Water for Northern Victoria

November 13, 2019

Grievance debate - I hope I can contribute something about my electorate that is meaningful to this place and also to all the young people up there in the gallery today who have come to see how Parliament works. The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I encourage members not to refer to people in the gallery. Ms SHEED: I grieve for rural communities, particularly those in the north of this state. Before I become explicit about that I would just like to take a moment to acknowledge the trauma and the difficulties that are taking place in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland at the moment with the bushfires—rural communities that are in such difficult circumstances as we speak. In my inaugural speech in this place in February 2014 I spoke about my community of Shepparton district as a creative, industrious and self-starting community. It is a region at the forefront of global food production. It is a region that supplies the world with world-class product, food and fibre. We export internationally. We provide the food that is on the tables of everyone in this place, everyone in the state of Victoria—clean, green food that we all value. We have in the Goulburn Valley some of the greatest numbers of food processors. We not only produce the food in our region but value-add to that food. We are not ripping things out of the ground and sending them to other countries for manufacture; we manufacture the milk product in our region and then we export it, and of course we provide for the domestic market. We are often referred to as the food bowl of Australia. The region produces 25 per cent of the total value of Victoria’s agricultural production. We produce the vast majority of Australia’s pears—something like 90 per cent of the pears—28 per cent of the nation’s apple harvest and 70 per cent of our national peach crop. The Murray dairy region is one of the largest milk producers in Australia. In the Goulburn Valley we produce over 1.4 billion litres of milk each year. But the outlook has changed in northern Victoria since the beginning of the millennium drought and in the dry years that have followed up until now. In northern Victoria there are now less than 1000 farmers when previously there were 3000. Water is a critical part of the operating fabric of a dairy farm in northern Victoria and represents over 60 per cent of the assets of the region. Since the 2004–05 milk season the production of milk has reduced so much—45 per cent—and at the same time that has been contributed to by the incredible loss of water to the Goulburn-Murray irrigation district for irrigation purposes. We had 2350 megalitres of water available to us over 10 years ago; we are down now to 800 megalitres this year being used. The impact of that on our regional economy has been devastating. We have farm exits occurring at a rapid rate now, and we expect them to continue to increase. The dairy industry is in crisis. I am reliably informed that 105 farmers at least have already quit the industry in recent months, and it should be noted that for every $1 million of dairy production there are over 6.5 full-time equivalent jobs, and they are lost at the same time. Farm businesses are truly suffering, and we believe that more and more will leave over the next few months. It is fundamentally because dairy farmers are not able to afford to buy water at the price it is currently going for—$600, $700, $800 a megalitre. Dairy farmers are simply not in the competition at any stage with that. Northern Victoria is in drought. People seem to think the fact that the Murray River runs between New South Wales and Victoria means that we are not. It makes no difference that a river runs through, and the fact that there might be water availability for some people in northern Victoria does not take away from the fact that all of that land that is not irrigated is in drought. The countryside is tinder dry, and we have seen what the impact of that can be in the north just now. The Murray-Darling Basin plan is no doubt responsible for a very significant part of these impacts. The reduction in production of milk and the loss of our factory at Tongala, the Nestlé factory that has been there for so many years, has just resulted in 106 jobs being lost. The dairy industry continues to suffer from the clawback that Murray Goulburn and then Fonterra imposed on their dairy farmers in 2016. It has just been a history of one thing after another to create this terrible situation. Over the river in New South Wales they have had zero water allocation for two years, but the extraordinary thing about what is happening in this region at the moment is the fact that our rivers are running full. The Goulburn River and the Murray River are full. Water is running through those rivers higher than ever down to South Australia to keep the Lower Lakes at 100 per cent, to keep them freshwater. They were never freshwater lakes. They were estuarine lakes, but by a sleight of hand—and this has been absolutely verified by the CSIRO, by Professor Gell’s recent peer-reviewed paper, which said that this was the case—and by way of fiction, South Australia have been able to achieve a storyline that those lakes were fresh, and it is simply not true. So we are seeing massive quantities of water flowing down to those lakes. Barrages are open today pouring water out to sea, four of them. Last week there were 25. A month ago there were 33—33 of the barrages on the Lower Lakes in South Australia pouring fresh water out to sea. In the New South Wales Parliament today they are debating a bill called the Water Supply (Critical Needs) Bill 2019. That is because so many towns in New South Wales have no water or have about six months’ water left. They are boring for water. They are trucking water in. I think we have all seen the images on television many times. These are towns with no water, and yet in my region, which is in drought, our rivers are full. Our dams are at about 50 per cent, roughly, capacity, and yet we are seeing massive amounts of water wasted. That water is going very quickly. It is going to be used for some irrigation during this season, but it continues to flow uninhibited down to South Australia. The Goulburn Valley not only has the dairy industry but it has many permanent plantings. I have talked about the peaches, pears, apricots and apples. These are trees that take many years to grow to get to the point of production. I am now hearing, and reliably so, that if this dry period continues those permanent plantings will be at risk. They are the trees in my region that are at risk, not to mention the almonds further down towards the Sunraysia—the table grapes, the citrus all down there. These are permanent plantings. These are the most critical part of our agriculture story because they take so long to re-establish and get to production. We are seeing dairy herds and we are seeing sheep depleted—herds across the country at some of the lowest numbers they have been in over 30 years. So many animals are going to the abattoirs. We have seen farmers trying to feed them, bringing in hay and bringing in stock to try and do that, but they are unable to achieve that outcome, and they certainly will not be able to next year if this dry period continues. It beggars belief that we would waste so much water when so much of the eastern seaboard is in such dire straits. I can hardly believe that I can stand here and be saying this when we know the impact on those regions just above us. We do not have to look hard to see what is happening there. The preservation of that water that we have for critical human needs and for permanent plantings going forward must be put high on the agenda of governments, and I find it extraordinary that we spend time in this place today throwing mud at each other on party-political lines when surely every representative, particularly of any regional electorate, must have things that they can contribute about their electorate and how they are faring at the moment, particularly in view of this water shortage that exists across the state. I think that the concern about permanent plantings and the future of our country towns is really weighing on people’s minds. And losing something like 700 gigalitres of water—that is a lot of water—every year from the Lower Lakes by evaporation and that fresh water flowing out to sea is to me reprehensible behaviour.

The Goulburn Valley has always been the food bowl. It has been very productive, and over the last five years Shepparton has seen some really significant investment from the Andrews Labor government. We have got Goulburn Valley Health—stage 1 of the new hospital underway. We have got the Shepparton Art Museum, which is now up to the fourth storey with a huge crane on it. It is going to provide a cultural experience that we would never have thought we would have had in Shepparton. We are getting investment in more bus and rail services, and we are told we will be ready for VLocity services, nine of them a day, within the next few years. The Shepparton Education Plan is underway. This is all significant change that has been brought about in the Shepparton region, but we need to think about why Shepparton is there. Why did Shepparton ever develop as a city, as a town? It developed to serve its agricultural community around it. It is different from Bendigo and Ballarat. They were gold rush towns. They were built on the back of gold. Of course they continue to serve their agricultural communities, but the Shepparton region, the Shepparton district, its heart and soul is in agriculture and horticulture and the dairy industry, and the town is there to service it. The biggest employer in our region now is health. The town is thriving on the back of this investment—and private industry is really growing on the back of it also—but just drive outside the edges of our town and you see the dry country that is not being produced on in many areas. It is a mishmash of some paddocks that have got a bit of irrigation water—they are irrigating it to grow fodder. There are trees that desperately need water, and they are trying to buy in the water to keep them going. And then there are so many dry paddocks, especially as you travel north. This is not the picture we need to see. I think it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that the productivity of our regions is saved when we know that it can be. Shepparton would be nothing without its agricultural communities. We have seen small towns north of us, around us, being hollowed out by the exit from farms by farming people over what has now been a 20-year period—3000 down to 1000 probably down to around 800 by the end of this year. These are massive and significant issues. We are seeing billions of dollars being spent in Melbourne. We are seeing the Metro Tunnel being built, the North East Link, the western distributor, metropolitan hospitals—huge investments—and these are all needed for the growing population. Melbourne will be the biggest city in Australia before long, but decentralisation is something the government needs to look at—and central to that is the importance of regional cities. Shepparton is one of those regional cities that should be connected and should be maintained to help solve the problems that Melbourne will have in the future. I wrote to the Premier, to the Minister for Water and to the Minister for Agriculture in September setting out much of what I am saying in this speech. It is essential that here in Melbourne, here in the Parliament in Melbourne, there is recognition of what is going on in our regional areas. We have been calling for a review of carryover. We have got a review of transparency laws in water trading happening now, and we really need that. We need an investigation into what is happening with the Lower Lakes in South Australia. I have called for that in this place. So many people are calling for it. Not a single government has the appetite to do that, and it is a disgrace that they do not because we need some truth—we need some clarity about what that whole Murray-Darling Basin plan was predicated on. And if it was predicated on some of the science that is in fact incorrect, then that ought to be exposed and fixed up. I do not see us getting rid of the Murray-Darling Basin plan. Everyone recognised that the environment needed some water, but we did not predict that the losses and damage to our regional communities would be so great. It is inconceivable to think that water for human needs is at such a critical state across our eastern seaboard and that Victoria is next in line and that we are not acting now to take precautions to preserve what water we have—to save the trees that we have in the ground and to make sure that particularly my region continues to be a thriving agricultural and horticultural area.

Click here to view this record on Hansard

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.