Water and Catchment Legislation Amendment Bill 2017
I rise to make a contribution in relation to the Water and Catchment Legislation Amendment Bill 2017.
In doing so it was interesting to hear from a range of members across this house because of the geographical diversity of a number of those who have spoken.
Water means different things to different people in different parts of the state.
In the north we are very dry, and irrigation is the lifeblood of our communities. That terminology is used very commonly up in our region. Water is an extremely complex issue and no more so than up our way, and with the overlay of the Murray-Darling Basin plan that complexity is even greater.
I must say that when there was a reshuffle in this government just a couple of years ago and our water minister was made the police minister, I was very pleased that she held onto the water portfolio, because for someone to come in cold and try to understand it would have been a very big challenge. I think the minister has been well received in our northern communities in relation to water issues. Her support for communities in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin plan and how that impacts on Victoria has been commendable to date. We urge her to continue on the path that she has taken, particularly as it relates to the 450 gigalitres of water that we are at risk of seeing come out of our communities to service South Australia's needs.
This is a bill that will amend the Water Act 1989 and the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994 to provide recognition of the social and recreational value of waterways and catchments as well as the involvement of Aboriginal Victorians in their management and planning. From my observations, those things have been happening for a very long time; this legislation is really just embedding that notion in the legislation. I have noticed over many years with my involvement through various organisations that we seek to have Aboriginal input into many aspects of water management and land management. Indeed I think we would all be well aware that it is quite an impost on our Aboriginal communities to be able to service all the committees, boards and organisations that we have in our communities where we are wanting input from our Indigenous communities, so we need to recognise that as part of the burden that they bear in giving us information.
In relation to recreational matters, again sometimes I do think sometimes city people do not realise how important our waterways are to us in the country. We have something like 30 000 visitors to the Murray River on the Victorian side between Yarrawonga and Echuca. Correct me if I am wrong on those numbers, anyone, but it is huge. They go up there, they camp, they use the Murray and they enjoy the beaches that are created along the Murray during the summer. There was a year when environmental water was sent down the river by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) during the summer, and of course all those beaches were under water. The river was flowing at such a height that it really affected tourism in the area and the numbers of people who came to our Murray River towns. Lessons were learned from that, and I understand they are doing things better.
Among other objectives, this legislation also aims to reset long-term water resource assessments and to push out the commencement date from 2018 to 2025 to coincide with the commonwealth review of the Murray-Darling Basin plan in 2026. I do not feel confident that that is an appropriate step. I would urge the government to go ahead with its assessment at the time that it intended to, at the time that is currently legislated for, rather than pushing it out, because I have very little confidence in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority being on task and undertaking the sort of review it is meant to do by 2026. Given the extraordinary disarray which exists throughout the Murray-Darling Basin currently, I see that as a really important issue for the government. Victoria needs to be doing its own assessment and understanding where it sits across the whole of Victoria, but no more so than in our northern communities.
The bill makes clear the role of the Victorian water minister to engage with irrigators and ensure measures to control salinity levels in the north of the state. We remember the serious salinity problems, probably of the 1980s and 90s, but in some ways it has been easy for us to forget that in the north for a while because of the millennium drought which sort of defrayed some of those concerns. In fact it is easy to forget a lot of things about water, but I well recall the time when there was a real possibility that Melbourne might one day be without water. The drought was such that it was so concerning and so very important that there be enough resource in the state for people to have enough just for human consumption. It is easy to forget these things, and when I hear the political banter between the parties about desalination and all of those things I often think, 'But do you remember that Melbourne could have run out of water had that drought gone on?'. I think it is very important that we acknowledge our history.
Victoria has a strong history of water reform over many years with emphasis on compliance demonstrated by its strict metering of water throughout Victoria and in particular northern Victoria, where the modernisation has been going on. I think we need more transparency in some respects, particularly in relation to the operation of the water register. Overall, Victoria has pulled its weight in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin plan, and it has often been said in our regional areas that our rural communities have done much of the heavy lifting when it comes to the provision of water for the environment to date.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the management around water is really at a crisis point as far as I can see, and to just highlight that I would like to draw this house's attention to the fact that there are numerous inquiries, reviews and indeed a royal commission now happening. On 24 July this year Four Corners ran a program in relation to the abuse of water resources, particularly in northern New South Wales. As a result of that the New South Wales government set up an independent inquiry, headed by Ken Matthews. He handed down an interim report on 11 September. It was damning and found that the state's water compliance and enforcement have been ineffectual and require significant and urgent improvements.
Following on from that Four Corners report the commonwealth initiated a Murray-Darling Basin Authority review of compliance in the basin and set up an independent panel to work side by side with that. That was released just on Saturday. Again, it was quite damning of many aspects of water management across particularly New South Wales and Queensland, with some observations about the other states. That is two. The third one is the Australian National Audit Office audit of the national partnership agreement. That also looks at issues around performance under the Murray-Darling Basin agreement. The fourth one is referrals of persons to the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, again arising out of the Four Corners report.
A Senate inquiry into the integrity of the water market, moved by Senator Hanson-Young, is currently underway. The Ernst & Young report is currently being undertaken and will be delivered to the ministerial council on 19 December looking at how the 450 gigalitres might be recovered. South Australia has established a royal commission into this matter. The New South Wales Ombudsman has delivered two reports in relation to water compliance in New South Wales, and the two of them have been buried. An interim one was tabled in Parliament just recently and raises very serious concerns about water management.
Don Blackmore chaired the expert panel which was set up by the ministers for water in New South Wales and Victoria. He raised a number of concerns about the Murray-Darling Basin plan's initial establishment, the lack of benchmarks, the lack of agreement across a range of things and a real lack of transparency in the MDBA. The Productivity Commission has looked at the issue of water, and it is understood that next year it will be looking into the effectiveness of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
I think based on all of that we can see that water management is a shambles. Water management, as a result of many things but in particular the Murray-Darling Basin plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's own issues, the behaviour of the state of New South Wales and the state of Queensland, and the demands of South Australia, leaves us in a position where we as communities in regional Victoria are extremely concerned. We believe that the Murray-Darling Basin plan should be put on pause: hit the pause button, let all these inquiries run their course and let us find out what has really been happening and what should really happen to properly manage our water resources.