Introducing the Restoring our Rivers Bill

Speech introducing the Restoring our Rivers Bill to Parliament

Mr Speaker, at last year’s federal election, Labor made a promise to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

We promised to deliver it in full, as it was designed, in line with the science.

And with this legislation today, we are fulfilling that promise to the river system and every Australian who depends on it.

Two weeks ago, our government struck an historic agreement with New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia the ACT.

It was an agreement to deliver the plan, the full plan, after a decade of sabotage and delay.

It’s a reasonable agreement, a balanced agreement.

An agreement that took more than a year of detailed consultation to piece together.

We’ve worked with states and territories, with farmers and irrigators, with scientists and experts, with environmentalists and First Nations groups.

We have discussed these matters in good faith and at considerable length.

Now is the time to act.

This bill offers more time, more options, more money, and more accountability.

It delivers 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 the future of Australia’s most important river system.

Mr Speaker, we can never forget why Australian governments designed the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the first place.

When the rain is falling, when our dams are full and healthy, it can be tempting to push the reality of drought out of our minds.

But drought is part of the Australian condition.

We can pray for respite. We can hope for more breathing space.

But as long as we live on this continent, it will always come back. 

We only have to cast our minds back three years, to our last drought.

When the Darling River stopped flowing for more than 400 days.

When farming communities were brought to their knees, desperate for water.

And when millions of native fish died, all at once, in gruesome environmental massacres that were broadcast around the world. 

That is why we have a Murray-Darling Basin Plan in this country.

To help us through the dry years.

To make sure there’s enough water flowing through the river system in its lowest moments.

And while we’ve just experienced three years of flooding rain, we know that can’t last forever. 

In fact, we have good reason to fear that the pendulum is already swinging back. 

We’re living through this shift right now, from La Nina to El Nino.

Parts of Australia are already experiencing drought conditions.

And across much of the Basin, we’re observing less rainfall, higher temperatures, and a landscape that is visibly drying out beneath our feet.

Mr Speaker, responsible governments plan for tough times.

They don’t wait for them to arrive, when it’s too late.

They prepare their defences well in advance.

And that is what we’re doing with this legislation.

Unfortunately, that is not something I can say for the previous government.

The truth is – this plan should be almost delivered by now.

The original deadlines were set for June 2024.

And in the early years, we were well on track to hit them. 

But since then, the Coalition has waged an insidious war against the plan.

They tied up projects in impossible rules, so they couldn’t deliver water savings.

They blocked water recovery programs.

And they tried to cut the final recovery targets, to keep them below scientific recommendations.  

As a result, progress slowed to a dribble under the previous government.

With all that stalling, all that sabotage, it’s now impossible to deliver the plan in our original timeline.

That’s what the Murray-Darling Basin Authority advised me, in July this year.

We’re too far behind, we’ve wasted too much time.

Which is why this legislation is necessary.

This bill is needed to reset the timelines, to loosen the rules that are strangling water recovery, and to offer a new path to delivering the plan in full.

It’s about making the necessary changes, to finish the job that we started.

And the first of these changes is altering the rules around the 450 gigalitres of environmental water.

Nothing expresses the Coalition’s contempt for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan like their record on the 450.

In nine years, they delivered just two gigalitres of the 450.

Which put them on track to complete the plan sometime around the year 4,000.

Mr Speaker, we delivered more in nine months than they did in those nine years.

And we’ve now delivered or contracted 26 gigalitres in total.

This parcel of water was always part of the plan, despite what the Coalition has said.

It’s there because the river needs it.

This 450 gigalitre target has its own funding mechanism: the Water for the Environment Special Account.

There’s less than a year to go in its original term, and only five per cent of the recovery task is within sight – and yet $1.3 billion remains in the account.

That is a scandal.

The Coalition knew it wasn’t working.

They were told it wasn’t working, again and again.

They were told in the first WESA report.

And they were told in the second WESA report, which they kept secret.

They knew the program had stalled completely, but for nine years, they kept the handbrake on water recovery.

What this legislation does is remove that handbrake, so we can finally deliver the water.

That means giving the 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’ll be able to invest in on-farm water infrastructure, in land and water purchases, and in other novel water recovery mechanisms, where it’s sensible to do so.

We will be able to count recovery above Bridging the Gap targets towards the 450 gigalitre target.

And we will be able to purchase water from willing sellers, where it’s needed to deliver the plan.

Water purchase is never the only tool in the box, it’s not the first tool at hand, but it has to be one of them.

I acknowledge that this is a sensitive topic.

And our government will always approach it as sensitively as possible.

Farmers in the Basin produce 40% of Australia’s agricultural output.  

This is critical, nation building work.

And when a community is affected by change, we will never leave them behind.  

We will provide significant transitional assistance, if these voluntary water purchases have secondary impacts on communities.

The pool of assistance available to Basin communities is more than any previous government has provided.

It will help communities respond to change, while also developing new economic opportunities.

Mr Speaker, these amendments offer us a way forward, on the largest remaining component of the plan.

They are reasonable, they’re sensitive to river communities, and they’re something all parties can support.

The second major change in this legislation is to the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism.

These projects are designed to achieve environmental outcomes, while keeping water in productive use. 

Currently, 16 of the 36 these projects are not forecast to be ready and operational by July next year.

And of the 605 gigalitres the projects are meant to keep in productive use, more than half may not be realised.

It’s clear that some of the original projects will never be delivered.

If we’re to going to achieve the full plan, we need to give the states more time to complete the viable projects.

That is what the states have asked for.

And this Bill gives them that extension – until 31 December 2026.

The onus is now on Basin states to finish projects they have started.

And it’s on Basin states to bring forward any new ones that can be completed by the new deadline, to reduce the amount of water we will need to purchase.

Some of the projects aim to relax constraints on the way rivers run, so they better mimic nature.

This agreement allows for a package of ‘no regrets’ constraints measures to be delivered by 31 December 2026 – and supports its full completion beyond 2026, subject to the recommendations of the Basin Plan Review.

It includes an implementation roadmap, to be developed next year by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, in partnership with NSW and Victoria, that will help guide and drive progress on relieving constraints.

I recognise that more time will not solve everything.

That is why we are abolishing another impediment to achieving the plan.

Currently the Commonwealth can purchase another 270 gigalitres of water before the 1500 gigalitre cap is reached.

This Bill includes an amendment to scrap that cap. 

As with the 450 gigalitre target, voluntary water purchases are not the government’s first choice.

But they need to be on the table, if we’re serious about meeting these Murray-Darling Basin Plan targets.

Success also rests on stronger assurance and accountability measures.

Which is why this bill also clarifies powers of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance.

This will help the Inspector-General effectively monitor states, and to hold them to account, if more water is extracted from our rivers than is allowed.

And the Commonwealth will also be more accountable, with an additional independent review scheduled for 2025.

This review will assess progress in delivering the remaining $1.3 billion in the Water for the Environment Special Account.

The third part of this bill involves substantial and overdue reform to Australia’s water market.

Water markets are an important part of our agricultural system.

But as things currently stand, they lack integrity and transparency.

There are no laws against market manipulation.

The insider trading prohibition is too narrow.

And the legal requirement to maintain proper records is far too weak. 

As a result, there’s been widespread mistrust in the system, across regional Australia. 

Two years ago, the ACCC examined this market in some depth, and found that its rules were inadequate and needed to be reformed.

And there’s widespread consensus, across government, across the farming sector, across this parliament, that we need to improve this regulation.

And that is what this legislation will do.

Making the sector more transparent, more open, more accountable.

The Bill introduces the framework to create an enforceable, mandatory Code for water market intermediaries.

It introduces civil penalties for market manipulation and doubles the penalty for insider trading.

And as the Code and conduct regulator, it will allow the ACCC to monitor water prices and investigate misconduct allegations.

This will bring water markets into line with the standards in other markets.

These changes will penalise bad behaviour. And they will also increase public transparency.

This Bill also requires the Commonwealth, Basin States and Irrigation Infrastructure Operators to make water market decisions available publicly.

There will be new obligations on Basin states and territory governments, irrigation infrastructure operators and water exchanges, to generate, record, collect and report water markets information.

The Bureau of Meteorology will collate this information from across the Basin and make it publicly available on a Water Data Hub, with live market updates on a new Water Markets website.

And the Inspector-General of Water Compliance will have new powers to monitor and enforce the new data reporting obligations.

Mr Speaker, these changes will help secure Australia’s water future, through the next dry stretch, and beyond.

That is how we will be judged as a parliament.

Not by how we do when the rain is falling.

But how we prepare for when it’s not. 

And that is what we’re doing with this bill.  

Listening to the science.

Working with states and territories.

Supporting communities through change.

Delivering the plan.

And keeping this river system healthy and sustainable for our kids and grandkids.

This is not a question of prioritising the environment over agriculture, or agriculture over the environment.

Because the truth is, we need both, and each depends on the other to survive.

We can’t have a healthy rural economy without a sustainable river system.

And we won’t have a prosperous Basin without secure farmers.

These farmers understand the immense value of water.

They’re as adaptable and efficient as any in the world.

Despite having less water available since 2005, Basin irrigators are producing the same agricultural output.

These communities have pushed hard, they’ve made sacrifices.

And the Basin Plan is already making a difference.

In 2019, during another record drought, we managed to restart the Barwon-Darling River with environmental water.

Hundreds of kilometres of river benefited from this water – and every town along the way celebrated its journey south. 

We know it’s working. But it’s not enough.

The 2019 release offered hope, but it only dribbled into the Bourke weir pool, leaving the downstream river dry for more than year.

Now the iconic Murray Cod may never return to this stretch of river.

And down in the Coorong, flows over the last decade have been persistently below targets.

We have to keep going. We have to finish what we started.

Because water management is only going to get more difficult in this country. 

Rainfall patterns are changing. Temperatures are changing. 

Climate change means that we’ll get more variable rain in the north and less rain in the southeast. 

Which means that Basin flows could fall by as much as thirty percent by 2050. 

Water will always involve difficult discussions in this country.

But that can’t be an excuse to shy away from making the necessary decisions.

We don’t want to wake up one day to a dead river system and realise that we could have done something to stop it.

We don’t want to sleepwalk our way into an environmental and social catastrophe.

Mr Speaker, that is not a future anyone here should be willing to contemplate.

We need to act now.

We need to protect this river system.

For the communities that depend on it.

For the families who farm it.

For the native plants and animals that draw life from it.

I commend the bill to the House.