Water and Catchment Legislation Amendment Bill 2017

14 December 2017

It is a pleasure to rise today to speak on the Water and Catchment Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. The coalition has two primary concerns with this bill, the first being the decision by the government to delay the long-term water resource assessment for northern Victoria. Our second concern is the government's decision to legislate changes to the salinity impact charges in the Mallee region without conducting a regulatory impact statement. I will go into those two issues in more detail, but I do wish to advise that the Liberals and Nationals are moving a reasoned amendment to the effect that the bill should be withdrawn until those two issues are addressed.

I move:

That all the words after 'That' be omitted with the view of inserting in their place the words 'this house refuses to read this bill a second time until there is a regulatory impact statement completed on the bill's proposed regime for salinity impact, and until the government agrees to revert to the original time frame with respect to reviewing northern Victoria's long-term water assessment plan for 2018'.

Firstly, I would like to address some of the context around this bill. I do note that this is the first bill within the water space in three years that the government has in fact brought forward. I certainly reflect on the fact that the Minister for Water has other portfolios and no doubt is quite busy, but I do think it reflects a real lack of emphasis or care from the Andrews government in addressing water issues. I do want in particular to acknowledge the departmental officials who took the time to brief me on the details of this bill. I appreciate the work and the effort that have gone into preparing this and preparing the government's plan Water for Victoria.

It is perhaps particularly relevant to note that when the Liberals and Nationals were in government we undertook a complete rewrite of the Water Act 1989. It was a huge undertaking and one that was quite exhaustive. It was actually sitting there ready to go when the minister was first elected. I think it is somewhat disappointing that Labor actually shelved that work rather than bringing it forward, and as a consequence a lot of time and energy has been wasted. Essentially I think for three years we have not really been going anywhere.

Of course the government took a full two years to write its strategy Water for Victoria, which it released in October 2016, and it has taken more than a year from that point for us to actually see the first tranche of legislation be brought forward to implement its priorities. I understand that this is the first bill of several that will be seeking to implement the 69 actions that the government has identified under its Water for Victoria plan, but even then, when there is a debate raging, particularly in northern Victoria about the future of those communities and about the Murray-Darling Basin plan and its implementation, I would question the comparative importance of some of the issues that are being brought forward by the government in this bill.

I will give what I think is a tangible example of this: the recent coverage we have seen of water theft within the basin. On Saturday the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) released its review into compliance within the basin, which was sparked by the Four Corners report back in July which revealed some awful practices in the upstream states, where people have illegally been taking water. The minister has, I see in Monday's Australian, flagged that she sees a need for tougher penalties. After the compliance review, the Australian reported that:

Victoria was found to have better compliance but insufficient penalties for those who break the rules. Tougher penalties are being drafted.

Given that the minister has flagged the need for tougher penalties, I would have thought that she would perhaps have considered going back to the vast amount of work that the Liberals and Nationals actually did in government around the rewrite of the Water Act, which in fact would have enforced a tougher compliance regime. If she had picked up that work upon coming to government, we would have already had a regime in place that addressed the substance of the issues in the compliance review.

I certainly note that the findings of the compliance review showed that Goulburn-Murray Water has a very strong commitment to compliance and that their compliance is underpinned by sound governance arrangements. The MDBA in particular pointed to the fact that within the Goulburn Murray irrigation district we are dealing largely with a networked system where water theft is not just something that I suppose an individual might be seen as committing against the state; it is actually seen as a crime against the neighbour because everybody relies so heavily on the resources within that networked system. So I do want to point out the fact that there was a stark difference between states within that compliance review. The MDBA noted that in 2016–17 New South Wales issued about 44 warning letters and notices, Queensland issued 14 and South Australia issued 355, but in Victoria there were 562 issued. So it is apparent that Victoria and Victorian irrigators are doing the work that is required, but I feel that our reputation has somewhat been unfairly tarnished because the actual penalties that are in place were criticised by the MDBA.

Had the minister actually picked up the review of the Water Act when she came to government, we would found that that enforcement regime and those penalties would in fact already be in place. Chapter 13 of that bill — we had gone through the process of undertaking the exposure draft for that bill; it was virtually ready for introduction into Parliament — would have introduced new remedial action notices and infringement notices which could apply to a broad range of offences under the bill and regulations as well as body corporate penalties.

Part 13.3 specified that an authority or an authorised water officer could serve a remedial action notice on an owner or occupier of land if there was a specified risk, including, and I particularly note this, a risk of an adverse impact on the quality or availability of water, a risk of an adverse impact upon the environment or indeed a risk of damage to neighbouring properties. They are the very issues we have seen through that Four Corners report and the illegal theft of water in upstream states. So I do make the point that it has taken us a very long time, I think, to get to the point of having legislation in the space being brought forward. I think that the minister should be held to account for actually shelving that work for purely partisan reasons.

I do note that the government even in its plan, Water for Victoria, at page 129, actually acknowledges that Victoria's compliance and enforcement regime is outdated. Action 8.5 says quite a lot about consistency and best practice regulation, but it does not actually say a lot about what the government intends to do. So I think we have a situation now where the minister is in fact scrambling to catch up. That is disappointing, particularly for Victorian irrigators whose reputations have been affected by that.

One of the substantial aspects of this bill is the fact that it seeks to include Aboriginal values and knowledge in water resources and waterway planning. The bill includes specific requirements about how water authorities and the department actually go about consulting with Aboriginal Victorians in its water resource planning. That is done in a number of ways, depending on the instrument that is being prepared by the department or the water authority at the time. The bill requires that the minister give notice to a representative of relevant specified Aboriginal parties and invites written submissions when they are preparing a regional water strategy, which is set out in clause 45; when they are preparing a sustainable water strategy, which is set out in clauses 7 and 9; and when they are preparing a regional catchment strategy or a special plan, under clauses 85 and 86.

When the department is seeking to prepare a supply protection plan, the bill specifies that a consultative committee must include one person who represents all specified Aboriginal parties under clause 19 of the bill. Clauses 13 and 18 state that consultative committees must consist of one Aboriginal Victorian with knowledge or experience in water management when providing advice on either a sustainable water strategy or a long-term water resource assessment.

I can see how those consultation requirements could be of particular benefit in places like Kow Swamp. I remember visiting Kow Swamp a lot as a teenager. It is an off-stream water storage operated by Goulburn-Murray Water between Gunbower and Leitchville, south of the Murray, which has been used as a water storage since 1900. It is an important part of the Torrumbarry system and it is of great value to Torrumbarry irrigators, particularly because as one of those mid-Murray storages it enables the timely delivery of water to the western part of the Goulburn-Murray irrigation district (GMID).

Delivery of water from the Hume Dam takes quite some time if you are in the western reaches of the GMID, and storages like Kow Swamp ensure that there is timely delivery and give flexibility to those irrigators. Over the years it has been modified significantly, particularly since the construction of Torrumbarry Weir where I spent many a summer waterskiing as a teenager. It is also very important to note that Kow Swamp has an important Aboriginal history as a sacred resting place for ancestors of the Yorta Yorta people. The remains there were discovered between 1968 and 1972. They are the remains of Pleistocene-era Aboriginal people and are believed to be more than 20 000 years old.

So there are sites within the water space of Victoria which remain important for Aboriginal people and I think it makes sense for them to have input into the management of a site such as Kow Swamp. I think that also needs to be balanced against the fact that water policy is incredibly complex. There are of course livelihoods that depend on the management of water and the primacy of entitlements must always be respected and managed accordingly. Those two things certainly need to be balanced, but I think the inclusion of Aboriginal people in determining and providing an input into those plans can be seen as a good thing in places like Kow Swamp, where there is a very strong interest in ensuring that those sites are preserved and their significance is recognised.

In terms of the Victorian environmental water holder, this bill adds a legislative obligation that they will also now be required to consider opportunities to provide for Aboriginal cultural values and the uses of waterways as well as social and recreational uses. That is the other major aspect of this bill — that water authorities will now have to recognise the recreational possibilities of the water they manage. I think that represents quite a major shift in how water is managed in Victoria. I do not doubt that there are some places where water can be managed more effectively. One that springs to mind for me is the pondage at Eildon, where there are tourism operators who certainly derive great value from the GMID asset there.

Whilst I think it is a good thing for our water authorities to be more public-facing in many ways, I think the government needs to be very careful that it does not set a lot of our water authorities on a path of conflict in the longer term with communities. I can see that there is a potential for that to occur with some of these changes. The issue that perhaps comes to mind for me is Lake Eppalock, which is in my own electorate. In 2016 there were significant issues for the communities around Lake Eppalock, in particular Heathcote and Axedale, where the needs of tourism operators and indeed business owners in the town came into conflict with the environmental needs and the call that irrigators had for the water within that storage. There was an article published in the Bendigo Advertiser titled 'Dry Lake Eppalock spells trouble for traders' which told the story of Tracey Westhorpe. She described how she had moved from Melbourne and how Eppalock had been a great source of revenue for her with her store, particularly over the summer months, but when water was low in Eppalock that business disappeared.

There is a fundamental issue there, I think. It presents a very difficult problem for those communities, who are not always aware that the water that is held in storage, like at Lake Eppalock, is held under entitlement and is owned by people who do have the right to make a call on those entitlements. I acknowledge the fact that the government has addressed the fact that entitlements maintain their primacy, but there is a danger of encouraging tourism and encouraging business to grow around the recreational values of a lake or waterway when people do not always understand that that water may not be there. So I would certainly urge the government to think about how it goes about communicating that.

The other issue I have is that I think it runs the risk of dragging water authorities away from their core business, which is delivering water efficiently and at a low cost. We need to remember that livelihoods depend on the delivery of water. It is incumbent upon water authorities to maintain that firmly as their primary mission. By placing a whole new set of obligations on them we run the risk of them taking their eye off the ball.

I moved the reasoned amendment earlier in my contribution. As far as the long-term water resource assessments go, the bill extends the assessment for northern Victoria out to 2026. Clause 14 extends the time to conduct the assessment from 12 months to 18 months. I am not so fussed about the extension of time — I think it is important that we take the time to get that right — but the Water Act does specify that those resource assessments are required every 15 years. They are important because they take stock of our water resources and they are designed to use the best available data to determine what the long-term availability of water is in those communities.

Presently that process is due to commence next year in both northern and southern Victoria, and the government's rationale for moving that assessment back is that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is due to undertake its review of the southern basin in 2026. My concern about that is that we are kicking the can down the road on that assessment. I think that rather than simply accepting that the MDBA is not going to review the southern basin until 2026, we should in fact be positioning ourselves to have the best available data early and we should perhaps be acting in the interests of Victorians and calling for that review to be undertaken before 2026. My understanding of the act is that the review is required by 2026, but that does not mean it has to be pushed out for another eight years.

I have had conversations with irrigators across the southern basin, and many of them are calling for us to take stock of where we are at. I think we abrogate ourselves of our responsibility. Whilst it might be the politically easy option, we are taking our eyes off the ball if we just push that assessment out for another seven years. We are going through one of the greatest changes in the history of water in this country. We are implementing one of the most complex pieces of legislation, and we need to make sure it is done correctly. We need to make sure that we have the data that is required for us to position Victoria's interests and to ensure that we can make the socio-economic case for not losing more water from the basin. My concern is that if we simply say, 'Okay, MDBA are not going to undertake this review until 2026, and we'll push our assessment out until then as well', we disadvantage ourselves by effectively shutting our eyes and hoping that all will be well when the time comes for the MDBA to undertake that review. We need to know where we stand ahead of the evaluation of the southern basin.

The second major issue we have with this bill is the decision to legislate the salinity impact charges in the Mallee to allow those charges to be collected by the water authority or by the catchment management authority (CMA). Water for Victoria I see acknowledges the salinity issues in the Mallee, but it makes no mention of the amendment that the government has proposed to actually give the CMA or the water authority the power to collect those salinity impact charges on behalf of the minister.

The salinity impact zones were first set up in 1993. There was a Nyah to South Australian border salinity management plan that was implemented then, and it was reviewed in 2002. But there is a lot that has changed within the lower reaches of the Murray in the Sunraysia district since those salinity impact zones were first created. There has been a vast amount of water that has moved downstream, and perhaps most significantly we now have environmental flows on a scale that was not there when those charges were first brought in. So I think it is somewhat short-sighted of the government to just legislate these charges into perpetuity. I think a better approach would be to stop and actually review the charges to ensure that they are current, are necessary and are doing what they were set up to do.

Primarily I think the government should be undertaking a regulatory impact statement (RIS) before it moves to legislate those charges. My understanding is that the department are not yet certain whether a RIS is required, but their advice was that they would seek to undertake a RIS should one be required after the bill passes. Fundamentally I think that is poor public policy. I think a RIS should be undertaken first and then that should be brought forward when we have a full understanding of what the impact of that might be. I do understand that the salinity impact zones already exist, but there is no sense in simply legislating that when there is so much that has changed in the Mallee in the last 10 years since those charges were reviewed in 2002.

In conclusion, I know that to the majority of people a lot of these changes might seem bureaucratic, but I think when it comes to the implementation of the basin plan we cannot afford to get it wrong. The basin is home to more than 2 million Australians. It produces 40 per cent of the nation's agricultural produce in dollar terms. It is a critical environment to much of our native flora and fauna, and it is incumbent upon on us to address the health of the basin and to address the risks of climate change. Getting right the balance between that and the needs of our productive communities and the people who live within the basin is not always an easy thing to do, but I think that the best way for us to move forward is to undertake that water resource assessment according to our regional time frame. Perhaps that assessment will also consider the implementation of salinity charges as well. So there is the prospect, perhaps, that the government might kill two birds with one stone if it goes ahead and maintains the long-term water resource assessment in line with its original plan for 2019.

With those comments I urge those on the opposite side to give consideration to the reasoned amendment. I recognise that the Murray-Darling Basin is a long way from many of their electorates, but it is fundamentally an issue that is critical not just to the future of the communities that live there but also to the future of our state and of our nation.

Together we can make a difference

Help build a better Euroa

Volunteer Now
Created with NationBuilder