Snowy Hydro Limited transfer of ownership

28 March 2018

Ms Ryan - The Snowy Mountains scheme is an iconic asset, as we all know, and there is a high degree of ownership felt in country communities in particular for that scheme. The Snowy is not just an awe-inspiring feat of engineering; it also tells the story of multiculturalism in Australia and our transformation post-World War II.

It has been vital to irrigators and farming communities in surviving the vagaries of drought and the Australian climate and in protecting the health of the Murray River.

The motion before us today approves the sale of Victoria's 29 per cent share of the Snowy Hydro to the commonwealth. We do not oppose this sale, because we recognise that Victorians want the state to continue building infrastructure, but I believe there are three key principles which the government must commit to. Over the years, The Nationals have fought to keep the Snowy Hydro in public hands, and our commitment to that has not changed. Secondly, the sale to the commonwealth must not affect irrigators' entitlements or allocations or environmental entitlements either. We heard some general assurances from the minister, but I would have preferred her to be a lot more specific. Finally, country Victoria must receive a return on the proceeds of the sale of the Snowy Hydro. It is fundamentally a piece of country infrastructure, and as I said before, the country has very high ownership over it.

The Snowy Mountains scheme came into being after World War II, but the notion of actually diverting the melting snow on the Australian Alps for irrigation had been discussed since the 1880s. The challenge was always diverting those melting flows from east-running rivers to the west so that they did not just run off the Great Dividing Range into the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. As the Minister for Water said, the headwaters of some of Australia's most iconic rivers, including the Murray — as well as the Murrumbidgee, Tumut, Tooma and Geehi rivers, which all become tributaries to the Murray — originate in the Snowy Mountains. The damming of those east-flowing rivers into alpine lakes enabled water to be diverted west to the Murray as it flows some 2500 kilometres to the Murray mouth in South Australia.

At the end of World War II there was a crisis in Europe. The Allies had to find homes for about 8 million people, 2 million of whom were actually stateless, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration issued a plea to Australia, to Prime Minister Ben Chifley, to take 100 000 homeless Europeans. The request came as Chifley was finalising plans for the Snowy Hydro, and as a consequence we had people from more than 30 nations arrive in the High Country to build what has become one of the greatest nation-shaping assets that Australia has ever seen.

Construction started on 17 October 1949 and was completed 25 years later, in 1974, for a total historical cost of $820 million. So you would have to say that the Victorian government is getting a fairly fine return for an asset that cost $820 million that the commonwealth paid for. The scheme consists of seven power stations, 16 major dams, 145 kilometres of interconnected tunnels and 80 kilometres of aqueduct.

But for all the romance of the Snowy story, there was also tragedy. The official death toll is somewhere around 121 people, although there are severe gaps in records, and one policeman has estimated that he alone handled 130 deaths on the scheme. There were also a significant number of suicides by people who were dealing with post-traumatic stress and loneliness following the war.

I mention that because I think the government, with the distance that time brings, views the motion before the house to sell Victoria's stake in the Snowy Hydro with a degree of detachment. But there is no detachment for those country communities whose livelihoods rely and for whom the production of agriculture relies on the Snowy Mountains scheme, or indeed for those families who lost people to build the Snowy scheme. That is one of the reasons why the Snowy must remain in public hands. It is not just an iconic piece of infrastructure; it is vital to the health of the Murray River and the livelihoods of literally thousands of people who live in northern Victoria.

I call on the government to absolutely guarantee that the scheme will remain in public ownership and that that is a condition of its sale. All we have had so far, as I mentioned earlier, is a general assurance from the Minister for Water and from the government that the sale will not affect the entitlements of irrigators or environmental flows. I think those opposite need to give a public commitment today, not just in general terms but specifically, that there will be no variation to the Snowy water licence as a result of the sale to the commonwealth.

The water minister said in her contribution that irrigators' entitlements have been front and centre in this debate. Quite frankly, I have not seen that. After seeing the deception from those opposite relating to the sale of the port of Melbourne and the sale of the Rural Finance Corporation — where they promised proceeds would come back to country Victoria, which they never did — I am not content to simply take her word for that. She needs to explicitly state what guarantees exist for Victorian irrigators and give a guarantee that the 106 pages in this document which outline the operation of the Snowy will not be changed.

The Snowy water licence confers both rights and obligations on Snowy Hydro. It includes both flow and water release requirements. It obliges the corporation to develop an annual water operating plan and sets out the treatment of annual allocations, including the transfers of above-target water to the Murray River.

We have endured years of complex reform through the Murray-Darling Basin plan. If you look back at the history of the Snowy, you will actually discover that those debates are not at all new, but the point is that those water-sharing arrangements that we now have under the Snowy were hard-won, and we need a public commitment from those opposite that those longstanding agreements will not simply be traded away for a quick grab for cash before the election.

We have also sought a guarantee from the government that proceeds from the sale will return to country Victoria, and that is for very good reason. As I said earlier, Labor has form in this area. It promised 10 per cent of the proceeds from the sale of the port of Melbourne would return to country Victoria, and that was supposed to be above and beyond — additional spending. We have seen a pea and thimble trick, where general government spending has been substituted for that funding and so the government has claimed that it has ticked off on its responsibilities to rural and regional Victoria. That is just showing complete contempt for country communities, and quite frankly I do not have much faith that it will deliver on any kind of commitment with the Snowy either. We are still owed $723 million of the $970 million that was promised from the sale of the port of Melbourne. We have also had the proceeds from the sale of Rural Finance Corporation disappear. Labor has wilfully neglected country Victoria, and quite frankly we have had enough of it.

These are the three key principles: that the scheme must remain in public hands; that the environmental entitlements and irrigators' entitlements must be protected, and not just through general statements of, 'Oh, yes, we've spoken to the commonwealth and all will be sweet', but actually through a commitment that there will not be variations to the Snowy licence; and, finally, that country Victoria will see some return from the proceeds. As the shadow Treasurer has outlined, we have earmarked some of the proceeds to go towards removing key intersection crossings, but there are also remaining funds there that we believe should be spent in rural and regional Victoria.

The construction of the Snowy Hydro made us better as a nation. It taught us to think big and to put prejudice and parochialism aside. The scheme has sustained the Murray River and the communities that live along it through some terrible droughts, and that is one of the reasons that there is deep emotion about the Snowy, particularly in northern Victoria. As I said before, regional Victoria deserves to see a return on this asset, and we must have an ironclad guarantee from the government that there will be no variation to the Snowy licence and that the scheme will remain in public hands.

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