Senator MOORE (Queensland) (13:34): When as minister in the previous Labor government Tony Burke introduced the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, he talked about the long and fraught history around this wonderful environmental asset we have that stretches through the centre of Australia. He described the Murray-Darling as the largest environmental asset on the continent and our most important production asset. The Murray-Darling Basin stretches all the way from my home state of Queensland, down through New South Wales-and it is the water supply for the ACT-through Victoria and on through to South Australia. A large percentage of the Australian continent and a large percentage of our community know about the Murray-Darling and, in some way, are actually dependent on it.
There has been a fraught history. When the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan was introduced, Mr Burke talked about the fact that there have been debates and concerns about the best use of the Murray-Darling and the threats to the Murray-Darling for over a century. It was very difficult to get everyone together. Everyone had strong views and concerns. There was genuine fear that, somehow, their particular issues would be lost in the debate. The basis of the whole plan was to bring people together-all those who cared so deeply about the Murray-Darling-to make sure they would understand, firstly, that there needed to be a plan; secondly, that everyone had the right to be involved in that plan; and, thirdly, that no-one was going to be absolutely thrilled or feel as though they'd got everything that they wanted out of the plan.
We saw earlier this year that there was considerable debate about the viability of the plan. There were fears that some people were taking water that should have been used in other ways, and demands that there should be further uses made of the water. People were very upset and concerned about what should occur. That served a particular purpose; it made people really think about what they were doing and that the viability and protection of this wonderful asset must be an absolute certainty.
There was debate and there were disallowance motions moved, but now we're at a stage where the government has come forward with a wide range of recommendations for future action. Certainly, our party has agreed that the major concerns that we had-I think we do share a common commitment to protect the Murray-Darling. The best way to do that is through a coordinated, widely engaging plan. We believe that the government proposals that have come forward meet the concerns that were raised by the wide range of people who came to see us about why they felt there needed to be further commitment and further understanding of what was best for their river.
Something that has stuck with me is that the then Minister Burke talked about the Indigenous legend of the Murray-Darling River. That legend was of a giant Murray cod making its way through the landscape to carve out the river system. That led to a strong belief that cultural flows need to be defended and respected. Indeed, that image has stayed with me while I've been involved with talking to the local communities in Queensland about their needs. Through the whole debate, the visual concept of the cod weaving its way down that wonderful expanse of the river remained very alive to me.
Whilst we've heard much debate around the Murray-Darling Basin Plan through the discussion of the Water Amendment Bill 2018, I want to focus on a couple of issues that have come out in the package of government commitments. One of the many reasons I am confident we have a way to move forward is section 3 of the government commitments, which focuses on improving outcomes for Indigenous people and addressing the social and economic impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin. I want to run through some of these commitments as reinforcement of why I am hopeful we will be able to work our way through this. When I think about the river, I constantly keep in mind the idea of the Murray cod and the river's importance to local Indigenous communities.
In the government response to the concerns raised, section 3 talks about the commitment to two full-time staff positions for three years to support Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations and Murray and Lower Darling Indigenous Nations. They're the groups looking at the concerns of Aborigines-and not those of the islanders in this case. One area that is not included in the Murray-Darling Basin is the islander community in the Torres Strait-but they do have a common interest in water. The idea of these two full-time positions is that they:
… will work with local member nations and government agencies to translate the findings of the National Cultural Flows Research Project into practical and effective ways forward. The positions will be supported by a $1.5 million fund for costs associated with the activities, including the continued development of the Aboriginal Waterways Assessments. These commitments will be additional to the existing and long standing commitment of $635,000 per annum to these organisations.
We are maintaining the commitment to these really important Aboriginal community organisations, but we're providing the extra positions to ensure that their further work will be able to be done and that we'll look at the National Cultural Flows Research Project. That is something that we've been talking about for a while in terms of gathering information and gathering community engagement, which are critically important to the way forward.
Earlier this year, the government also announced increased flexibility to allow Indigenous land corporations to use their funds to access water entitlements as well as land. It's a really important move forward. We rely on Indigenous land corporations to look at the resources for their communities, knowing best about the local needs and what is available locally. For the first time, this is now allowing the legislation to look at water resources as well as the land. We know, in fact it's almost self-evident, that land needs water. In terms of identifying this more clearly it ties these issues together. This is also a move forward, responding to community knowledge and awareness.
The government response also talks about a:
Funding commitment for Indigenous investment on water involving:
Commitment of $40 million over four years to administer through the Indigenous Land Corporation (or other suitable organisation) a program to support Basin Indigenous communities investment in cultural and economic water entitlement and associated planning activities. Under the program, the $40 million would be allocated between the northern Basin and the southern Basin.
That is $20 million each, I would imagine. I'm not going into that level of detail, but I imagine the $40 million would be shared with the two major agencies. The way that will work out will be developed in consultation during this year. We'll be watching that to make sure that the promises and the expectations will be met in the allocation and the way that will operate.
There's also a:
$20 million grant program over four years to provide grants for economic development projects for indigenous, remote, rural and regional communities most impacted by the Basin Plan.
This is not only for Indigenous communities, it picks up the kinds of issues that have been raised throughout the history of the Murray-Darling by local and regional communities about their relationship and their needs for their river program. This will be a series of grants which will be administered by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and designed in consultation with the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities and the Prime Minister and Cabinet Indigenous Affairs Group.
As with all grant programs, the expectation is that there will be clear guidelines. It will go out to processes and allow the local communities to identify what work they want to do in their local areas linked to the Murray-Darling. It's envisaged that the first round of applicants will be invited to seek funds to develop their proposals for consideration under a second round. Again, that's a form of governance in terms of making sure that people understand the way the process will operate and ensuring that they will get the best possible use out of a grant program.
Again, underlying all these changes is maintaining the link between community and river, ensuring that the community will be engaged and that they will have this common goal of making sure that the river is healthy. The communities most in need of such support, as identified by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in the Northern basin review, will be given the highest priority. I know that some of these communities have been working locally, and also with governments, for many years and that they've identified their high needs in this space. I particularly want to identify the ones in Queensland, where I have spoken with communities for a long period of time-well before I came into this place. St George and Dirranbandi are two Queensland communities that have a relationship of immediacy with the Murray-Darling and that have been suffering through a range of environmental and social issues for many years. The best way to ensure that these communities are healthy is to ensure that the Murray-Darling is healthy.
This series of grants will be a way for people to maintain a relationship with their river but to also be an active part in the wider activities of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority so that this plan continues to evolve. There is no such thing as an end, a single plan, for the Murray-Darling. It needs to look to the future so that it continues to be dynamic. We have support for high-risk communities, including Dirranbandi and St George. Two of the New South Wales communities identified are Collarenebri and Warren, and they have local engagement facilitators. This is a really useful, practical response. It brings people together who have particular knowledge on how to facilitate information and get communities working together, and allows local engagement facilitators to help identify development opportunities and funding options.
All of this work demands resources. The government has come forward with its range of options and has identified these needs. It has made a commitment to work with the state governments of New South Wales and Queensland to identify water entitlements in the northern basin that can be allocated to Indigenous communities through state water resource plans. I'm really pleased that the Queensland government, with Minister Lynham and a range of other ministers who have local knowledge and support for these parts of western Queensland, has been actively engaged in this space and working with those communities. The Warrego-Paroo water resource plan has engaged with local communities, with the Queensland government providing for 900 megalitres of unallocated surface water for community and 10,000 megalitres of unallocated ground water for community or Indigenous purposes. We have community and government working together, which is the underlying strategy to ensure that this program is effective.
The government has also announced it's committed to give priority to Aboriginal and local suppliers in delivery of environmental works under agreed toolkit measures in the northern basin. It's been put out, with a range of information going to delivery partners, that there will be a requirement for them to give preference to Indigenous suppliers, including really small Indigenous enterprises, as part of contracting and subcontracting arrangements. This will encourage the use of local Indigenous labour wherever possible. It cannot be stressed too highly how important this is to local communities. This is an opportunity for work, for genuine employment, and gives financial security to places that have been under great stress for many years. Linking the very important work of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority with a focus on developing job opportunities and skilling opportunities for local Indigenous communities, I think, is very much at the heart of this program. This should be acknowledged. It should be monitored to ensure how it's working, because sometimes plans don't follow through as much as we'd hope, but it is a really important element of the commitment from the government.
The government is supporting work for cultural gatherings and low-impact water recreation, including options to refurbish weirs at Wilcannia and Cunnamulla. I'll be looking forward to having a look at that Cunnamulla activity when it's finalised. It is important that people have these options locally. There are a number of commitments, but I've just been focusing on the Indigenous elements. One is the management of environmental water and Indigenous cultural use. The minister will direct the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, under section 175 of the Water Act 2007, to report publicly each year on how Indigenous values and water uses are considered in environmental water use and on how Indigenous people are involved in that decision making. This is critical. It means that those local activities will be reported publicly. So there will be this opportunity not only for the plans to be made and the work to be engaged but also for a commitment to public reporting.
Sometimes that last bit is dropped off the equation. So one of the things that attracts me most is that there will be a requirement to report-again, look specifically at how those communities are linked together. It's important that engagement with Indigenous communities on decisions underpinning the beneficial use of environmental water to meet Indigenous values is publicly acknowledged and celebrated. It is important that we work to get this plan right. We acknowledge that there will never be the perfect plan, but the massive need to take action on the Murray-Darling is clear. No-one ever debates that; it's just that, when they have to take actions themselves, that may not have been what they really want to do.
The other thing I want to mention before I end is the fact that, in the Australian government's voluntary Report on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be reported at the UN in the next couple of weeks, the Murray-Darling Basin, quite rightly, is included under goal 06, which is to 'ensure availability and sustainable management of water for all'. The government have put in the report that they are taking to the UN a particular credit for what's happening with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It talks about the importance of the Murray-Darling Basin, how much water is involved and the number of people involved: It says:
… the health of the Basin has been impacted by drought and water extraction practices that inadequately addressed environmental sustainability considerations.
It makes it clear that that has been the sorry past of this wonderful environmental asset. It goes on to say:
The 2012 Basin Plan was developed in response to this gap to embed a coordinated approach to water management across the Basin's four states (South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland) and the Australian Capital Territory. The Plan aims to rebalance Basin water use to sustainable levels and introduce new measures to use water more efficiently and effectively, integrating water management across state boundaries, and improving water security for all water users.
I think that reinforces the absolute commitment that we all must have to ensure that we work together to ensure that our wonderful Murray-Darling is protected and that we get the best possible environmental, ecological and productive outcomes from this wonderful resource.
It makes me proud that, when we talk about what we've done as governments working together, regardless of what flavour they are and regardless of the problems that we've had to get to this point-and they have been many-we are able to say internationally that this plan has been put in place and we're committed to taking it through to the next years, where we will have to continue to work together to ensure that we protect the Murray-Darling.