Documents: Water - Order for the Production of Documents

25 February 2020

Senator Patrick: Mr President, pursuant to standing order 164(3), I seek an explanation from the Minister representing the Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia as to why order for the production of documents No. 255, relating to New South Wales water access licences, has not been complied with.

Senator Cash (Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business): I'm advised that there are a large number of documents under this order. I understand though that Senator Patrick has been working with the former Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, Mr David Littleproud, on this issue. I have made contact with the Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, Mr Keith Pitt, and I'm advised that the government will work constructively with Senator Patrick to provide the Senate with the documents that he seeks.

Senator Patrick: I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I point out, however, that this OPD is now 13 weeks overdue. It is an OPD of importance. Let me provide some context as to why it's important. For people who are not familiar with the Murray-Darling Basin system: there are three main rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin—the Murray River, the Darling River and the Murrumbidgee. The Murray River flows from the east across to South Australia and provides South Australia with its water entitlement. The Darling River flows from the northern basin down past Menindee, where the fish kills took place last year, and into the Murray River. It contributes to South Australia's water entitlement—except we've got a problem. That is that the Darling is dry. We've been in a situation where, for the first time since settlement, Tolarno station in particular—I've been there a few times—has been without water flowing past its property on the Darling. Since 1851 never has it been not flowing for more than three months. That situation changed in 2015. The river is bone dry. That means that instead of having the northern basin feeding down through the Darling River into the Murray, we now have to rely on the Murray itself, the entire Murray River, to provide all of South Australia's water.

Now people in this place may remember protests that we had outside parliament and protests that took place in southern New South Wales and Victoria in relation to their lack of ability to pump water from the Murray. It's not that the Murray is not full. It's simply that they can't afford to buy the water that's passing their property because it has to meet South Australia's water obligation. It's not South Australia's fault. The fault is that instead of getting 40 per cent of our water coming from the Darling, there's none. There's no water coming from the Darling River into the Murray. It's hugely problematic.

This all comes down to the incompetence of the New South Wales government in managing its river system. It's failed to properly manage the northern basin. It's failed to even lodge its water sharing plans under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Former minister Littleproud and I didn't agree on a lot in terms of the Murray-Darling—he would often call me a cotton killer and I would often call him a river killer—but we did agree on the fact that it is quite proper for the federal government to withhold funds from New South Wales until such time as they lodge those water sharing plans.

We all know there's been a fair amount of rain in Queensland and New South Wales. I would have thought we would use that water to have a first flush to allow water to flow down through the river system to get the Darling River flowing back into the Murray. That would have provided relief for irrigators in southern New South Wales and northern Victoria. So in some sense the New South Wales government are cutting their nose off to spite their face. What they've done in this instance is, instead of placing an embargo—in fact they did place an embargo for a very short period of time, and then they lifted it for some reason—instead of allowing water to get to communities that need it and get all the way down the Darling to the Murray, they have started pumping again. They started floodplain harvesting. As I said, that will perhaps advantage some of the irrigators in the northern basin, but it will severely disadvantage irrigators in Victoria and southern New South Wales.

So we have a perverse situation where, when the Queensland rain started in February, New South Wales water minister Pavey basically came out and complained that Queensland wasn't letting water flow down into New South Wales. And yet, when the rain starts to fall in New South Wales, she doesn't let water flow down the Darling River, instead letting irrigators take that.

Now, I'm kind of sick of New South Wales. Every time there's a problem with the river, they threaten to pull out of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. They threatened to pull out of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan when the Senate blocked changes to the northern basin, when the Northern Basin Review was underway. When the Labor Party proposed lifting the 1,500-gigalitre cap on water buybacks, New South Wales spat the dummy again and came out threatening to leave the plan. They've done it several times in relation to the 450 gigalitres of efficiency measures which have been built into the plan and to which they agreed. They are like a petulant child. It's their mismanagement that has stopped water flowing from the northern basin through the lower Darling and into the Murray River, which would provide relief for irrigators in Victoria and New South Wales. As I said, they're cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Now I want to go to the Murrumbidgee, because that's what this OPD was about. It's a similar story. The Murrumbidgee is another river that feeds into the Murray. We're looking at a situation where we've got some alpha irrigators—an alpha irrigator is someone who believes that any water that flows past their property will be wasted, so they take as much of it as they possibly can—building storage dams up in places like Hay, and their aim is to capture supplementary water that would otherwise have flowed into the Murray. That's exactly what this OPD was about. It's a disturbing and fairly dumb thing to do, and it's really driven by greed. OPD 255 sought to gain access to information about how those storage dams came about, and it stemmed from the ABC's Four Corners report on that scenario in its 'Cash splash' program. It's for this reason that this is quite an important order for the production of documents. The Senate does need to see what is happening along the Murrumbidgee. It's an important feeder into the Murray River, just like the Darling River is, and we need to start being sensible about it.

I understand that there are many stakeholders across the river system. They include irrigators and, of course, tourism operators, the environment, Indigenous people—lots and lots of different stakeholders. We do want to share the water about, but that doesn't seem to be what's happening here. We get our first rains, but instead of having a flush of the river system and then getting back to normal, and everyone getting their fair share, that hasn't been happening. We need to examine what is going on in the Murrumbidgee, and that is why it's important for this OPD to be responded to in an open and transparent manner.

Question agreed to.

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