Australia needs a national water strategy

By Terri Butler MP

26 February 2020

This seven-year-old chaotic government was supposed to deliver water security for Australians, but instead our country is desperately seeking national leadership on water. Australians have faced the worst drought on record and are crying out for the federal government to take water security seriously, but water security is a mess. Regional towns at the point of or on the brink of running out of water have been forced to truck it in, and they have been calling out for help. Independent body Infrastructure Australia has noted that crises like the Menindee fish kill have undermined confidence in the governance and management of Australia's water resources.

You might ask, Mr Deputy Speaker O'Brien, 'Why did the Labor Party set up Infrastructure Australia when they were last in government?' Why did we do that? Was it because we needed to take the politics out of infrastructure to try to ensure that future governments didn't use the infrastructure budget like some sort of personal piggy bank, to avoid boondoggles, rorts and the political apportionment of public funds? I think it was all pretty important, and I think we've seen pretty recently, through sports rorts, urban congestion rorts and all of the different corrupt rorting programs that we've seen under this government, exactly why we need independent advice that can talk to government about what is needed.

When it comes to water management, Infrastructure Australia have today put water security and the need for a national water strategy at the heart of the release of the national priority list for infrastructure, and they've done that because, frankly, this government has vacated the field when it comes to water security and water infrastructure. The country is crying out for leadership, but the Liberals and the Nationals have left a leadership vacuum in water management and water security, and it's now been left to someone else to fill that vacuum.

As I said, Infrastructure Australia has noted that crises like the Menindee fish kill have undermined confidence in the governance and management of Australia's water resources. I would add that, between inadequate water management, big subsidies being paid to partly foreign-owned corporations, speculators in the water market and scandals involving Liberal and National government ministers, Australians do not trust the Liberals and Nationals to manage water fairly. Meanwhile, infighting within the Nationals and infighting about water between the Nationals and the Liberals is at its peak. The Liberals and Nationals have mismanaged our most precious resource, water, with Australian farmers, communities and our natural environment paying a massive price. Their woeful track record has left a massive leadership vacuum.

As I said, Infrastructure Australia has today launched its 2020 Infrastructure Priority List. The list sets out the nationally significant infrastructure investments Australia needs over the next 15 years, and, with the Liberals and Nationals so hopeless and unreliable when it comes to water, it has fallen to Infrastructure Australia to take the lead. For the first time the list contains priority initiatives in relation to the need for a national water strategy and in relation to water security for towns and cities.

Infrastructure Australia are clearly deeply concerned about this government's abject failure to deliver water security, so they've called for a national water strategy to fill the void. Under the Liberals and Nationals, water management has been beset by broken promises and mismanagement. The mismanagement started really early. Do people remember—I'm sure you do—that in 2014, after talking a big game on water from opposition, the new government came in and did what? They axed the National Water Commission. They axed it. Do you know why they said it could be axed? They said it was because there was no longer adequate justification for a standalone agency to monitor Australia's progress on water reform. How wrong can you be? Absolute genius it was to get rid of the National Water Commission!

It took them a while, but they finally worked out their error because, before last year's election, the government, seemingly admitting that it was wrong to axe the commission, scrambled to try to reverse the damage. The now Deputy Prime Minister promised to take the politics out of water—where have we heard that before?—by creating, guess what, an independent statutory authority! We had an independent statutory authority in the National Water Commission, but they created—actually, they set aside; they haven't created it at all. They made a promise to create an independent statutory authority—the National Water Grid Authority.

But they broke the promise. This is a broken promise from this government. Instead, there's no independent statutory authority. There is a so-called National Water Grid Authority, but it's a group within the department; it's not independent, it's not statutory. The government has been caught out breaking a central plank of their election commitment to drought-ravaged Australian communities. The planned authority has turned out to be a mirage. In drought-stricken regional communities, the Nationals pinned their credibility to the establishment of the National Water Grid Authority, which was to be independent and statutory—to take the politics out of water—and they did that to win votes. But it was just a fib. The Deputy Prime Minister claimed that it would be established, but no such body exists. The deputy secretary of the responsible department at the time, Dr Rachel Bacon, confirmed in Senate estimates in October that it's not actually an independent authority. There is no independent statutory authority. This is just another example of this loose-with-the-truth government saying one thing and doing another, and it is absolutely not good enough.

Infrastructure Australia has also joined the growing list of organisations sounding the alarm about the impact of climate change on water availability and water security in this country. But this government is just too busy with its internal ideological warfare to have a meaningful and serious approach to climate change. And now the Liberals and Nationals have a new water minister with a track record of opposing climate action. After the member for New England dumped him, in 2017, the new minister made it back into the ministry three months later. But he then resigned from the ministry, less than six months after that, because he thought even the Morrison government's non-existent climate policy was too much. The new minister must also be honest with the Australian people about the government's intentions when it comes to water. He must face up to the fact that climate change is hitting water availability and water security hard.

Perhaps most egregious is that, before coming to office, the coalition said they were going to build 100 dams. The member for New England said at the time that it was a key election commitment. And what have they done? There are not 100 new dams. These guys have now been in government for seven years. Have they built the promised, much-lauded 100 new dams? People across this country are crying out for water storage. They're crying out for a proper approach to water management and water security. This mob claimed that they were going to build 100 dams—how many have they built? It's just a deeply embarrassing situation, isn't it? In fact, the only thing that they are able to point to is a contribution they made to a dam that was built in a project in Tasmania that Labor had kicked off. So much for 100 dams; they've gotten nowhere on 100 dams.

Last year in October we saw a spectacular example of how the government talks out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to dams and water storage. We had the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the member for New England stand up in October and claim that they were going to work with the New South Wales government to put in 50 per cent for new dam investments. Within 48 hours that claim was trashed: it wasn't 50 per cent, it was 25 per cent. We tried to get the Prime Minister to correct the record, and to come in and fess up to the fact that he'd made this claim to the people of New South Wales that wasn't accurate. But he didn't want to. Because, do you know what, Deputy Speaker? This Prime Minister never likes to admit it when he is wrong. And he certainly doesn't like to admit it when he's been caught out saying something that's not true. We saw some evidence of that today in question time today, didn't we? Here is a man who is so stubborn and so arrogant—who cannot lie straight in bed!— that he will never admit that he is wrong. And do you know what his reaction is when he's caught out, like he was today? He doesn't come in and correct the record. He's not apologetic. He doesn't apologise to the Australian people for what he's said. He just doubles down. He thinks he can spin his way out of anything, because he is an adman without a plan. He is someone that the Australian people cannot trust when it comes to water.

All of these reasons are why Infrastructure Australia, which is where we started—and which Labor established—is so important. Regional rorts, sports rorts, Urban Congestion Fund rorts—this government just can't be trusted to manage public money without using it for their own political purposes. Labor established Infrastructure Australia so that infrastructure spending would be based on the business case, not the political case—so that it would be spent on public benefit, not on ideas that have been run through colour-coded spreadsheets; and so that it would be spent on productivity, not Liberal-National target seats. This government must pay close attention to today's Infrastructure Australia list and start standing up for Australians, not just for themselves.