Mark Coulton MP, Federal Member for Parkes

Matters of Public Importance: Murray-Darling Basin 20th October

Thursday, 21 October 2010

I rise today to support the member for Murray in this very important issue. In my short period of time in this place, this is clearly the most pressing and urgent issue and the issue of greatest concern to my electorate that I have ever covered. I want to go through the minister’s response. I will start with the last part first. On the visit to Trangie last week, I agreed that it was a good proposal. It is part of the $5.8 billion that was set aside for infrastructure. I only wish that we had more of those to look at, because it is a good one. It is a shame that it took so long to get there. I also might say that it is a shame that I was not aware of your visit, because I would have been more than happy to have taken part in that visit and might have been able to enlighten you on other things about my constituency that you might not be aware of.

This MPI is about the management of this process. The minister spoke about this being the first stage of a long process—well, possibly not the first stage, but a stage in a long process. There are large alarm bells ringing at the moment. Where the fear and anger in the basin stems from is people not knowing whether this is a process that is going to lead to a different result to that envisaged in the first place. The reason I say that is that last night in Senate estimates the CEO of the basin authority, when asked about the socioeconomic study and what effect that might have on the end result and the water needed for the environment—the 3,000 gigalitres minimum—the answer was, to paraphrase: ‘No. Basically we need that 3,000 gigalitres.’ That was in Senate estimates last night.

That indicates that, regardless of the consultation and the work that will be done in the future by a regional Australia committee, if the basin authority have decided they need to remove that level of water, what is the point? That is the concern of my communities. I acknowledge, Minister Burke, your answer in question time about getting legal advice on whether the authority are looking at this within the correct parameters, whether they have interpreted the act correctly. In hindsight, Minister, I think it would have been good to get that advice some time ago, because the level of anger and unrest currently in the basin is unpalatable. My feeling about it, with my limited legal background, is that the authority have misinterpreted the act, and if that is the case then we have seen a lot of unnecessary anger and upset.

The other part of the mismanagement I would like to talk about is what has happened previously. Just for the interest of the minister and others, the electorate of Parkes probably has the largest geographic area of any electorate within the Murray-Darling Basin. Within my electorate I have the McIntyre, the Border Rivers, the Barwon-Darling system, the Gwydir, the Namoi, the Castlereagh, the Macquarie and, since the redistribution, the Lachlan. Many people do not realise that there is an idea that the Murray-Darling Basin is a large, connected capillary system of water whereby if you do something here, something pops up over there. The case is that it is a lot different. Several of the rivers in my electorate do not actually make their way into the Darling and subsequently into the Murray. The Gwydir goes into the wetland and the Macquarie goes into the marsh area. Indeed, as we speak today, Minister, there are environmental flows going down the Gwydir. I know one farmer who has 5,000 acres of wheat under water from an environmental flow from a wetland. The premise and the visual images of people seeing empty river beds was from 10 years of drought rather than from mismanagement and overallocation to farmers. What concerns me is the way this matter has been handled.

Why did Mr Taylor in his initial press conference, if he were speaking about an ordered, factual process, mention so many times opening the mouth of the river? Why did he say, ‘We need to keep the mouth of the Murray River open?’ I surmise that is because he was giving a visual image to the larger metropolitan audience of ‘This is happening,’ whereas I suspect in your time in this portfolio, Minister, your understanding is that it is a far more complex issue than that and that actions that are taken in one part of the basin will necessarily affect others. Indeed, I believe we have seen actions, certainly in my part of the basin, that have had a political result rather than a physical result. For example, take the purchase of Toorale station at Bourke. Toorale Station employed 100 people. It accounted for 10 per cent of the revenue of the Bourke Shire Council and it was certainly a large part of the social and economic fabric of the Bourke community. The purchase of that water was not a large amount for a large amount of country. I spoke to one of the people previously associated with that property. Recently, I flew over it. It is a wasteland. Weeds are abounding, feral animals are all over it. Off the top of my head, I think it cost the federal and state governments $26 million to purchase that property. The purchase of Toorale Station was supposedly going to be of some benefit to the people of the Murray downstream. It had no benefit to them. At best, the water would have got to the Menindee Lakes and evaporated there. We had a huge flood in south-west Queensland at Christmas time that we are all aware of. Senator Joyce spoke about how many megalitres of water were going past his front doorstep every day. But only a percentage of that water got to the other end because, once that water leaves the river, it does not come back. So the idea that large amounts of environmental water are going to solve all the problems is not right. It will not happen. You physically cannot get that water down the river because the nature of the river is such that, once the water leaves, it will not come back.

Another large purchase made by Minister Wong was the purchase of Twynam. Part of that purchase was Collymongle Station at Collarenebri, clearly the largest employer for that town. In excess of 100 people worked at Collymongle Station in its heyday. It has magnificent infrastructure. It is a showplace. It has its own cotton gin. It is a magnificent place. The town of Collarenebri will never recover. I would like Minister Burke, and even Minister Macklin, to come with me to Collarenebri and see the devastating effects of a water purchase, which has already happened, on a town that will not recover. We have already had a lot of this pain through drought and if it is environmental flows that we are after, without any further activity, the rivers are awash in my electorate. The member for New England will go crook because the dam is actually in his electorate, but I use the water. Pindari Dam is at 100 per cent. I think Copeton is currently in excess of 30 per cent. It is a huge storage. Keepit is, I think, at 60 per cent capacity. Burrendong is at 100 per cent. That is the water that feeds the Macquarie and the Macquarie Marshes. Without any further pain, we are already getting environmental flows down the river. The Macquarie Marshes are currently brimming. Indeed, I had a phone call from a farmer this week who was concerned about erosion because of the amount of water that is now coming out of a dam, going across his property, because the marshes are full of water. This result affects people. I am terribly concerned that the debate we are having is about garnering Greens preferences from city voters who, with the best of intentions—I am not directing this at you, Minister; I am talking about the process in general—want to save an environment without having any understanding of the effects on the communities. (Time expired)

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