Question without notice
My question is for the Minister for Water.
Minister, will you commit to ensuring a full judicial inquiry is launched into the many issues now at large following the recent ABC Four Corners report regarding water theft in the northern Murray-Darling Basin so as to restore the much-needed faith in the system for basin communities?
There are now five inquiries, reviews, audits and evaluations underway into allegations of water theft, compliance issues and a range of other issues which raise questions about the integrity of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and its role in implementing, monitoring and ensuring compliance with the plan. None of these investigations will provide a comprehensive assessment of the myriad allegations and overall operational health of the system. There are too many questions being asked about the amount of water in the system, the negative socio-economic impacts, the neutrality test and the technical foundations behind the 605 gigalitres of environmental offset projects to warrant anything less than a full judicial inquiry.
Ms Neville, Minister for Water:
I thank the member for Shepparton for her question and also for her very strong advocacy around these issues on behalf of her communities along the basin. I can assure the member that this government and I are absolutely committed to continuing to advocate for an independent inquiry into these allegations. These allegations that were made on Four Corners about, basically, water theft out of the Murray-Darling Basin by the New South Wales government and perhaps out of other parts of the basin as well are serious concerns that have put in question the integrity of the Murray-Darling Basin plan. That is why we have called for an independent investigation that would have the powers of a judicial review, or a royal commission, to enable the inquiry to both subpoena witnesses and call for documents. And we need to do that because we need to ensure that we can rebuild confidence in the basin plan.
The fact that the commonwealth government have basically enabled the MDBA to investigate itself is not appropriate, and it does not provide assurance to communities of its independence and that we will get to the bottom of this issue. Victoria strongly supports that independent inquiry. We have put forward a range of terms of reference. For example, it does need to look at the MDBA; it needs to look at the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder; it needs to look at the water rules and compliance across all the states, including Victoria, because we believe strongly our rules will stack up against those around the country; and we do need to look at what impact that water theft has had socio-economically across the basin.
Without that independent inquiry we cannot have confidence in the plan, and communities will not. I have raised on numerous occasions — probably on a weekly basis — with the Deputy Prime Minister the need for this independent inquiry. Unfortunately he continues to say no to an independent inquiry. I really am calling on those opposite to have a voice on this issue. It is not good enough to just say, 'We don't want the 450 to come out of the system', or to claim it has somehow come to Melbourne. Of course we have not trucked water from the Murray-Darling Basin to Melbourne, and a Border Mail article said about the member for Euroa:
… what, in a tanker?
… what a load of rot and piffle.
We have not done any of that, and we are absolutely committed to ensuring that we get an independent inquiry. It will frame our thinking going into the ministerial council if we do not get that independent inquiry, because just like the community feel, we also feel that we cannot trust the way forward unless we get to the bottom of the allegations raised by Four Corners.
Minister, water is the most important issue for our northern Victorian communities, so I ask you what steps you will take to ensure that these Victorian communities are protected at the forthcoming ministerial council meeting in November 2017, particularly in the face of recent comments made by the South Australian water minister, Ian Hunter, that 450 gigalitres of upwater must be found before he will agree to the sustainable diversion limit projects?
I thank the member for Shepparton for the supplementary question. The issue that the member has raised around the 450 gigalitres is absolutely critical, and it is about the future of the region along the basin. I will certainly at the next ministerial council meeting — and I was hoping we would have an early one; again the Deputy Prime Minister has continued to block any calls for an early ministerial council — leading up to that and at the council, continue to reprosecute Victoria's case that the 450 can only be delivered with a neutral or better socio-economic impact.
This week I am meeting with Ernst & Young, which is undertaking the review of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. As the member will know, a lot of the community are very concerned about that review and very concerned about comments that have not just been made by South Australia but in fact by the Deputy Prime Minister as well, who has basically said that this 450 is a done deal, which is very, very disappointing. This review by Ernst & Young needs to be undertaken.