Don't worry. Nothing needs to change.' Unfortunately, being a Green and being unable to turn my face away from the science that we are hearing increasingly every day about the reality of the challenges we face this century means that I cannot live in that lovely fantasy land and I have to have the courage to face up to the challenges that we face this century and make decisions in the national interest.

I want to put this bill in some context. Here we are being asked to agree to legislation which will allow the total Murray-Darling Basin extraction limits to be adjusted up or down by a factor of five per cent. The future health of the Murray-Darling Basin absolutely relies, like never before, on the amount of water which is extracted from the river system-or, rather, the amount which is allowed to remain in it after years of overallocation. That is the effect of this bill. And yet we have no clear commitment as to the criteria which is to be applied when making such a crucial adjustment decision. We are being asked to vote here on a mechanism to adjust a plan but we have no definitive plan. So we are being asked to make this extremely important decision on faith-as if we can have faith in a process which has demonstrated almost no good faith up to now.

Let me say why. We do not yet have the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan, so this is a mechanism to allow adjustment to a plan we do not yet have. Yet what we do know is that, if we are serious about finally coming to a position where the future sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin and the communities and peoples that rely upon it is to be guaranteed, the foreshadowed plan is grossly inadequate. It is understood that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan proposes to start with a figure of 2,750 gigalitres of water being returned to the river system. We know that the science provided by credible and independent scientists-the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, the Goyder Institute and the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, among others-all tells us that 2,750 gigalitres is not enough, particularly in the dry times that are inevitably coming. The science tells us that we need at least 4,000 gigalitres to have a strong chance of ensuring the health of the Murray-Darling Basin into the future for people. Despite this, we know that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority only modelled water recovery above 2,800 gigalitres a year at the last minute, and this was incomplete modelling of 3,200 gigalitres using relaxed and inadequate constraints. We know that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan does not demonstrate that 2,750 gigalitres is sufficient to flush the system-a system where two million tonnes of salt travel down in an average year.

The plan does not establish that there will be a sufficient volume to keep the mouth of the Murray open without dredging, which is necessary not only to ensure the health of the river but also to ensure that the precious Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert-highly significant, internationally recognised Ramsar sites-are sustained. This plan increases groundwater extraction by 1,700 gigalitres, without any caution against connectivity with surface water or knowledge about recharge rates and how those might impact groundwater dependent ecologies in the long term. We are, I fear, about to repeat the same mistake we made with surface water overallocation 100 years ago, and continuing. Perhaps most alarmingly and inexplicably, given what we know now, it does not include any modelling for climate change. It merely refers to 'climate change knowledge' as a matter for adaptive management in the future. Yet we know that there are predictions that rainfall in the Murray-Darling Basin will decrease by up to 60 per cent by the end of the century due to climate change.

Basically, what we do know is that the foreshadowed Murray-Darling Basin Plan has not been designed to achieve the hydrological and environmental targets that would return the Murray-Darling Basin to health based on the best available science. The best available science is, in the end, all we have between us and the risk of ecosystem failure and a dying river system. Let us not be mistaken: a dying river system will affect all of us, not just the non-human species that rely on it. It includes all those communities who rely on the Murray and its tributaries and wetlands for their agricultural, social and economic wellbeing. So we have a manifestly inadequate plan, with a starting point of 2,750 gigalitres. An adjustment of five per cent up or down would take the upper limit to about 3,200 gigalitres-still not sufficient according to the scientific evidence-but even that is not guaranteed. It could drop to as low as 2,100 gigalitres, which would be disastrous. We are being asked to agree to this.

Finally, in any event, this process does not recover the extent of this water for the environment until 2024-four federal governments away. What we do know is that, in the end, this is not a scientific plan; it is a political plan. It is a plan designed to appease many interests, and so, sadly, it replicates the history of decision making and exploitation that we have seen in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin for many, many decades. It is business as usual. This arrangement, with an inadequate starting point in the plan and then a plus or minus five per cent sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism, does not guarantee that additional water will be provided when necessary to meet the needs of the river, which, in the end-let us not be mistaken-are the needs of the people and the communities, us, which rely on the river. This is not a matter of people versus the environment, because we see now, this century, increasingly clearly that we are of and in the environment.

I turn now to the South Australian position, because as a South Australian senator I am particularly troubled by this proposed scheme-the plan and the bill that we are being asked to decide on tonight. The consequences for a badly managed Murray-Darling Basin are particularly acute for my state, and yet South Australian irrigators are some of the most efficient in the country. With some prescience, South Australia's extraction caps started in 1969. But in the Millennium drought only 18 per cent of water allocation was available to South Australia. Now only 10 per cent of rainfall makes it down to the Murray Mouth and Lower Lakes. It used to be 99 per cent.

Under the draft plan, South Australia is expected to return 101 gigalitres-that is 20 per cent of South Australian irrigators' current diversion limit. We know that under the draft plan dredging of the Murray Mouth will still be required in dry conditions. In the Millennium drought, dredging cost South Australia $790 million. It costs $100,000 per week to dredge the Murray Mouth, which the environment can do for free, if we allow it to. For the last year and a half, the quantity of water flowing over the barrages has been actually above what we will get with a limit of 2,750 gigalitres. That is still not enough as the area remains drought affected. But if we cannot deliver what we need in above average years, how do we possibly deliver it under the draft plan? Mid to high South Australian flood plains will receive little or no extra water, which will mean high salinity and further degradation of environments. In drier periods, salt will accumulate at the Murray Mouth. We have no certainty in the draft plan that in the dry years the two million tonnes of salt will be flushed out of the system. Again, that will affect the whole river system. We also know that dry periods are getting longer. South Australia used to have high-flow events four in 10 years. Now it is only one in 10 years. This augurs badly for the entire health of the basin, not just those of us in South Australia. This arrangement sells out not only the interests of South Australia but all those who ultimately depend on the long-term survival of the Murray-Darling Basin.

This process of determining the amount of water that must be returned to the river represents a missed opportunity to grapple with a legacy of the short-term, political decision making that has so dogged the history of the Murray-Darling Basin. In the past, this may have been understandable and perhaps even forgivable, although there have been voices warning of the effects of over-allocation since the 1920s. But there is no longer any excuse for bad decisions. I and my colleagues in this chamber and in the other place are members of one of the best resourced parliaments in the world. We have access to the most reliable, up-to-date, comprehensive information and advice available to anyone anywhere. We have the excellent resources and research capacity of the Parliamentary Library. We have advisers, lobbyists and stakeholders who are generous with their learning and ideas. We have information at the click of a mouse or the dial of a phone.

So we have absolutely no excuse for ignorance when it comes to making decisions which will affect our very ability to survive into the future. To their shame, the government and the opposition are insistent on passing this legislation, and history will judge them poorly.

The environment, which we rely on for our ultimate survival, is in the end non-negotiable. So my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young will be moving Australian Greens amendments in an attempt to ameliorate the worst aspects of this legislation. We will be seeking to ensure that the proposed limit of an additional five per cent for the water recovery target may be increased if there are environmental reasons to do so. In so doing we are attempting to remedy the clear omissions in the plan to take account of the likely and unexamined effects of climate change and the use of groundwater. As we know, the figure of 2,750 gigalitres is manifestly inadequate, so our amendments are also designed to prevent an adjustment of five per cent downward to set an even lower figure of 2,100 gigalitres.

In relation to groundwater extraction we will ensure that any proposed extraction from now on must be properly modelled and assessed with consideration of its connection with surface water recharge rates and its impact on those plants and ecologies that rely on it. If the proposed extraction will have the effect of reducing surface water, the Commonwealth will be required to buy back the equivalent amount.

My colleague Senator Hanson-Young will be moving amendments designed to apply proper scrutiny to decisions by the minister to adopt adjustments, including how the new target will reflect the environmentally sustainable level of allocation and how Australia's Ramsar convention obligations will be upheld The minister will be required to demonstrate that the environmental outcomes that were met under the 3,200-gigalitre modelling continue to be met or are improved. The amendments will also maintain a number of targets for the Murray mouth and Lower Lakes, including salinity levels, barrage flows and the Murray mouth remaining open.

Finally, in considering this legislation I am very conscious that I have been entrusted with a role that very few Australians will ever experience: participation in the parliament and the governance of this nation, to represent the people of South Australia and, more broadly, to consider and make decisions in the national interest. Being a Greens senator, I also look to the future and consider not only the short term-my generation and those of us who are alive today-but also the children of our children and their children in turn, those Australians who will come after us. This role brings with it a huge sense of responsibility. We face pressing and frightening challenges this century, and I am sure other politicians have stood here and thought that too, but every day now we are reminded of the environmental crunch points that are coming unless we act now and swiftly to change the habits of a lifetime, to understand and live within the environmental constraints of a small planet which is now home to seven billion people. No amount of jeering, scepticism or ridicule can change this fact. The vast majority of scientists around the world are warning us, and we must be prepared to face up to this courageously and make the decisions that we need to make while we have the opportunity to do so.

Just yesterday, for instance, we were reminded of the pressing crisis we face from climate change as a nation and a planet. The World Bank's report Turn down the heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoidedshowed us that we are on course for four degrees of warming by the end of this century, that it could occur as soon as 2060 with accompanying disastrous effects and that our current action is not enough to keep us below two degrees. The choice before us about how we will manage the wonderful resources of the Murray-Darling Basin is one more important example of this challenge. We must not shy away from it.

What will Australians of the future and the not-too-distant future make of our decisions within this parliament? It is within our hands.


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