SPEECH: Parliament House; House of Representatives - Murray-Darling Basin - Matter of Public Importance


Murray-Darling Basin


Ordinarily, at the end of an MPI, after question time, we get to the end of this debate and just move on to other legislation. Unusually, today, shortly after this MPI finishes, the parliament will have to vote on the exact issue that we will have been debating today. In the Senate, they will be dealing with a motion on whether there should be a judicial inquiry to deal with the allegations which appeared originally on the Four Corners program into water theft and corruption in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin system.  

If that motion is carried in the Senate, notwithstanding government members voting against it there, when that Senate resolution seeks concurrence every member of this House will have to vote on this issue today. So for those members who say one thing in their electorates in South Australia and a different thing when they come here to Canberra, there will be nowhere to hide in terms of people knowing whether they stand up for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and its ethical implementation or whether they are willing to accept the rorts which we saw in that program.

That program made clear that what we saw in that program was not representative of most irrigation districts. I suspect it's not even representative of what happens in that particular district itself. What we saw was extraordinary. What we saw on the Four Corners program was not, as the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources described it, like cattle-rustling. We saw a billion litres of water which was pumped down the rivers for the health of the basin—environmental water owned by the Commonwealth taxpayer—being pumped back into the dams of cotton farmers. That's not just ripping off the Australian taxpayer; that's ripping off every irrigator who does the right thing. Anyone who watched the Four Corners program would have seen irrigators themselves being outraged by the rorts that they were seeing.

There are members of parliament here from irrigation districts. They know how angry people were when they saw that program. They know how angry the law-abiding irrigators were when they saw those sorts of rorts. Those members will have to vote on this later today. Think of what sort of community we are talking about. This is the same part of north-western NSW where kids get locked up for shoplifting and where you've got an incarceration rate for young Aboriginal kids that's way off the charts. And yet you see people gloating about being able to potentially steal a billion litres of water.

When allegations like that are made, you need to have a thorough process to be able to get to the bottom of it, and the problem here is that neither a state process on its own nor a federal one is able to do it. The reason we support a judicial inquiry through the COAG process is that there is no other way of being able to get to the bottom of what's happened. New South Wales ICAC are dealing with these allegations, but the moment they hit federal officials there's nothing they can do, because they've only got jurisdiction in New South Wales.

I wrote to the Commonwealth Auditor-General. To their credit, the National Audit Office have decided to undertake an investigation into what's happening, but the moment they hit the state jurisdiction their powers will hit a wall. The minister when these allegations first came out said, 'It's just a matter for the states.' The whole reason we have as national law—mind you, the law itself that underpins the plan was introduced under the Howard government with the man who is now Prime Minister as water minister. Back then I thought we'd got over the threshold that the Murray-Darling Basin would be viewed as a national issue. You can't just say it's a state issue. It might not always happen when too much water gets pumped, but most of the time the water manages to flow across state boundaries. When it flows across state boundaries, people downstream have a right to know that the rules are being kept to. People in irrigation districts, in Victoria, in the southern basin, in New South Wales and in South Australia have a right to know the rules are being kept to.

After saying it was just a matter for the states, feeling a bit of pressure, the Deputy Prime Minister said, 'Well, maybe it's not just for the states, but I still don't want a serious inquiry,' so he got the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to look into it. But the problem with that inquiry is this: they cannot compel witnesses to appear. They cannot provide any immunity or protection for whistleblowers. They cannot subpoena documents. They don't have the powers to be able to get to the bottom of this, but a judicial inquiry through COAG can, and today we will vote on whether or not a judicial inquiry should take place. And be in no doubt: if this House votes no, it will be a decision for those members, particularly those in irrigation districts where people keep to the rules, that they want to turn a blind eye. I don't see how anybody can be proud of their irrigation district and be proud that their people keep to the rules and be willing to say that we're not going to vote for a serious investigation with the powers that we need to deal with the water theft on one of the instances. One of them is of a billion litres of water pumped straight out of the river after the taxpayer has been spending $13 billion to improve the health of the rivers.

We have had for some years now an opportunity for a genuine bipartisan approach to the Murray-Darling Basin. When we had the vote in this parliament, all the members of the Liberal Party voted with the members of the government and most of the members of the National Party voted with us. A couple of the independents, the Green Party and a couple of the National Party members voted against it. We had a massive majority of people committed to delivering a Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But be in no doubt: the plan rests on the integrity of the water market. If the integrity of the water market is not going to be defended by this parliament then it really doesn't matter how much water you set aside for environmental use if you then allow a situation where the environmental water gets pumped straight back up into cotton dams. It doesn't matter how much commitment you make to the good work of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, the science-based approach and the improved consultation with communities on their work—consultation which is still not good enough, but it's improving. And the consultation is getting better. But what's the point in doing all of that if we're going to allow a situation where one state government gets rid of and guts so many of their compliance officers, doesn't allow their compliance officers to properly pursue investigations—in fact, gets rid of them immediately after they raise these allegations—and sees situations of a billion litres of water being pumped straight back into a cotton dam?
The parliament today makes a really simple decision. The Senate will go first and then it will come to us.

This is not like we've got a little coalition just falling over the line in the Senate. It's not often you go all the way from Senator Bernardi to Senator Hanson-Young—that doesn't happen all that often—but the situation that we have is that everyone except the government members, and maybe a couple of others, will be saying that we need to have a proper inquiry with all the powers. It will come here and people will have to vote. If you care about the health of the rivers, if you care about the Lower Lakes, if you care about the Coorong, if you care about the health of the system, if you want to make sure that the next drought doesn't look like what the last one did, then you've got to make sure there's integrity to the water market. If you care about your irrigation districts, if you believe that the people in your irrigation districts are the ones who keep to the law, then you owe it to them to make sure there is compliance in northern NSW. If you believe what happened in northern NSW was done by a few people who aren't representative of the whole group, then have the sort of compliance for them that we have for shoplifters. We can't have a situation where this parliament will claim to be tough on crime unless the crime involves a wealthy irrigator; where we'll protect taxpayers' money unless it's a plebiscite; where we'll protect taxpayers' money unless it's water dedicated to this reform. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to end what was intractable for a century. We should not miss this opportunity, and we will vote today.


Tony Burke