17 October 2023

The Murray-Darling Basin system is the lifeblood of a vast area of regional Australia, with almost all of the 29,000 square kilometres of my electorate of Indi falling within the basin. I want to start by declaring my own interest in the Murray-Darling: I live on the banks of the King and Ovens rivers within the Murray-Darling Basin, and I have a water use licence of 56 megalitres per year on the King River. The health of the Murray-Darling river system is not an abstract concept for me nor for my constituents.

As a regional independent member of parliament I make my decisions based on what is best for Indi, what is evidence based and whether the legislation demonstrates good governance and sets up rural and regional Australia to thrive.

Despite three years of higher than average rainfall and near full water storages, we know dry years are on the horizon and farmers are facing significant economic headwinds, and the impacts of climate change and water mismanagement on the basin ecosystem health are more apparent than ever. We need a Murray-Darling Basin Plan that puts us on the front foot of these challenges, with a healthy river system that delivers for basin communities, for farmers, for First Nations people and for the environment, and is resilient in the face of a changing climate.

Without this bill, the current Water Act 2007 and Basin Plan 2012 will not achieve these outcomes. In July, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority advised that full implementation of the Basin Plan would not be possible by the legislated deadline of 30 June 2024, leaving a shortfall in water recovery for the environment of around 750 gigalitres per year.

The Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill presents an opportunity to get the Basin Plan back on track towards meeting the agreed targets. The bill amends the Water Act 2007 and Basin Plan 2012 to achieve many outcomes, and I will list some of them: to extend the deadline for basin states to deliver the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism projects; to expand options available to deliver the 450 gigalitres per year of additional environmental water, including through the use of water buybacks; to repeal the 1,500-gigalitre cap on Commonwealth water buybacks; to allow the funds from the Water for the Environment Special Account, or WESA, to be used to enhance environmental outcomes in the basin through a broader range of measures, including community assistance funds; to provide a road map for the delivery of constraints relaxation projects across the southern basin; and to enable the Inspector-General of Water Compliance to determine whether a basin state has met its commitments and whether it has a reasonable excuse for a failure to do so.

I’ve met numerous stakeholders from across Indi and from across the basin more broadly. Water policy is complex and contested. I’ve had several meetings with the minister’s office and discussed how this bill could be improved so that I could support its passage. I strongly believe it can be improved to better serve both the people whose life and livelihood depend on the water, and the environment. The two, of course, are critically interrelated.

This bill is so important to me because my electorate of Indi is the link between the headwaters of the Murray and the wide-open plains of the basin. In fact, ‘Indi’ is the Indigenous name for the upper reaches of the Murray. It holds a special place in the story of the Murray-Darling Basin. The magnificent alpine areas and foothills of Indi receive high rainfall and winter snowfall, feeding streams that transform into some of the basin’s most important rivers. The Kiewa, Ovens, King, Broken and Goulburn rivers all begin their journey in Indi, and, with the Murray and the Mitta Mitta, these rivers grow as they traverse the valleys and plains of our electorate. All together, water catchments across Indi supply more than 50 per cent of the surface water to the whole Murray-Darling Basin.

Indi also contains the basin’s largest water storages, the Dartmouth and Hume dams and Lake Eildon. Along with some smaller dams in the electorate, these dams and lakes amount to 63 per cent of the storage capacity in the southern basin and 45 per cent of the total storage for the whole Murray-Darling Basin. So you see, Deputy Speaker Vasta, the rivers and infrastructure of Indi are central to efforts to achieve a healthy river system.

Delivering water for the often competing needs of agriculture, river communities and the environment inevitably comes with challenges, and I’ve spent time listening, to understand these different experiences and perspectives. I’ve met with farmers on the Goulburn; irrigators on the Murray; wine grape growers; catchment management authorities; scientists, including from the Wentworth group; Landcare and other environmental groups; business people; and many, many local water experts. Among those I consulted, I’m particularly fortunate to be able to call upon Water For Indi, a voluntary community group that I set up in 2019 with local experts, including Dr Anna Roberts and Patten Bridge, with experience all across impacted sectors. I also acknowledge valuable contributions from other individuals who live and work in the basin, particularly Rob Priestly, Suzanna Sheed, Lee Baumgartner and John Pettigrew. I thank everyone who shared their valuable perspectives and expertise with me.

In addition to consultation, I’ve carefully read submissions to the Senate inquiry and other documents which predate this bill. I’ve sought frank discussion and constructive suggestions on how to improve it. In particular, I heard from scientists and farmers alike about the most controversial part of this bill—the Commonwealth’s new power to purchase water to return 450 gigalitres to the basin. Many basin communities are experiencing hardship with increasing cost of production, economic pressures and flow-on social impacts. This hardship is a reality, and water buybacks are one of the several factors that are having real impacts on those communities. We do need more examination of the specific impacts of buybacks and where other factors are at play. Analysis by Professor Sarah Wheeler published by the MDBA shows that many studies indicating large job losses from buybacks have low scientific reliability. However, what is absolutely clear is that many communities are suffering, and we need to adequately address impacts with far-reaching, genuine regional development.

I consistently heard that, when the Commonwealth purchase water entitlements, they must also consider the physical realities of actually being able to deliver this water to where it’s needed and intended. In many cases, we simply can’t deliver the desired environmental flows from Lake Eildon or Hume Dam without causing more environmental, economic and social damage along the way. In Indi, the negative economic and environmental impacts of increased water flows are a real concern. Just last week, I was down on the Goulburn River near Alexandra with local farmers Jock Blakeny and Jan Beer, who showed me the impacts of the flooding from recent high flows from Eildon Weir. Jock, Jan and other farmers along the Goulburn and below Hume Dam stand to be significantly impacted by increased environmental flows. The message from these farmers in my electorate is clear: the impacts on them and their farms and the health of the rivers need to be considered when planning the volumes and the timing of environmental flows.

Many farmers and other stakeholders across Indi and across Victoria feel that the southern basin is shouldering an unfair share of the burden when it comes to purchasing water entitlements by government. They say water recovery in the northern basin would have a bigger environmental payoff and less negative impact than delivering this water from the southern basin. These sentiments are compounded by stories of water mismanagement in the northern basin, delays in submitting water resource plans across the northern basin and fish kills resulting from insufficient environmental water flows.

Local land and water management organisations hold grave concerns for river health if additional environmental water is to be purchased from the southern basin. If water is stored in Indi, there is almost no way of getting it to South Australia without significant further river bank erosion from high flows close to the source. These organisations are certainly not against improving environmental outcomes downstream. Far from it. They’re just asking that the government consider the impacts on our upstream river systems, like the impacts I saw on the Jock’s and Jan’s farms.

To make sure we’re returning the right amount of water to the right basin locations, stakeholders I spoke to also want to see greater accountability and transparency around water use and water recovery projects—notably, around the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism projects, or SDLAM projects, and their actual impact. SDLAM projects aim to improve environmental outcomes in the basin while keeping water in productive use.

My constituents are calling for consistent, independent and publicly available accounting processes to ensure that the actual water savings for these projects match the promises. To adequately assess progress towards meeting the targets of SDLAM projects and the targets of the Basin Plan in general, we need better modelling and we need more data. In Indi, water experts spoke to me of the need to have whole-of-basin modelling that is annually validated and publicly available to overcome the discrepancies between what current basin state models are reporting and the reality. Farmers spoke to me of their requests to have additional gauges installed to provide real-time information on flow volumes in certain sections of the rivers. They were told that the $20,000 to $30,000 cost per gauge was too much. Many would argue, and I would too, that this is money well spent if it means local farmers have sufficient warning of floods and can act before stock are lost. And water authorities and the Bureau of Meteorology would have better data to model flows and improve management of our river systems. It’s critical that the minister listens to these concerns and solutions so her department can act on them.

A final theme that emerged in almost all discussions I’ve had on this bill was the need for improved community engagement. Basin communities need to be involved in decision-making and adequately compensated when they’re negatively impacted by buybacks. I’m not just talking about money for playgrounds or a new piece of silo art but long-term commitments that allow communities to invest in their future and for them to decide how they do it.

As for my position on this bill, I support the extension of the deadlines for delivering the SDLAM projects. I want to see these projects have a another chance to deliver promised environmental gains for the basin. But we must be realistic on where projects still won’t meet the extended deadline, and I support the expansion of the powers of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance to pursue accountability. I note that only three per cent of the 450-gigalitre target for additional water for the environment has been sourced, and that changes are needed to deliver the full amount. I support broadening the scope of measures that can be used to meet this target, noting that water purchases should be seen as a last resort. I acknowledge the removal of the cap on Commonwealth water purchase. This is highly contested by the irrigated agriculture communities, and I stress the importance of supporting impacted communities with transition funds. I therefore support enlarging the scope of measures that can be funded by the Water for the Environment Special Account.

I also support efforts to reduce the risk of manipulation of water markets for financial gain. Expanded regulation of water markets, informed by regulation of financial markets, is a much needed step. Water markets should exist for the benefit of farmers, not for the benefit of financiers. While the bill proposes much needed progress, I nonetheless believe the bill can be further improved and I will move amendments to further strengthen the independent auditing powers of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance to improve accountability and transparency when it comes to meeting Basin Plan targets and delivering projects as promised. Further, I will move an amendment to review the Water for the Environment Special Account’s new ability to make payments to address detrimental social or economic impacts on communities from the purchase of water. It is my hope that the special account will also be used to provide First Nations groups with meaningful opportunities to protect and enhance cultural values associated with environmental flows.

I will move amendments that would place basin communities at the centre of reforms, requiring improved consultation with communities impacted by constraint projects—notably communities that will experience flooding as a result of the increased environmental flows. I will also move amendments that ensure the purchasing of water is strategic, particularly so that water from the northern basin is appropriately considered, improving environmental outcomes in rivers like the Darling—the Baaka.

I want this bill to be the best bill it can be, because I want a healthy and resilient river system and a basin plan that is fair, transparent and pragmatic—one that ensures our critical food production is maintained at maximum efficiency and, importantly, where we give genuine voice to the basin communities of Indi and of regional Australia, who are directly impacted.

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