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ACCC must report urgently on broken water market

Last night in Parliament, I welcomed the announcement by the Minister for Water Resources, David Littleproud, that the Interim Inspector-General of the Murray Darling Basin Water Resources, Mick Keelty AM, will investigate water allocation arrangements.

This is the latest in the many measures the Morrison Liberal Government has announced to combat the terrible drought which has left so many farmers in crisis.

In August, the Government announced it had directed the ACCC to undertake an inquiry into markets for tradeable water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin (ACCC Inquiry).

In my speech, I also called on the ACCC to fast track its inquiry into what I consider is a broken water market.

The ACCC Inquiry currently underway is inclusive and wide-ranging.  The ACCC will recommend options to enhance markets for tradeable water rights – including ways to improve the operations, transparency, regulation efficiency and competitiveness.

An interim report is due at the end of May 2020 and the final report will be handed down in November 2020.

Given the very significant issues with the hoarding of water by commercial water traders, urgent action is required to unlock this water at this time of such severe drought.

The fast tracking of the ACCC Inquiry – which I trust will provide recommendations that water hoarding and profiteering by commercial traders be prohibited  will enable our government to act much more quickly.

My speech of last night is below:

I rise in this adjournment debate to welcome the Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management’s announcement today that there will be a full investigation of water allocations under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Mr Littleproud will seek agreement from the ministerial council on 17 December to provide appropriate powers to the interim Inspector-General of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources, Mr Keelty, to immediately investigate the impact of the changing distribution of inflows to the southern basin on state shares under the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement. The investigation will also consider any consequential impacts on state shares resulting from reserves required under the MDB agreement, including how these interact with state allocation policies.

As I raised in my first speech in the Senate, on 16 October:

… my very first task as a new senator was to travel to northern Victoria to meet with farmers. Many are facing crisis. In the Murray-Darling Basin, managing the impacts of drought is extraordinarily complex. We must always ask what more we can do, whether it be a serious review of environmental water allocations for the Murray or new water-trading rules to combat the corporate water hoarders and price takers.

As a regional senator for Victoria, I took the farmers’ message back to Canberra that many farmers are in genuine crisis. Along with other coalition parliamentary colleagues, I advocated for greater support for farmers seeking water for fodder to support breeding stock, as just one example, and was very pleased that the Prime Minister and the minister for water acted so quickly to announce the 100-gigalitre Water for Fodder program, which will open for applications very shortly.

We know that much more water is desperately needed and more needs to be done. I also raised with the Prime Minister’s office and the responsible ministers the many concerns about the MDB agreement. The voices of our farmers have been heard. People power does matter. Mr Keelty will report back to the minister by 31 March next year and he will be provided with all the resources he needs to support his very important investigation. Along with the ACCC’s investigation into the water market, this investigation of the MDB agreement will provide farmers and people living in regional communities with the ability to have their say as to what is wrong and why they want to ‘can the plan’. I want to thank the many farmers with whom I have met and who have shared their profound concerns. They include Jan Beer, Chris Brookes and his son Stephen, and a number of farmers who have hosted me on their farms, including Cherie and Andrew Freeman.

That said, our national drought response plan is incredibly comprehensive. It includes: the $5 billion Future Drought Fund to deliver $100 million each and every year to regional communities—this is a fund, regrettably, that Labor initially voted against; $3.5 billion to build dams, weirs and pipelines; tens of millions for drought affected councils and shires; $200 million under the Building Better Regions Fund for drought impacted communities; better interest-free, repayment-free loans for two years, which could save farmers up to some $300,000 in repayments; and, of course, the extended Farm Household Allowance, which provides around $104,000 over four years to eligible households. I want to reiterate: there is more to be done, and I’m very proud to be part of a government which is doing so much to support our farmers and to support our communities which are struggling so seriously in drought.

I do believe that the ACCC should bring forward its reporting time lines on its water inquiry. This is an incredibly important inquiry. The hoarding of water by professional water traders, who are profiteering at the expense of farmers who are literally being driven from the land, is absolutely intolerable. I will continue to work extremely hard to represent farmers and other people living in regional communities across Victoria, including in relation to the critical issue of water. Again, I commend this announcement by the minister.

4 December 2019

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