The SPEAKER: I congratulate the new member for Adelaide once again and well done on her first speech. We now have another new member—the member for Chaffey. As this is also the member's first speech, I ask accordingly that members extend the traditional courtesies to our new member.
Mr WHETSTONE (Chaffey) (17:08): I would like to thank His Excellency the Governor for his opening speech. His service to South Australia has been exemplary.
It is an honour to be standing here as the new member for Chaffey. I am humbled by my constituents' faith in my ability to represent their interests in this house. I would also like to congratulate you, Madam Speaker, on your historic appointment and express my hope that, despite not being able to participate in debates on the floor, you will ensure that regional South Australia has a strong voice.
I extend my congratulations to those members who were re-elected in March, especially to those who, like me, are here for the first time. I am confident that the new members will make a telling contribution to parliament and represent their electorates with distinction.
For several years, Chaffey was in a unique position, having a member of a conservative party serving a Labor cabinet. My predecessor represented the electorate with formidable energy and ability, helping to bring the issues of water and the River Murray to greater prominence. This is because, for Chaffey, there are no issues of greater importance than water and the River Murray. They are central to Chaffey's economy: its social fabric, its history, its survival and its very existence. Water and the River Murray are also the main reasons I am here.
I am from a farming family from Keith in the South East of South Australia. My father Graham was a well-respected stock agent and livestock producer, and my mother Judy was a nurse. When I was quite young, we moved to Adelaide where I attended school before undertaking a fitter and turner apprenticeship with GMH at Woodville. I then became a qualified toolmaker in 1982. However, like many of the GMH workers, I was retrenched a year later when the company let half of its workforce go.
Having a passion for fast cars and boats, I began a small business restoring muscle cars and fitting out speedboats. I was a keen water ski racer who proudly represented South Australia and went on to be selected in the national team in the late 1990s. One of my fondest memories was winning the world's toughest water ski race. The Sydney Bridge to Bridge involves towing two skiers from Dangar Island at Brooklyn into the mouth of the Hawkesbury River and up to Windsor—a distance of 112 kilometres. We clocked speeds of greater than 200 kilometres per hour and completed the course in just 40 minutes. It was a life changing moment for me, but it wasn't the first and it wasn't the last.
Watching the birth of my three children—Nic, Charlotte and Eliza—were also special moments that changed my life forever. In 1989 I returned, in part, to my farming roots. I moved to the Riverland and purchased a citrus property, which I still own today. In the early 1990s I bought farm country on the bank of the River Murray, where I developed a vineyard. I was one of those fortunate growers who entered the industry before the 1990s wine boom took off.
Irrigation in the Riverland, South Australia and upstream; Federal Government plan for the Murray-Darling Basin
As an irrigator I became aware of just how much my livelihood, those of my fellow irrigators and the Riverland community itself relied on water and the River Murray. It is the very lifeblood of the region. Irrigation is responsible for the birth of towns along the upper reaches of the Murray in South Australia. Chaffey itself is named after two Canadian brothers who, at the invitation of the colony of South Australia in the late 19th century, developed what is now the oldest large irrigation district in Australia, at my home town of Renmark.
Back then the irrigation infrastructure was extraordinarily primitive. Steam powered pumps delivered water into open channels which flowed into the small orchards and vineyards of those first pioneers of the settlement. Paddle steamers plied the river, bringing the produce of the district to markets in Adelaide and beyond.
I mention this today because irrigation infrastructure and on-farm irrigation practice in the Riverland is state-of-the-art. It is a tribute to the foresight and innovation of local irrigators that during the 1990s, with their own money—in addition to considerable support from previous state and federal Liberal governments—they upgraded irrigation infrastructure, primarily to conserve water, to reduce what was taken from the Murray while maintaining the production levels that drove the region's economy.
Irrigators in the Chaffey region and along the length of the Murray in South Australia are now the most efficient in the Murray Darling Basin. They are recognised internationally for this efficiency but, it would seem, not so much in their own country. I also mention this state-of-the-art irrigation because, today, irrigators upstream from South Australia continue to receive River Murray water from infrastructure that was not even state-of-the-art in the days of the Chaffey brothers. There are still thousands of kilometres of unsealed dirt channels in New South Wales and Victoria, open to the sky, wasting vast quantities of our most precious natural resource. The losses from evaporation and leakage can reach up to 50 per cent. If only irrigators in those states had the courage to meter at the point of extraction, they would wonder in amazement where half of their water has gone.
Our current federal government has promised billions of dollars to upgrade infrastructure in the Murray Darling Basin but, astoundingly, not to replace these wasteful channels with pipelines. To call this short-sighted and irresponsible is to dramatically understate the case. It is past time for South Australia to make this case to Canberra and to make it forcibly, before these billions of dollars are spent on projects less worthy of attention—if they are spent, that is.
Three years ago, $400 million was promised to reduce evaporation from the Menindee Lakes—a vital water storage for South Australia—but nothing has been done. Floodwaters entering the lakes, which should be a boom to this state, are evaporating at tremendous rates, as I speak.
The federal government's plan for the basin is of great concern to my constituents and all South Australians. South Australia's record for water efficiency is second to none in this country, and it must be recognised before consideration is given to sacrificing any more of the water on which my electorate and this state depends. Very little more water can be saved in South Australia but vast amounts can be saved upstream, if only we had a government with a vision and a determination to achieve it.
Irrigators acknowledge the need to provide water for the basin's environmental assets and to ensure that critical human needs are met. What they do not appreciate, because it is manifestly unfair and unrealistic, is being ranked below these interests in importance by a federal government that has shown nothing but ignorance in the application of policy aimed at improving environmental outcomes. We will have a window of opportunity when the draft basin plan is released for public comment to have our say, but it is simply not good enough. We must have assurances, certainty, recognition and, above all, transparency—and we must have it now.
Reasons for standing in State Election
Lack of transparency regarding water decisions that affect the lives of so many people in Chaffey is why I became a director of the Renmark Irrigation Trust in 1998 and why I became a director of the South Australian Murray Irrigators (SAMI) two years later. Everything I did to succeed and prosper as an irrigator and to contribute to my community depended on timely and accurate information about water.
I felt strongly that it was time to help other irrigators who had, historically, lacked sufficient representation at government levels. While South Australia remained true to agreements that capped further extractions from the Murray-Darling system, irrigators in Chaffey watched in growing horror as the other basin states took more water from the system without consideration for the consequences. The warnings of South Australian irrigators were not heard.
This was before record low inflows into the basin made the issue of water security become more prominent in the minds of South Australians. This was before the Lower Lakes started to become a toxic wasteland. This was before my predecessor joined forces with the Rann government to preside over the economic crisis steadily enveloping the seat of Chaffey.
Irrigators saw it coming years before. We proposed solutions, like the one basin, one plan initiative which, if it had been supported by the Rann government, would have saved irrigators much of the pain they are going through today. SAMI rose to prominence as water became more important to South Australians. As I spent more of my time representing the interests of the state's irrigators in their own plight, I realised our community needed better representation on a whole range of issues. As water flow lessened so did the job opportunities. As water flow lessened so did the number of tourists decline. Primary industries in the region no longer receive the support they once had. Local health services no longer receive the support they once had. Support for attempts to diversify industries in the region was half-hearted at best.
This is what convinced me to stand for election. This is what convinced my constituents that Chaffey was ready for change. Chaffey is a great electorate. Its people come from many walks of life and many parts of the world. It is one of the most culturally diverse communities in Australia. It is a community with a strong sense of family. The community identifies closely with the landscape and its majestic river, and with its history and heritage the people of Chaffey, without doubt, were amongst the most informed voters in this state on 20 March.
Honourable members: Hear, hear!
Mr WHETSTONE: They expect much from their local member, which is a legacy of my long-serving predecessors, William MacGillivray and Peter Arnold.
Honourable members: Hear, hear!
Mr WHETSTONE: The people of Chaffey expect much from their state government, too, and, while it may not be politic to say so, their expectations were not met in recent years—and neither were mine. I vividly recall meeting with the Premier in my capacity as a representative of the irrigators, and the Premier asking, 'Why would I support the people of Chaffey? I will never win that seat.'
More than anything else this is what convinced me to stand. The Premier's apparent lack of regard for the region is what partly convinced my constituents that Chaffey needed change. Again, I say that I am humbled by their confidence in me and I am determined to repay their trust.
Winning election as the member for Chaffey is my most recent life-changing moment. This is a new phase in my life and with it comes new goals. For the moment, most importantly I am seeking to make change for the greater good of the seat of Chaffey. In the future my goal is to effect change for the greater good of South Australia as a minister in a Liberal government.
I would not be here were it not for the support of many people—my children, my family and friends, my dedicated campaign team, a determined local party membership and my parliamentary colleagues in the Liberal Party, ably led by Isobel Redmond. Her frequent visits to the electorate—five times since becoming opposition leader—have not only presented a stark contrast to the Premier's conspicuous absence but also underlined our party's commitment to the interests of regional South Australia.
I make special mention of my campaign manager, Anne Ruston, who played an important role in my success on 20 March. Together, all these people and the voters of Chaffey achieved the largest swing of the election in any seat. My constituents would simply not have forced this change unless it was needed.
Issues facing Chaffey
Because it is needed. Chaffey's needs are great. Farmers in the Northern Mallee struggle with poor rainfall, fluctuating markets and increasing input costs, not to mention a recent plague of locusts to which this government's response has been inadequate, to say the least.
Many tourism operators struggle with declining visitor numbers. Irrigators struggle with inadequate water allocations and poor commodity prices. People have lost their jobs as major employers have pulled out of the region and local businesses have been forced to close their doors.
Perhaps the most visual example of our need is the iconic Lake Bonney. This integral part of the river system is a major regional centre for tourism, recreation, sport and leisure. The town of Barmera, with a population of around 4,000 people, and other towns in the area rely substantially on the income generated by visitors to Lake Bonney. Many here in this house will have fond memories of family visits to the lake where, for decades, generations have swum, sailed, fished and skied under the Riverland sun. The lake is also an important habitat for a large range of aquatic species.
Today, Lake Bonney symbolises much that has gone wrong in the management of the River Murray. In 2007 it was disconnected from the system to save water being lost through evaporation and this was, perhaps, a prudent measure in such a year of poor rainfall in the basin. It was also supposed to be a temporary measure, and this government nominated trigger points at which, when reached, the lake would be reconnected to the system. These trigger points have been reached, yet Lake Bonney remains disconnected.
The impact on the lake is shocking. Fish have died and continue to die in their millions, littering the exposed shore with their bodies and polluting the air with their stink. Salinity levels have risen, putting further pressure on the lake's aquatic life. Recreational and sports activities have been restricted due to health concerns from the deteriorating quality of the water; and many families who usually visit Lake Bonney have stopped coming. Barmera's businesses have declined as the local people watch their beautiful lake dwindle. That is unacceptable, as is the continued disregard for regional communities in the management of the River Murray in South Australia. Lake Bonney must be reconnected immediately. A new management plan for Lake Bonney must be put into place—a plan that allows for its continued connection to the river system. A significant part of my electorate relies on the outcome. Lake Bonney must be recognised as an important economic, social and environmental asset to South Australia, and treated as such.
Indeed, all of the River Murray's environmental assets within South Australia need reassessment along social and economic lines. Chaffey alone boasts two Ramsar sites of international significance—the Riverland wetland encompassing Chowilla and Calperum stations and the Banrock Station wetland—in addition to hundreds of creeks, lagoons, backwaters and natural flood plains. We owe it to our future generations of South Australians to ensure these are managed with regard to their long-term sustainability and health, their capacity to generate tourism income, and their social value to local communities. A healthy river environment is essential to ensure sustainable irrigation industries and river communities, viable ecosystems, improved biodiversity and sustainable tourism.
Tourism, in particular, should have a bright future in Chaffey. The experiences offered by the region are many and unique, and the climate is stunning. Here I acknowledge the tireless efforts of tourism industry operators and businesses in Chaffey and those who manage the many events that attract thousands of visitors to the region every year. They continue to innovate, particularly in terms of ecotourism and food and wine tourism, and are moving to make Chaffey a regional conference and convention destination. They make an important contribution to the regional economy in these difficult times of compromised water security.
Water security; River Murray
Water security will, of course, be my number one priority as the member for Chaffey, as it should be for this government. Water will become an increasingly scarce and valuable resource. There will be fierce ongoing competition for water amongst various interests such as the environment, industry, agriculture and human needs. This country needs a visionary nation-building approach to water security in this century to ensure our future water needs are met; and perhaps no state will need to influence this vision or drive this nation-building approach more than South Australia. Our future capacity for population growth, wealth and job creation, quality food production, energy generation and ensuring a strong, healthy community are all greatly dependent upon it.
It must begin with developing and maintaining a much stronger position on the River Murray. Reducing Adelaide's reliance on the Murray for water, while necessary, will not reduce the river's importance to the city or to regional South Australia. Water from the Murray is used across the breadth of this state from the West Coast to the eastern border. The vast majority of this state's population relies on continued availability of this water. When members here drink a Clare Valley riesling or a Barossa Valley shiraz, chances are that it has been irrigated with River Murray water. The seat of Chaffey relies on it greatly.
Chaffey presents itself to almost every South Australian when they sit down to a meal or order a drink at the bar. It is an important food bowl for this state and this nation. South Australia is the wine state of Australia and the Riverland is the engine room. It takes advantage of abundant sunshine, innovative farmers and the absence of pests such as fruit fly, but it relies on water from the Murray. Without secure water entitlements, without a state government willing to go in to bat for them, this region's irrigators could face oblivion. Indeed, many of them are already facing it.
We certainly must not sit back and watch our irrigators' entitlements be stripped away under the proposed federal plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. This would debilitate regional communities and place the food security of this state at risk. The federal government will not even commit to compensating irrigators if their entitlements are required but, in view of the efficiency investments made by irrigators in this state and the senseless waste of water upstream, South Australia's position must be that irrigators should not have to give up any more of their water. It must be if we are to retain our river communities, if we are to continue to enjoy the benefits and security of fresh local produce grown in our state, and if we are serious about South Australia's status as an exporter of quality food and wine.
Some years ago, this government released its food strategy for South Australia. It talked about increasing the food sector's contribution to the state's economy. It talked about its vision for an internationally competitive and innovative food industry. It talked about creating more jobs in the food and wine sectors, and it talked about ensuring long-term availability and quality of the state's local food supply. These goals will not be met unless this government supports irrigators and ensures their water entitlements are not reduced any further. South Australia's food security will be compromised if irrigators' entitlements are reduced, and South Australia will be further exposed to the well-documented health and biosecurity risk of food imports.
In its more recent obsession with mining and defence industries, this government would do well to remember that we cannot eat iron ore, copper or uranium. We cannot eat air warfare destroyers. Minerals are not the only thing that come from the soil. Mining is not the only primary industry. This government would do well to shift some of its attention to food production and investing more funds and more effort into the food sector. A good place to start would be the Loxton Research Centre.
Loxton Research Centre
The Riverland is a world-class horticultural area due in no small part to the research and development which once took place at Loxton. Established in the 1960s, the centre focused on breeding, developing and trialling new horticultural crop varieties in consultation with growers and industry. The centre conducted research to address issues, such as salinity, pests and diseases, and from Israel it brought over cutting edge irrigation technology and adapted it to local conditions. It developed groundbreaking soil survey technology and it provided sought-after agronomic consultancy services across the region and developed irrigation benchmarking to improve the performance of growers in terms of water efficiency and yields.
Because irrigators cannot gain much in the way of further water efficiencies through investment in infrastructure and on-farm systems, the best way to ensure their viability is to ensure that they continue to supply South Australians and the world with quality produce to help make them better, more efficient food producers with the aid of targeted, local, on-the-ground research, development and extension. This is why I believe that the government investment in the Loxton Research Centre must be reinvigorated. It must have more modern facilities, it must be staffed with skilled researchers and it must have sufficient funding over the long term to pursue research projects that will take many years to reach fruition.
This will help not only to secure a future for horticultural production in the Riverland but also research outcomes from Loxton could in themselves become a valuable export product for this state. I see it as a long-term investment to ensure the state's food security and sustainability of the communities in Chaffey which depend on the viability of this region's horticultural industries.
Road safety; driver education; Riverland Motorsport and Driver Training Complex
This year we have witnessed the violent end to many young lives on our roads. There is no escaping the fact that their inexperience is a major factor in the disproportionate road toll on young people. It is a sad fact with which the people of Chaffey are all too familiar. Our young drivers have to contend with a national highway running through much of the region—a highway with an increasing number of large B double trucks travelling upon it. Speed cameras, breath testing stations and harsher penalties for driving offences do not make younger people more experienced or better equipped to drive, but education does.
This is why I strongly advocate the establishment of a driver training facility at the permanent site of the Riverland's field days near Barmera. Not only would it be a safe place in which to educate our young people how to handle the conditions they will experience on our roads (particularly the Sturt Highway), but also it could effectively create a new industry in Chaffey. It could become a regional hub for defensive driver training and create jobs in the area. The Australian National Drag Racing Association is also prepared to invest in establishing a Riverland motor sport and driver training complex at this site. This is something which would also contribute to the local economy. So, it is important that we do not let an opportunity pass to integrate a state-supported driver education facility with it.
While we are on the subject, Madam Speaker, it is equally important that we have safe roads for young drivers and for those who are not so young. Whilst the maintenance of our state's roads should be acknowledged, there remain several road black spots to be addressed in Chaffey. Money is available from the federal government to do so but it will not act without state government support.
Young people also require the best facilities and other incentives to remain in the region. Quality public education is paramount amongst these. It is with great concern that I consider moves to centralise education in South Australia, because local schools are immensely important to the identity and the integrity of the regional communities, such as those in Chaffey. They provide a focus for communities and they provide facilities for sport, entertainment, meetings and other events. They are a source of community pride, and this state has an obligation to maintain them.
Health services; Berri hospital; Flinders University regional medical school
The same goes for the health services. The Riverland continues to wait for its general hospital in Berri. This government has been quick to sacrifice a third of its GST income to federal health reform without much scrutiny of the plan, but ever so slow to spend the $41 million it promised for the Berri hospital. This project must proceed without delay. Chaffey is in the same situation as many regional areas in Australia with regard to health services. To call them 'inadequate' is an understatement. Renmark, for example, currently has the lowest doctor to patient ratio of any town in South Australia. We must have more trained Australian doctors and nurses. The lack of Australian trained doctors is having a major negative impact on regional health care. We must make more places in our medical schools available to Australian students instead of giving those positions to fee-paying overseas students.
We must also put in place the best possible incentives to attract more doctors to regional areas. The proposed Flinders University regional medical school at Renmark must be given priority support by this government. It will better enable the Chaffey region to attract and retain medical practitioners. Consideration must also be given to other ways of improving health services in the region, such as re-establishing a commercial air service to Renmark, and this would enable flying visits by health specialists which, at the moment, people in Chaffey can access only by travelling to Adelaide.
Premier urged to visit Chaffey
I wish to conclude my reply by urging the Premier to visit the Chaffey electorate and meet with its community. It is a part of South Australia which he has neglected for far too long and which this city-centric government has neglected as well. It is past time for the Premier to meet with local irrigators and tell them how he is going to protect their water entitlements and ensure that South Australia's efficiency record stands for something in the formulation of the National Water Plan. It is past time for the Premier to meet with the people of Barmera and see for himself the disaster brought upon Lake Bonney. Thank you, Madam Speaker.
Honourable members: Hear, hear!
The SPEAKER: Congratulations to the member for Chaffey on a very good first speech. I now call on the member for Bright.