13 September 2023

It has been fascinating hearing the arguments of those opposite for refusing to do something that is so fundamental to the long-term viability of their constituents in whatever state they are, whether it's New South Wales, Victoria or South Australia. There seems to be a complete denial of the fact that the impact of climate change means that these river systems have already suffered—the Murray- Darling River systems have already suffered fish kills, algal blooms, reduced flows because of the weather that has been experienced—and that climate change projections warn that future river flows could be reduced by up to 70 per cent, which is nothing short of a catastrophe both for farmers and for the environment. I really ask those opposite to step back and think about what is at stake here. For all their outrage, they had nearly a decade to work on this, and they failed miserably to make progress. The tiny amount of water that was put back into the system thanks to some water efficiency things is minute compared to what really needs to happen. I think it's worth all of us stepping back.

I represent the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. We have the Hawkesbury River; that's got nothing to do with the Murray-Darling. Why does it matter? Well, the Murray-Darling Basin covers about one-seventh of the entire Australian land mass. It's most of New South Wales. It's parts of Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. It's all of the ACT, where we stand today. That obviously includes the Murray River and the Darling River, Baaka, and their tributaries. Vast amounts of water are extracted from the rivers to supply around three million Australians. That includes irrigating farms, but we're talking about drinking water as well. It was described by Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald as 'the nation's biggest food bowl, underpinning the livelihoods of 2.6 million people and producing food and fibres worth more than $24 billion a year'. It is obviously a key economic asset that we should be working hard to sustain, not just to use up as fast as we can and be left with whatever happens next.

The Murray-Darling is also a living ecosystem, and it depends on all those interconnected natural resources. About five per cent of the basin consists of floodplain forests, lakes, rivers and other wetland habitats. Like all the rivers, it is subject to recurring droughts and, of course, flooding. When we came to government, even before we came to government, we made a commitment that we would work hard to get this Murray-Darling Basin Plan back on track. You can't forget why Australian governments designed the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the very first place a decade ago. We know that we're never far from a drought in Australia. That's one of the predictable things. The plan is to help us through the dry years, to make sure that there is enough water flowing through that water system at its lowest moments to make it through till the next rain. That plan was completely undermined by those opposite while they were in government.

Let's think about how that plan is going. To be clear, the plan became law in 2012, so we're 11 years on. That was, obviously, under the last Labor government. It was due to be fully implemented and audited by the end of June next year, less than a year away. The plan itself limits the amount of water extracted from the basin. The aim is both to improve the condition of freshwater ecosystems and to maintain that social and economic benefit of irrigated agriculture. So how is that plan going? Clearly, not very well under those opposite—nine years of mismanagement, with many exposes on the things that had gone wrong. We don't have time at this moment to talk through those things—the mismanagement that has occurred at different state levels and at federal level— but they are very well documented.

Where are we now? The offset projects were likely to deliver only about 415 billion litres of the 605 billion litres required, and very little water is actually getting to the flood plains. Of the 450 billion litres to be retrieved through water efficiency projects, only 26 billion litres had been recovered. That means that, of the 3,200 billion litres of water to be returned to the environment, only 2,100 billion litres had been achieved. That's as of March this year. Plus, there's a small amount of projected water from offset projects, if that's delivered. Essentially, any assessment of the data at whatever point in time you do it shows that the plan was way behind where it ought to have been when we took office.

As I've said, let's think about the impacts that this failure has already had in the past decade. There have been millions of fish that have perished in mass die-offs. Toxic algae has bloomed. Wildlife and water birds have declined in numbers, and wetlands have literally dried up. You have to ask: what are those things signs of? They're all signs that too much water is still being taken from the system. On coming to office, our commitment is to try and get things back on track. That's where we find ourselves. We announced that we had reached an agreement with the basin governments to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, and that includes the 450 gigalitres of water for the environment.

This is basically a rescue package for the Murray-Darling Basin. I think we've heard from people all around this chamber who have communities affected that it's really important for those communities. Whether they are down at the Adelaide end of those communities or up around Menindee and right through, these are crucial waterways. What this legislation does is give every government involved more time to deliver the remaining water based on expert advice. We like the science, and we will listen to the experts. It also gives more options to deliver the remaining water, including water infrastructure projects and voluntary water buybacks—that is voluntary water buybacks. There's also more funding to deliver the remaining water and to support communities where voluntary water buybacks have flow-on impacts—a consequence for those communities. This legislation also ensures more accountability from Murray-Darling Basin governments on delivering the remaining water on time. Transparency is not something that has been a highlight of this project over the last decade. Our federal funding will be contingent on achieving water recovery targets within deadlines, to hold people to account.

There has been outrage on the other side about what all of this means. Basically, it's a return to common sense. It's about remembering what the point of it is. What was the point of this plan? It is to have a healthy and sustainable basin, not just for today but for the future. It is a complex plan, but the outcome is very simple—to set the river up so that it's there for our kids, our grandkids and their grandkids. I just want to note that, when we talk about the things that have been achieved so far in the plan, more than 80 per cent of the achievements were done under Labor governments. We set a target and we worked towards it. We don't do what those opposite did. For many years, they just said: 'If we don't talk about it, maybe it'll just go away. We're not going to say we're not going to do it, but if we just don't do anything then maybe we'll just get away with that.' Sadly, the river and the communities are paying the consequences for that. We want to see more options around how the outcome that we want to see is achieved, not more restrictions.

If this bill doesn't pass this year, the current legislation requires states to actually withdraw their unfinished
projects—to stop them. That means that a major part of the plan will fall over, and that will lead to substantial costs and delays. So this is a really commonsense approach to be able to continue the work that was started under Labor, which didn't go very far under the coalition, and get it back on track under our Albanese government. Delivering this plan is clearly going to be good for the environment, but it's also good for local jobs and for local communities. This is the commitment we made going into the election, and we are doing exactly what we said we would do: working with the states. I note that those opposite point to Victoria. The Victorians have made it clear that they will continue working with us. The minister for the environment has made it clear that the door will always be open to the Victorians. Many of the water savings in Victoria have occurred under the Victorian government, so they have a commitment to achieving the same outcomes. You wouldn't know it in this place, having heard the speeches from those opposite that we've heard, but it's worth remembering that the Basin Plan targets were a bipartisan agreement more than a decade ago.

Those opposite dispute it. I guess, really, when it comes down to it, it may well have been bipartisan a decade ago, but clearly those opposite are just walking away from any commitments. These are the people who claim that they care about the long-term sustainability of the land, yet here they are doing everything they can to exploit a resource now and leave none of it for the future.

Australia is in the midst of an environmental emergency. We are one of the countries on the front line of climate change. We're seeing it every season—whether it's floods, whether it's fires or whether it's drought. You'd have to be a fool not to recognise the part of the cycle that we're moving into now. If we don't act now to preserve the Murray-Darling, our basin towns will be totally unprepared for drought. We'll also have native animals facing the threat of extinction even more rapidly. Our river ecosystems will risk environmental collapse, and our food and fibre production will become insecure and unsustainable. This is what's at stake, and this is why it's a really important moment for basin communities and for any Australian, including those in my electorate, who cares deeply about the health of our environment and the health of our communities. I commend this bill to the House.