The Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023 is critically important to the water security of basin communities. It will rescue the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and that plan and the river itself are in need of rescuing. Our country is facing an environmental emergency, and, if we don’t act now to preserve the Murray-Darling, we know that our basin towns will be unprepared for drought, our native animals will face the threat of extinction, our river ecosystems will risk environmental collapse and our food and fibre production will be insecure and unsustainable. A healthy basin means healthy communities. It is really vital that a river that provides clean drinking water to three million Australians every day is in the healthiest possible condition it can be in. This is an important moment for basin communities and for any Australian who cares about the health of our environment.
In the context of the health of our environment and the health of our rivers, I want to reflect more broadly on the work our government is doing across water, waterways and the environments that they are connected to—because it is all interconnected. It’s demonstrative of the approach our government is taking on water and environmental issues, led by the Minister for the Environment and Water, that we are looking at these issues in a holistic way. We’re not taking it piece by piece. We know that there is so much work to be done across the country to protect and restore waterways and to protect and restore our environment. We have a strong agenda for supporting rivers and waterways throughout Australia, including in my local community.
I have spoken in this place before about how my community of Jagajaga is home to many waterways. The south-eastern boundary of Jagajaga is, of course, the mighty Yarra River, or the Birrarrung. The Darebin Creek is in the south-west of the electorate, and the Kurrum, or the Plenty River, and the Diamond Creek cross through the electorate. On the far north-eastern edge of Jagajaga, we have Watsons Creek. These are all very important waterways in my community. Across Australia, the population growth that we’ve seen in decades past can be traced along these rivers and these waterways and seen in the use of them and the importance of them to those communities.
The Yarra River in Melbourne can sometimes be regarded as a dividing line—we joke in Melbourne about whether you’re from the north or the south side of the river and what that means for you culturally—but it is also a connector. In my community, any day of the week, you can see people drawn to the river, walking, canoeing, spotting wildlife and spending time together. Our waterways are important for so many reasons. So those initiatives, as I said, that our government is taking to look at waterways across our country, including the Murray-Darling Basin, are really important for communities like mine.
It’s initiatives like the Urban Rivers and Catchments Program, with dedicated funding for waterways and supporting the environment in my community. In fact, in Jagajaga, we have three projects underway under this program: at the Yarra Flats Park alongside the Yarra River, along Darebin Creek and in Eltham North along the Diamond Creek. These waterways are, I will acknowledge, a bit smaller than the Murray-Darling Basin, but again I highlight that they are interconnected. Our commitment to protect waterways across our country extends from the mighty Murray-Darling all the way to these waterways in my electorate of Jagajaga in the City of Melbourne. This is really important, and our government is not afraid to take up the challenge that is before us—to take up this work that has been neglected for far too long and to do the work that is needed to try and restore and protect waterways across this country.
At last year’s federal election our government did make a promise to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, as it was designed, and in line with the science, and with this legislation we are fulfilling that promise to the river system and to every community and every Australian who depends on it. The agreement that Minister Plibersek recently struck with New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT is historic. It is an agreement that will deliver the plan in full after a decade of sabotage and delay by the Liberals and Nationals, another issue that those who were formerly in government failed to land, another issue that they put in the too-hard basket and let lapse. We are suffering from the consequences of that, and the Murray-Darling Basin and the communities along it are suffering from the consequences of that.
This new agreement is a balanced and reasonable agreement. It took more than a year of detailed consultation to put it together. It includes 450 gigalitres of water for the environment, and our government worked with the states and territories, with farmers and irrigators, with scientists and experts, with environmentalists and with First Nations groups as we put this plan together because we do know that we all need to work together to make the plan work as it should. The measures contained in this bill offer more time, more options, more money and more accountability around how we do this work. It offers more time to deliver the remaining water, again based on expert advice. This includes the recovery of the 450 gigalitres of water for the environment by December 2027 and the delivery of water infrastructure projects by December 2026. It offers more options to deliver the remaining water, including water infrastructure projects and a voluntary water buybacks. It offers more funding to deliver the remaining water and to support communities where voluntary water buybacks have flow-on impacts.
It offers more accountability for Murray-Darling Basin governments on delivering the remaining water on time. For this aspect, federal funding will be based on achieving water recovery targets within deadlines, and that is important. We know that across our country since the time of Federation we have had issues with resources being shared across states and territories, and it is important that all of us are accountable: all levels of government for their roles in delivery on this plan for protecting the Murray-Darling and supporting the communities along the Murray-Darling Basin. This plan does deliver more water for the environment, more certainty for farmers and industry, more financial support for affected communities, more protection for native plants and animals and more hope for Australia’s most important river system.
We shouldn’t lose sight of why Australian governments designed the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the first place. Without a plan in place, we know where we would end up. The next drought is most likely just around the corner. We have seen the devastating impact of drought in our country all too often, and we know how devastating a drought is for those communities that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin, so we need a plan in place to get all those levels of government working together to support communities along the river in the basin, to help us through what we know will be dry years and to make sure that there is enough water flowing through those systems at what could be the basin’s lowest moments. It is a challenge that our government has taken on to help rescue the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, a return to common sense.
We’re not interested in trying to score political points here. We’re not interested in trying to play communities or groups off against each other. We recognise there are a myriad of interests that come together to rely on the Murray-Darling, and we are interested in trying to work with all of those groups, all of those people who have a stake in this most important river system so as to put the plan back on track. For too many years it was of course off track. For too many years it was in the too-hard basket. For too many years we had politics happening around the plan, trying to play communities and interest groups off each other. That is not the approach of this government.
We have come back to the basics, to the point of view of remembering what the point of having this plan is: to ensure that we have a healthy and sustainable basin for the future. We are working to get it back on track, and I am really pleased that that is something this government has brought such focus to here with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. As I said, we have also brought focus to it with our support for rivers and waterways across the country and for the environment more broadly. We are once again trying to make up for a decade of denial, a decade of not doing the work that should have been done to protect some of the most iconic and important environments in our country, by protecting areas that are habitat for endangered species and making sure that we protect what is left—to both restore and enhance it.
The original deadline for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was set for June 2024. In the early years of the plan we were in fact on track to meet those deadlines. But during their nine years of government the Liberals and Nationals spent their time sabotaging the plan. We’ve seen this time and time again from those opposite in their approach to government—not delivering, just politicking, and not doing the work that our country needs for the long term. They tied projects up in impossible rules so that they couldn’t deliver water savings. They blocked water recovery programs. They tried to cut the final recovery targets to keep them below scientific recommendations. As a result, progress slowed to a dribble under those opposite. It is a great shame that because of this it is now impossible to deliver the plan on the original time line. In the nine years of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government they delivered just two gigalitres of the 450 gigalitres. Their efforts in fact put the plan on track to be completed sometime around the year 4000. It sounds very sci-fi, doesn’t it? I can’t really comprehend what life might be like around the year 4000, but I think it’s safe to say that the Murray-Darling Basin probably wouldn’t be surviving under the trajectory put in place by those opposite. As I said, it is very important that our government is now getting on with this, has put this plan in place and is doing what those opposite could not do during their nine long years in government.
This plan will deliver more water. The 450-gigalitre target has its own funding mechanism, the Water for the Environment Special Account. The coalition were told during their time in government that this wasn’t working. They were told that in the first Water for the Environment Special Account report and they were told that in the second Water for the Environment Special Account report. They knew this program had stalled completely, but for nine years they kept a pause on water recovery. This legislation removes that pause so that we can finally deliver the water, giving this account more flexibility in line with the Water Act’s objectives.
With these changes, we are opening up the full suite of water recovery options. We will be able to invest in on-farm water infrastructure, in land and water purchases and in other novel water recovery mechanisms where it is sensible to do so. We will be able to purchase water from willing sellers where it’s needed to deliver the plan. We do know that water purchase is never the only tool in the box. It is not the first tool at hand, but it does need to be one of them. This is critical nation-building work.
As I’ve said, the Murray-Darling Basin is vitally important to all the communities along it, and it is also important to our entire country. It is an iconic piece of our natural landscape, and we all have an interest in making sure that it is protected and that it is healthy into the future in a climate that we know is changing. In an environment where we know it is likely that we will face more droughts and challenging weather, it is so important that we have in place a plan that is deliverable and a government that is willing to do the work to deliver that plan: a government that is prepared to work with state and territory governments—that shared accountability that we all have for the Murray-Darling Basin to achieve the aims of the plan; a government that knows that we have to get on with this, rather than focusing on the politics of this; and a government that does all of this work in the broader space of trying to restore and protect our environment around the country after too long, almost a decade of denial, with critical pieces of our nation’s natural infrastructure being lost to us through the incompetence and the denial of those opposite. I’m very pleased to be supporting this legislation. It is very important to our country.