Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Opposition Whip) (12:35): I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill. There’s no doubt that water reform is difficult, and it’s very important in this debate that we don’t just succumb to emotion and that we focus on reality.
We shouldn’t underestimate what has been done in this field since John Howard first put the Water Bill on the table in 2007 and committed $10 billion of funding to the reform of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, putting the power back with the Commonwealth and investing heavily in infrastructure projects that would return water to the environment without necessarily getting rid of those communities that it supports, on the way down, with irrigation. It’s worth reflecting that the adjustable maximum sustainable diversion runs normally at around 10,000 to 11,000 gigalitres per annum. That is, of course, as the name would suggest, adjustable.
The Murray Darling Basin Plan originally put in place, as I said, by John Howard delivered the $13 billion funded. It secured—well, it has all but secured—the 2,750 gigalitres extra for the environment, and there is currently another 605 gigalitres of savings that are associated with supply measures and infrastructure that are supposedly underway at the moment. It’s also worth reflecting that that 2,750-gigalitre figure is roughly a 25 per cent decrease in the water extracted for human use along the length of the Murray. So, while the sustainable diversion limit now is around that 10,000 to 11,000 gigalitres, that 2,750 went on top of that. It has been a huge boost for the environment, for the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and all along the river. We have had water to strategically water flood plains and bring new life back to those cracked plains.
The 450 gigalitres that is often the topic of discussion was first agreed to in 2017, and as a South Australian I welcome the 450 gigalitres of extra water. But it is important to recognise that there was a caveat put in place at that time on the 450 gigs—which was of course separate from the 2,750 gigs already agreed on—and it was dependent on neutral or positive socioeconomic outcomes and voluntary participation. That was the basis of the agreement between the states at that time. It was a good idea, and I still firmly endorse that position.
As a South Australian I am fully committed to a healthy Murray. In fact, in my electorate, while we don’t use the Murray water in the way that perhaps the electorate of Barker does in terms of broad irrigation, it does provide water to approximately 90 per cent of the population in my electorate. It’s enormously important in places like Whyalla, where the steel industry depends on it. It’s enormously important in Port Pirie, for the smelter there to work. There is some supplementary irrigation that’s taken into the Clare Valley, but in overall terms it’s relatively minor. The reason for that of course is that, generally speaking, the water we take into the electorate of Grey is supplied at retail prices which prohibit the idea of irrigation. It is used for stock watering, but it’s used largely for human consumption. That is in the high security licence and is not threatened by anything at the moment.
What I am concerned about in this debate comes back to my remarks around emotion and reality, and indeed to your comments, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, earlier today and the comments by the member for Makin from what I consider to be an Adelaide-centric view. I don’t live in Adelaide, although my electorate gets awfully close to it now with Roseworthy and Two Wells within it, but there is little recognition of the communities that supply South Australian with fresh food and rely on those irrigation systems.
One of the things that I have always—before I got to this place, indeed—thought is that the general South Australia opinion of cotton and rice growers higher up the Murray-Darling Basin was poorly founded. I don’t think it is realised how important annual plantings are to maximising the use of the wonderful river system that we have. There are times when there is too much water. We’ve just been through one of these times with incredible flows just to the east of Renmark. In fact, in January I will took a short tour up to the Riverland to have a look to see what those flood levels were like, for my own interest as much as anything. There were incredible amounts of water, and it’s in those times that cotton and rice have a pretty good run.
They are on the lower-security licence, and it makes sense that they should be able to irrigate their crops. As they’re on the lower-security licence, they are the first ones that drop off once the waters supply starts to fall away. That meant there was a long period, for instance, in the millennial drought, when there was no rice grown in Australia at all over four years, I think. It makes sense to utilise water when you have it in industries that can be mothballed, if you like, and not when you don’t. The alternative is to have enough permanent plantings to use the water, which will die when there is not enough water, or just allow the excess to go out to sea for no good reason. It makes sense, and I think it is very important. There is another annual crop along the river, of course, and it is pasture. I know that that is not the most efficient use of water, but it is instrumental to our ability to run highly productive livestock industries along the length of the basin.
While my electorate is not directly afflicted, as I said, I am concerned about rural and regional South Australia and the effect that further buybacks might have on communities up in the Riverland. Those original buybacks happened around a decade ago now and resulted in a 30 per cent loss of population throughout the Riverland. As a 16-year-old or thereabouts—I might have even been a bit younger—my sister was living and working in the Murraylands, and I used to go fruit picking in Winkie. I was a fairly protected young country lad, and I was really taken with the lively nature of the communities—the hustle and bustle, if you like. The Greek immigrants were there working so hard, and there was a real vibrancy about the communities, which were expanding and going well. I have been back many times since that time, but, certainly, when I was up there inspecting the floods in January and driving down those main streets that have so many empty shops in them now, I reflected on what that population loss has done.
I have seen the same thing happen in my electorate. Whyalla, for instance, had a population at one stage of around 33,000. We are back to around 22,000 now, and in the past we have sunk to 19,000. It leads you to having a big, flabby body with nothing to put in it, and that is what happens when you get fast population losses in certain areas. It means you have no investment in public infrastructure over a long period because the town is overserviced already, and that dynamism is sucked away. That’s what I have seen happen in the Riverland. They still look good, the towns are tidy and looked after and the businesses are there. Businesses are under pressure again now and, generally speaking, are good businesses. It is a smaller place than it used to be because the primary source of income has slipped away. That means there are fewer people, fewer acres under irrigation, fewer people working on those blocks, less production, less transport, less everything. I’m given to reflect on what might happen if there is further shrinkage in the hectares they can plant.
Now the kicker in this legislation is not that it’s being taken out to a longer time line—that’s a good thing in itself because we’re seeing that these reforms are difficult—but that the legislation is throwing away the safeguard. I restate that safeguard: dependent on neutral or positive socioeconomic outcomes. The legislation as it stands would allow the minister to buy up water licences wherever she sees fit. In fact, I’m not sure that she would not be able to do compulsory acquisition of water licences. But let’s assume that it’s a voluntary buyback. You’d say, ‘If people are doing well out of irrigation, why would they sell their licence?’ The thing is that people aren’t necessarily doing well out of irrigation.
In particular, the wine industry has been suffering in Australia. It’s not their fault. It’s because of the trade embargoes in China. In the wine industry, those trade embargoes have had a larger effect on what we call the ‘lower price end’ or the ‘bulk end’ of the wine market, which comes out of the Riverland in South Australia. Consequently we are awash, particularly, in red wine. It’s making grapes difficult to sell. They are cheap, and vignerons are not getting a good return. In fact, they’re getting a very poor return. They’re under pressure. So the government comes along now and says, ‘We’ll buy your licence back.’ There will be people who will sell their licence—many of them, I suspect. It may not be that hard to round up the water. But it’s not their fault that the industry’s in that state. When those licences are surrendered, they will not come back, and those communities will be forever smaller. That presents a hollowing out of industry from within.
I remember a time when Berri, for instance, had a large cannery and an orange juice factory. I declare a personal interest: my brother-in-law was the general manager at one stage. But they don’t come back. My understanding is that the biggest wine producer, I think in the southern hemisphere, is what was the old Berri Estate winery. All those things are under pressure at the moment. If the winegrowers give up their licences now and they pull the vines or they don’t water them, when the wine market turns around, that water doesn’t come back. It doesn’t come back and neither do those people in the community. That’s why the safeguard mechanisms sit within.
I remember when this legislation was first passed over a decade ago. In my speeches to parliament, I spoke about stopping the leakage. That’s what the money was for. We have to stop the leakage. In South Australia, as you well know, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, we have a good record. All of our irrigation is delivered in pipes. In the Riverland, when I used to go up there fruit picking, it was in channels. Those channels were leaky, and they evaporate, but the leakage is probably the worst thing. It’s just really inefficient. I know we are all in pipes in South Australia, but there are plenty of cases along the Murray where the water is still delivered in channels. There are reasons for doing so, and I’m not saying those channels leak as bad as the old concrete ones, but there is higher evaporation and higher leakage. I know there’s a higher cost if you put the pipes in because you have to pump water. I’m not naive on these issues. It is important to understand that they are multilayered. But there is no doubt water is lost out of the system, and it is not going into the production of food. In that case, there is a place for investment to return water to the river without damaging those communities economically.
I said there are 605 gigalitres currently envisaged to come back to the river through infrastructure works, and I urge the government, and you, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, through any influence you have, to push that along. I have to say that, in some of these projects, it seems that government support or interest is pretty lukewarm. For instance—and I’ve thought this is a good idea for a long time—there is a proposal to open up the southern lagoon of the Coorong lakes to seawater. People should understand that the water in the southern Coorong lakes can be saltier than the sea. In fact, it often is saltier than the sea. The reason for that is the Coorong lakes have spasmodic flooding. Before European settlement and the dams and the weirs being put on the river, they would have dried out periodically, almost completely. So would the Lower Lakes. But we choose to keep water in them all the time now and think that, should they dry up, that is some kind of environmental calamity. We talk about fish kills. Imagine how big the fish kills would have been when you could jump across the Murray—and there are photos up in the Renmark Hotel of how narrow the Murray was. (Time expired)