The 2021/22 Budget debate - water

By Terri Butler MP

17 June 2021

It's an absolute pleasure to be here with the minister to talk about this very important part of the budget, and that is water, a matter that he and I, as Queenslanders, very much enjoy engaging with. I think we'll both be speaking at the New South Wales local government Water Managers Conference in a couple of weeks. I'm sure that they'll all rub their Origin win in our faces; nonetheless, we'll continue to pursue it. One of the speeches to be made at that very important conference will be by distinguished Professor Lesley Hughes. I've seen a draft program and I believe she will be speaking to delegates about the risks to Australia of a three-degree Celsius warmer world. I know that the minister has some thoughts on climate change that he has been expressing recently. But I think that he would also acknowledge that climate change does pose a serious threat to water availability in the Murray-Darling Basin. Recently ANU Professor Mark Howden made the point that average river flows into the Murray-Darling Basin have dropped by 39 per cent over the past 20 years, and that is mostly due to climate change. In December last year the CSIRO told us that the hydroclimate of the Murray-Darling Basin is changing. CSIRO researchers said that the future would be warmer and is likely to be drier, with more severe droughts. A couple of years ago the government's own drought coordinator-general pointed out the risks of climate change to water availability, again also talking about the contribution of climate change to more frequent and more severe droughts. A range of people have spoken about this issue.

My question to the minister on this topic is: given this scientific evidence about the impact of climate change on reduced inflows into the basin—other people have observed it, the previous inspector-general of the Murray-Darling Basin observed lessening inflows into the basin—how is the minister ensuring that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is continuously underpinned by the most up-to-date science possible and takes into account climate change and the impacts of climate change on water availability in the basin? How does the minister intend to make sure that the plan does actually deal with these changing environmental conditions that arise as a consequence? Of course, this year has been a wet year. I think we have all been very, very relieved to see the rain, but we shouldn't only care about droughts in dry years. We should, as the saying might be adapted to go, in times of drought, prepare for rain and in times of rain, prepare for drought. We do need to be focused on the possibility of droughts into the future and we also need to remember that drought is felt unevenly across the basin. For example, in our own home state of Queensland, they were still trucking water into Stanthorpe long after a lot of other places had been receiving water and were very wet. How will the government ensure that the continued changes to water availability and the continued reduction, it appears, in inflows will be accommodated?

On the topic of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, I'd also like the minister to address the progress that's being made in respect of the supply measures that arose out of the SDL adjustment mechanism. What is the progress of those supply measures? What is the progress in terms of actually delivering those environmental outcomes equivalent to 605 gigalitres of water per year? What can the minister tell people in respect of whether or not those measures will be delivered on time?

Are there any of those supply measures that are being reviewed or reconsidered? Particularly, what is the status of the New South Wales measures, which, as the minister would know, the New South Wales government has previously said would not be able to be delivered?

I'd also appreciate it if the minister would address the 450 gigalitres of water that was intended to be provided by efficiency measures. The minister is aware of the independent panel into the Water for the Environment Special Account report last year, which said that of the 450 gigalitres per year only 1.9 gigalitres had been delivered. That report said that the 450 gigalitres would not be delivered. How can the minister assure Australians living in the basin as well as all Australians that the 450 gigalitres will be delivered on time?

On the 150 gigalitres expected to be delivered by those off-farm infrastructure measures, it would be appreciated if the minister could provide a breakdown of where it is anticipated they will come from. The minister, I know, had some comments to make about the report that was jointly produced by the Conservation Council of South Australia and the Australia Institute recently. That report said that only three of the identified projects had specified water recovery amounts attached to them, so I think Australians would be very pleased to understand where the 150-gigalitre figure is coming from for off-farm efficiency processes.

I'd also really appreciate the minister providing an update on the $40 million that was allocated for Aboriginal cultural water entitlements in the basin. That was part of the 2018 agreement that was reached in respect of a number of measures in the basin. I know the minister would be aware that there has been some growing criticism of the government in respect of the delay in the provision of those Aboriginal water entitlements. I think we'd benefit quite significantly from being able to hear from the minister on progress in respect of those Aboriginal water entitlements, because, of course, there are many important uses for water in the Murray-Darling Basin and cultural use is one of those really significant uses. With so many Aboriginal nations in the basin, I know that Australians would be very interested in this question.

I want to turn to the question of integrity and ethics in the basin. It has been a couple of years now since the Morrison government first announced that there would be an inspector-general of the Murray-Darling Basin. We had an interim one appointed. His appointment came and went. Then there was a lacuna. Then there was another interim one. He's still there. I am pleased to see that the government has brought forward the legislation to give a statutory underpinning for the role. I have a really simple question for the minister: given that that legislation can't commence on its own terms until all of the basin states have provided their approval for the amending provisions, can the minister update the parliament as to when he anticipates that legislation will commence?

Also, I'd like to ask the minister about a particular water buyback. The minister mentioned water buybacks yesterday in the parliament. Of course, Australia's most famous buybacks were two purchases of overland flow water licences from two properties, Kia Ora and Clyde, for an amount in the vicinity of $80 million. Those properties had been owned by a firm called Eastern Australia Agricultural Pty Ltd, the ultimate parent entity and ultimate controlling entity of which was Eastern Australia Irrigation Ltd, which was based in the Cayman Islands, a known tax haven. One of the founders of that company is someone who's now a minister in the Morrison government. Obviously, he has made clear that he no longer has an interest in that Cayman Island entity, but Australians, I think, are still interested in this particular buyback, particularly given the valuer, Colliers International, has informed the Australian National Audit Office that it does not consider the application of the premium referred to in their valuation report, to the range provided, to be reasonable.

The minister would also be aware of the Guardian article, '$13m mistake: valuer says $80m water buyback price was not in line with its advice'. I understand that the department has said that they are now undertaking to review the material available to them at the time which supported their decision to pay that $80 million price. They were going to review that material and the basis for relying on those particular components of the valuer's report. The question, really, is: can the minister give us an update of the work that the department said they were going to do in reviewing the government's decision-making in respect of that $80 million buyback? There were two buybacks, but we can talk about them collectively, as one set of buybacks. Could the minister tell us whether the department has proceeded and what the progress has been?