NSW LIBERAL Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm says the federal government’s response to a broad-ranging Senate investigation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has failed to acknowledge its “fundamental challenge”.
“There’s absolutely no appetite for reconsidering whether keeping the lower lakes fresh was legitimate; considering in the first place it’s a man made, artificial creation,” he said.
“If the mouth of the Murray was opened, with the barrages removed, and allowed to return to its natural state, which is estuarine, a great deal of that fresh water requirement would not be needed.
“There was no acknowledgment of that fundamental challenge in the government’s response which is very disappointing.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take to get governments to realise it’s unnecessary to push all of that fresh water down into South Australia.
“Adelaide and irrigation in South Australia can flourish and the eastern states can continue to use water for productive purposes, irrigation, towns, livestock and so forth without suffering the kinds of constraints that have been imposed on them so far.
“I think it’s very sad that’s there’s been no recognition by the government that it’s all unnecessary.
“The government’s overall response to the Senate inquiry is also very disappointing and obviously there will be a need for me, other politicians and the effected farming communities, to keep up the pressure.”
The Senate select committee examination was established in the previous parliament and Chaired by Senator Leyonhjelm, to review the Basin plan’s positive and negative impacts on regional communities.
It received about 400 submissions and a report handed down in March last year made 31 recommendations, while a dissenting report by former Independent Victorian Senator John Madigan put forward 19 suggestions on reforms to support farmers.
The government’s response to the majority report said it agreed to 11 out of the 31 recommendations, while seven were not agreed to, four agreed to in part, six agreed to in principle and two noted.
Recommendation 19 called on the Commonwealth government to request the Productivity Commission undertake a full cost-benefit analysis of the Basin Plan which was agreed to in principle.
But Senator Leyonhjelm said he was disappointed the recommendation wasn’t adopted in full and if Commission conducted an independent analysis of the Basin Plan’s economic and social impacts, due to water cuts, it would reveal “a great massive figure of losses on farm production”.
He said that economic devastation would mostly be caused by the loss of productive water to supply fresh water to the lower lakes in South Australia.
While the Basin Plan seeks to recover 2750 gigalitres of water for environmental purposes and an additional 450GLs for South Australia, Senator Leyonhjelm said the Senate committee didn’t attempt to quantify how much fresh water could be saved for productive purposes, by removing the barrages to allow the lower lakes to become “estuarine”.
“My guess is the committee would not have argued for a reversal of all the water buy-backs and increases in environmental flows because there have been demonstrable environmental benefits, particularly for wet lands,” he said.
“But the big picture issue is this determination to maintain the lower lakes with fresh water, where the water’s not used for productive purposes and it all goes out to sea.
“When you think about what that water could be used for - primarily irrigated agriculture in Queensland, Victoria, NSW or even SA - it’s tragic.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said it would and does require some human intervention to prevent salty water going too far up river and contaminating irrigation off-takes and the Adelaide off-take, but those locations were up-river from Wellington.
He said a proposal to build a dam or weir at Wellington, which has previously been considered, “should be high on the agenda”.
And the argument you can’t build one there because there’s too much silt and so forth, the committee inquiry found engineers who disagreed with that opinion, he said.
Senator Leyonhjelm said the barrages had existed at the lower lakes for about 70-years but despite the weight of evidence presented to the Senate inquiry, he still didn’t know why.
“It’s almost as if it’s a South Australian religion, ‘don’t you touch our current status quo, we can’t remember why but we know it’s important’,” he said.
“You can’t argue there will be absolutely zero losers from retuning the lower lakes to an estuary but we really struggled to find anybody who would be a loser.
“There’s precious little economic activity that relies on the lower lakes being fresh, rather than somewhat salty.”
This week the Productivity Commission released an issues paper posing the questions it’s seeking to ask and answer in its National Water Reform Inquiry.
The government has also tasked the Commission with undertaking a review of the Basin Plan’s implementation with that separate inquiry to be undertaken in 2018.
“The current inquiry will still be examining the Murray Darling Basin in-so-far as it is an important water catchment in Australia and national water policy matters are integral there as well,” said Commissioner Jane Doolan.
Senator Leyonhjelm sad another committee recommendation called for the commonwealth government to be made liable for involuntary flooding of land resulting from trying to “jam” water down the river to SA which – but was rejected.
“The government response is saying that’s the liability of the water delivery companies and organisations but they’re not going to accept that responsibility and incur that liability when you’re talking multi-millions of dollars of potential compensation,” he said.
“They’re not going to incur that risk so irrespective of anything else, if you can’t deliver the water down the river without flooding other peoples’ lands, and then you’re liable for that damage, you’re not going to do the water deliveries.”
The committee also recommended the government amend the Water Act 2007 to make clear the equal standing of economic, social and environmental needs and outcomes - but it also wasn’t agreed to.
The government’s response said in 2014 an expert independent panel reviewed the Act and found its framework “does provide for the achievement of economic social and environmental outcomes”.
“It also emphasised the continuing challenge of balancing these outcomes in implementing the Basin Plan,” the response said.
“The Basin Plan also specifies that a key objective is to optimise social, economic and environmental outcomes arising from the use of Basin water resources.”
But Senator Leyonhjelm said the expert panel saying the Act does provide for the achievement of economic and social and environmental outcomes was not the same as saying they were equal.
“A huge complaint we heard all the way through the inquiry was that economic and social outcomes were being subordinated to environmental outcomes and many witnesses criticised the Water Act, on those grounds,” he said.
“Either the government doesn’t believe the Act is flawed or it doesn’t think economic and social outcomes should be on the same standing as environmental outcomes.
“We heard witnesses who said the Act requires them to put environmental outcomes ahead of the other two.”
The inquiry report cited NSW Irrigators Council CEO Mark McKenzie who told a hearing at Griffith in NSW that the Act needed to be amended for clarity.
He said, it “needs to be amended to make it absolutely and blatantly clear that this plan was based on the triple bottom line approach - in other words, the environment was one factor but it could not be enhanced to the detriment of either the social impact on basin communities or the economic impact on irrigators, other users of water or those communities as well”.
But Senator Leyonhjelm said the “biggest weakness” in the government’s response was its “refusal to acknowledge the overall fundamental purpose of the plan”, to send large volumes of fresh water down to the lower lakes to keep the mouth of the Murray open.
He said the government also rejected the committee’s idea the Murray mouth should be an estuary like all of the other rivers in Australia and supported a view that there was “something special about it so it should be kept artificially fresh”.
“They just won’t address that issue which is very frustrating and they won’t do an overall cost benefit analysis,” he said.
“I have quite a few quibbles or complaints about the government’s response.
“The reality is politics will ensure the plan is never delivered and that there’s no more water to be taken from communities in the other states.
“One way or another, it’s like the Renewable Energy Target; it’ll eventually end in tears.
“The NSW, Queensland and Victorian governments won’t tolerate any more water being taken away from productive use and secondly, the reality is, the river can’t carry the water that they want to deliver to South Australia.”