THE federal House of Representative’s Agriculture and Water Resources Committee is returning to one of the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s biggest hot-spots to hold a public hearing on Friday this week.
An ongoing inquiry into water use efficiency in Australian agriculture is being conducted by the Committee that includes the likes of shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and is chaired by WA Liberal MP and Katanning grain and sheep farmer Rick Wilson.
It was initiated in February this year by Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce and a key point of investigation is looking into whether existing Commonwealth water programs, like the $13 billion Basin Plan, are delivering value for money.
Public hearings to gather feedback and evidence have already been held in various locations like Toowoomba in Queensland, Narrabri, NSW, Harvey in WA as well as Canberra, Adelaide and Melbourne.
But the Committee’s second visit to Griffith in NSW for a session starting in the morning at the Rural Fire Service building is likely to provide stern advice to the federal Coalition government on the direct impacts of the Basin Plan’s environmental watering programs, on reduced farm production and any diminished economic outlook for rural economies.
Griffith hearing schedule
Ricegrowers' Association of Australia
Macquarie River Food and Fibre
In late 2010, Griffith was the scene of angry public protests at the hefty loss of farm water due the proposed Basin Plan which carried ramifications for key personnel at the Murray Darling Basin Authority, sparking high-level changes.
It was also where former Water Minister and now Labor Shadow Tony Burke bravely faced a large and angry public meeting during the final stages of developing the Plan to gather their vexed response, before he signed the historic reforms into law in late 2012.
The Committee visited Griffith in February this year on a fact finding mission to launch the inquiry and was hosted by Murrumbidgee Irrigation which is expected to appear as a witness at Friday’s public evidence gathering session.
Mr Wilson said he expected a final report would be due out later this year and Griffith would be the last public meeting, after which drafting would start.
He said about 30 questions were posed to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources at a public hearing held in Canberra last week which he rated as one of the most pivotal to the inquiry’s final outcome and any potential recommendations.
The Committee was now waiting to hear back on some answers, to questions taken on notice, he said.
“The Committee has collected some interesting and compelling evidence over the last few months,” he said.
National Farmers' Federation (NFF) Natural Resources Management Manager Jacqueline Knowles appeared before the Committee at a hearing held at Parliament House in Canberra last month, answering a range of questions.
“In reviewing the activity of the committee over the last few months, I'm pleased to see that you've had the chance to get some dirty boots and see some of the advances in water use efficiency that the agriculture sector has made over the last few decades,” she said.
“I hope that these travels have highlighted to you the value of our past investments in research and development in this space and the importance of continued investment in innovation that will drive further gains.
“Whether this is about innovation in water application technologies or new crop varieties or modifications to farming systems to maintain soil moisture, all are crucial to improving our water use efficiency into the future.”
Ms Knowles said on its travels, the Committee may also have heard about “the challenges of rising power prices for irrigators and the trade-off between using energy and water use efficiency”.
“All governments need to take action to put downward pressure on power prices,” she said.
“There are all sorts of reasons for these rising prices, whether it's state governments inflating asset bases or gaming the electricity market, the woes of the gas market, the lack of transparent retail competition or, in rural and regional areas, competition at all, or the absence of a long-term national policy that provides much-needed certainty for the private sector to invest in much-needed generating capacity.
“We need to address the policy challenge comprehensively with each government playing its part.”
Ms Knowles said the Finkel report’s recommendation on a Clean Energy Target (CET) had to be “the starting point for the conversation to reach some bipartisan consensus on this complex and protracted (process)”.
“We don't have a particular view about the CET,” she said.
“We don't have formal policy position about whether Dr Finkel's 50th recommendation is right or not.
“I think that the ability to be able to address both the emissions trajectory of the NEM (National Energy Market) and some of the reliability and stability concerns that Dr Finkel talked about is critical, in part, of whatever the model is going forward.
“Our view is that Dr Finkel's report provides the chance for the conversation and the chance to build consensus around those settings, and if we don't take that opportunity you and I will be having this discussion in a decade's time about the woes of the electricity market, and irrigation farmers and others will be well and truly out of business because of the way power prices are going.”
Ms Knowles was also asked about the smarter use of environmental water and what that would look like, by Mr Wilson.
“It's about recognising, as people like the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder do, that managing a big portfolio of water for the environment is a reasonably new endeavour in the way that we manage river systems in the water portfolio and that we need to continue to get smarter about how we get the best environmental bang for that portfolio of water,” she said.
“We'd like to see continued focus on some of the learning by doing and understanding what results water events will have.
“Some of it's about tracking those long-term environmental benefits that we'll get from managing that portfolio of water.
“But I think most recognise that it's a reasonably new challenge in public policy.
“It's a new thing for the Commonwealth to hold such a big asset and we all need it to perform as best it can.
“I'd like to point out that it's important to remember that what happens to our products once they leave our farm gates is crucial to the prices farmers receive for their produce and the return they get for every drop of precious water used.
“So whether it's manufacturing to add value to our products, efficient infrastructure to transport it from farm to port or access to all-important overseas markets - these all determine the value we get from the water used to produce it.”
Irrigators outraged at being “tarred with a black hat” by Four Corners
Ms Knowles said allegations of water theft by irrigators raised on Four Corners recently were “really serious” and needed to be “transparently investigated”.
“Whether they are allegations of irrigators taking water that they're not permitted to take, or whether it's about state governments being less than comprehensive in their approach to that, they need to be investigated in full and there are a number of inquiries afoot,” she said.
“Compliance and metering are fundamental to people's confidence in the system.
“NFF has always supported compliance and metering.
“It was a foundation of the National Water Initiative that was agreed in 2004.
“Indeed, through the funds that they pay in their water charges, water users actually pay for the cost of those compliance efforts, as well.
“We'd like to see that we're getting a return on the money that we pay for governments to do their job and to do it properly.
“It is why the steps that the Prime Minister has taken, in terms of seeking an inquiry into compliance across the Basin, is a really important step to provide people with confidence in that.”
Ms Knowles said a lot of people were “outraged” by what they saw on Four Corners and there was “outrage on all sides of the debate”.
“Irrigators were outraged that they were being tarred with a black hat,” she said.
“They didn't think that that was fair.
“Downstream water users were outraged because of their view that the share of water that was dedicated to the environment was alleged to have been taken - that's concerning for them.
“And we've got the public outrage because the Commonwealth has spent a lot of money to recover water for the environment.
“But I think we need to be very careful that the allegations made on Four Corners are allegations, and they need to be appropriately investigated.
“We'd like for those inquiries that are on foot to run their course, and, if there are chinks in the system, for those that are running those inquiries to call it out.”