Legislative Council


August 2nd, 2017

On the 2nd of August 2017, Greens MLC Tammy Franks moved an motion as a Matter of Urgency:

A healthy River Murray is vital to South Australia's future and the basin plan must be delivered on time and in full. We as South Australian parliamentarians stand united for our River Murray and in support of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We call on the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to commission a fully independent judicial inquiry into the allegations raised on Four Corners, in order to be sure that the basin plan is not undermined and will continue to deliver our share of water to South Australia.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: Before councillors think we are getting the afternoon off, the reason we are voting on a motion of a matter of urgency to stop the work of this parliament is because, of course, we know that river flows are being stopped to our state, and indeed to others, such as those communities in Broken Hill, not through need but through greed.

So, I move this motion that will not go on the record as anything but an adjournment motion, so we can stand together here in this council, across our party divides, but standing up for the state of South Australia and reiterate the words of the President that we stand because:

A healthy River Murray is vital to South Australia's future and the basin plan must be delivered on time and in full. We as South Australian parliamentarians stand united for our River Murray and in support of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We call on the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to commission a fully independent judicial inquiry into the allegations raised on Four Corners, in order to be sure that the basin plan is not undermined and will continue to deliver our share of water to South Australia.

Indeed, Mr President, all members would be aware of the work of Four Corners in exposing the corruption that is alleged to be taking place upstream from this state. Having said that, water is, of course, our most important natural resource, so I think there is no greater need for a matter of urgency to be discussed by this council than on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the River Murray.

I note that the last time this measure was employed was November 2008 by the Hon. Rob Brokenshire, for a debate also on the River Murray. Times have changed and we are no longer in that particular weather condition, and we are no longer in drought here in South Australia, but the crisis remains and the urgency stands. We have seen a huge consolidation by two big players upstream, and it is not lost on me that Chris Corrigan, the man who was responsible for smashing the waterfront workers, is smashing our waterways now.

There is plundering afoot and there are allegations that must be investigated, and they must be independently investigated and urgently so, and all states must stand united, committed, to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We will stand alongside all cross-parties and with the ACF, traditional owners and our farming communities in the fight to keep the mighty Murray River flowing.

When it was agreed, the basin plan package was endorsed by all basin governments, and by a bipartisan vote in both houses of federal parliament. It aims to recover 3,200 gigalitres of water for the environment, but, since that basin plan was agreed on, some basin governments have tried to change the rules to allow the inclusion of dodgy off-set projects that would mean that species and habitats miss out on vital flows.

The Greens are committed to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Australia is already seeing positive outcomes from the plan, including improved freshwater flows. These keep the Murray Mouth open and wetlands replenished, leading to healthier vegetation and increased numbers of water birds and fish. The plan has been a crucial step towards improving environmental outcomes from our water systems, but we must do more. As it stands, I remind the members of this council that the current plan only provides the bare minimum of water required to keep the Murray Mouth open and the Coorong alive. It still leaves many wetlands and native species at risk.

We also know, from the Greens' perspective, how crucial the Murray-Darling Basin is for Australia's food production and economy. We support reforms to keep the system healthy all the way up from the Murray Mouth, from the source to the sea. Winding back the over allocation of water and restoring our precious ecosystem so that they can keep sustaining our nation is essential. We want to see the return of water to environmental flows and to cultural flows.

We want reforms that will assist all basin communities to build their jobs and economies and to restore our internationally-recognised wetlands and productive agricultural areas to good health. This is a key reform facing Australia over the next decade and we have to get it right, not just for South Australians but for all Australians.

Members would be aware that my mum lives upstream of us, and, indeed, lives in cotton country that is either in drought or flood. Those communities there know full well at the moment the challenges that are besetting our reliance on water-intensive crops, such as cotton and rice. I stand with my mum's community on this. She might not be South Australian, but we are all Australians and the water is too important not to get right.

I note that there is a need for independent oversight of water management, and it has been brought to the fore, not just for that water management to be there on an ongoing basis but for the independent judicial inquiry powers, to make sure that the plan is being delivered as it was meant to be. We need transparent institutions that we can trust to look after our rivers. The Greens add our voice to that call here today, and we urge all members of this council to work together to see that effected.

I spoke about this issue quite recently as a matter of importance but I bring this motion here today to the Legislative Council so that we can all show our support for struggling communities throughout the entire basin that continue to experience water shortages or the flows upon which they rely completely drying up even when there is not a drought. As if that was not enough, low flows or absence of flow exposes acid sulphate soils to the air and increases salinity levels.

Furthermore, two million tonnes of salt washes out of the soil into the Murray-Darling system. This should be diluted by fresh water and flushed out of the Murray Mouth, but without sufficient flow this salt instead chokes the system from the bottom up. It is often said that a river dies from its mouth. This, in particular, threatens the water supply here in Adelaide and the South Australian Riverland communities. Looking after the River Murray and all who depend on it requires long-term thinking and strong leadership, and that is what I hope we are showing here today—that strong leadership.

This has been severely lacking. Some rogue irrigators and their political backers are trying to water down the plan. I echo the words that were said earlier this week by one of the irrigators who noted that some of these irrigators are akin to bank robbers. That does not mean that all irrigators are bank robbers, and the Greens are certainly cognisant of the fact that not all irrigators are doing the wrong thing. What needs to happen now is for those who are doing the wrong thing need to be punished, and we need to have trust in a transparent plan.

I will not spend too much longer speaking today because I know there are many members who wish to speak to this motion. However, I cannot help but remark on the lack of leadership shown so far by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce on this matter. I understand that strong words may have been uttered outside of this place and I hope some strong words of a different flavour might be uttered inside our councils and chambers in parliaments across this country in the hope of better leadership at a federal level on this matter.

Indeed, in my heart, Senator Leyonhjelm holds a special place for accusing South Australians of 'getting our knickers in a twist over this issue'. I say to people such as Senator Leyonhjelm and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, 'We have got our knickers in a twist and if you are not careful those knickers will not be made of cotton for much longer from your upstream states.' With those few words, I commend the motion.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: I, too, will briefly rise to support the motion. I congratulate my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks for putting it on the agenda, and I note that my federal colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has also put this on the Senate agenda. Just an hour and a half ago, the Premier made a statement in another place effectively putting on the agenda of the House of Assembly tomorrow a very similar motion to the one that we are debating now.

I note, of course, the leadership of the Legislative Council in these matters. No-one could accuse us of not taking the very first opportunity to debate this matter of national importance. In fact, we have even suspended question time to do so, which is not something that we would do lightly, but I also note that it is not a tool that has been abused too often. My colleague mentioned before that the Hon. Rob Brokenshire was the last person to use this tool back in 2008, to again debate a matter of national interest, being the fate of the River Murray.

The Hon. Kelly Vincent in her remarks commented on the good work that was done by the Four Corners team. I would add three things to that: first of all, the importance of an independent national broadcaster comes to the fore when we see programs like that particular show. I am also minded to note that two of the organisations that featured in that program are organisations that I have had the privilege to work for: the Environmental Defenders Office New South Wales featured, as did the Australian Conservation Foundation. Collectively, I have spent 14 years of my life working for both of those organisations and, whilst it is not the place now to weigh in to another debate on the tax deductibility of donations to organisations such as that, it just shows that, through advocacy work, they are doing this country a great service.

The particular aspect that I am looking forward to an independent judicial inquiry getting into are the allegations of maladministration, misuse of authority, conspiracy and corruption. Anyone who saw the program would be aware that there are serious question marks over the behaviour of senior officials through the, I presume, secretly tape-recorded telephone conversation. We have government officials offering to hand sensitive information over to irrigator lobbyists and, as has been mentioned before, a number of people who participated in that conference call delighting in the prospect of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan collapsing altogether and New South Wales withdrawing from it, so I would like to see that emphasised in the inquiry.

Something we are not allowed to talk about in South Australia, but they are in New South Wales, is ICAC. I note, from media in the last couple of days, that at least two people have been referred to the ICAC in New South Wales, namely, a former water minister and the New South Wales water bureaucrat who featured in the program.

I mention that not because that is any substitute for an independent judicial inquiry but just to make the point that some people in New South Wales are taking these allegations seriously and looking at what tools are available within their jurisdiction to deal with them. I agree with the comments that others have made that the New South Wales internal inquiry does just does not cut it. It is limited by its terms of reference and particularly frustrating that it is limited in terms of the dates on which potential incidents can be investigated.

If we got nothing else from the Four Corners report, it is the fact that, where there is smoke there is very likely to be fire. The fact they might have uncovered one or two cases of meter tampering suggests to me that that may just be the tip of the iceberg. A fully independent judicial inquiry with powers to compel witnesses and which gives, as the minister said, protection to whistleblowers is absolutely critical if we want to get to the bottom of it.

I am hoping that by the end of tomorrow all 69 members of state parliament would have had a chance to debate this matter of national interest. The message going to the Prime Minister will be loud and clear that South Australians are determined to protect the health of the River Murray for the environment and for all river users.

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