I acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Wiradjuri, Wavereoo and Dhudhuroa peoples, and pay my respects to elders past and present. I acknowledge the Hon Melinda Pavey MP, the State’s Minister for Water Property and Housing. I also want to thank Justin Clancy MP, State Member for Albury and Cr Kevin Mack, Mayor of Albury City for hosting us. To Cr Linda Scott, the President of Local Government New South Wales, and Tara McCarthy, the Chief Executive, thank you for inviting me to this conference and allowing me to say a few words as the recently appointed Shadow Minister for Water.
Labor is listening.
I look forward to engaging with each of you in relation to water. I know that the expertise and experience in this room, will prove to be invaluable to both policy makers and the community as we navigate through this next extraordinarily challenging period of water management.
As you know, we’ve just come out of a federal election, which Labor lost. We are now in the process of listening. My focus has been and will be on making time for stakeholders to listen to their experience, their concerns and their expertise.
Since taking on the environment and water portfolios, I have spoken with stakeholders about how each of the Basin’s catchment is unique, as are the communities those catchments support. Such diversity only highlights the importance of ensuring local government voices are heard in the management of water resources.
Importance of Local Government in Water
It is a truism that all politics is local. And as the most localised political sphere, local governments and their members have significant capacity to influence agendas, lead public opinion, and most importantly, represent local perspectives.
Like the rest of my Labor colleagues I respect the offices that you hold, and I honour the institutions that have been built over generations in cities, towns and shires across the nation.
I was pleased that the platform we formed at the 2018 National Conference stated our support for recognising local government in the Australian constitution. Labor has always supported a greater role for local government in the national debate.
In this new term of Opposition we intend to continue to actively listen and engage. Jason Clare, the Shadow Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government is an experienced and thoughtful parliamentarian who builds strong relationships with stakeholders. Importantly, Anthony Albanese, Opposition Leader, has demonstrated his commitment to engagement with local government over many years. Labor will continue to build on our strong track record.
When it comes to managing our water, Labor sees local government as partners and experts.
Local Government has a vital role to play in ensuring that communities are involved in consultation and planning in relation to the management of the Murray Darling Basin. Local community leaders have much wisdom about their communities, local resources and the local environment.
Additionally, we all know that a strong national framework is required for managing our precious water resources and in maintaining local confidence in water management right across the Basin.
At a time when confidence, transparency and accountability in the Murray Darling Basin must be fundamentally improved, it is critical we ensure local government voices are heard in the debate about the future of the Basin.
I am grateful for the work of the Murray Darling Association, which has provided an important avenue for consultation with local government on water. This role should be recognised and supported by the federal government.
The work of the Local Government in NSW is equally as important, as New South Wales faces great challenges in relation to water; its management, its monitoring, climate change and drought, water continuity and public confidence.
Looking to the events of recent history, and experts’ future projections, the health of Australia’s largest water basin, the beloved Murray Darling Basin, is in jeopardy.
As microcosm of the broader challenges confronting the Basin, and indeed NSW, the Menindee fish kills were an ecological catastrophe, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of native fish. The scale of which was unprecedented.
As we know, the New South Wales Natural Resources Commission found that high levels of extractions had led to the Lower Darling going into hydrological drought three years early.
The Murray Darling Basin water compliance review by the Murray Darling Basin Authority found the Barwon-Darling water-sharing plan failed to provide adequate protection for environmental water, particularly during low flows.
That report also highlighted the unique challenge for New South Wales, in that NSW has the greatest number of licenses, more than 21,000, and volume of take, that being 5,700 Gigalitres, in addition to having to cover the most extensive geographic area in the Basin.
While these findings are alarming, they are there to aid and assist us in taking action to restore the rivers’ health.
Science as our guide to Basin health
One thing we can’t afford as a nation, is to have our senior politicians at war with science. The Murray Darling Basin can’t afford it, just as our other natural assets like the Great Barrier Reef can’t afford it. I know for certain that your communities can’t afford it. Because the less we confront reality in the Basin, the longer it takes to achieve a lasting and sustainable solution.
There are many interests at play in the Basin. But none more important than the survival of the Basin itself. The more we have politicians at war with the science of long term Basin survival, the more our communities across the Basin will suffer.
We should always have rigorous science. Tested, peer-reviewed, independent science.
What we can’t afford to see, is the science of ecological sustainability devolve into the new political science of “separate facts”, tailored for sectional interests.
The NSW Natural Resources Commission recent findings that the Barwon-Darling water-sharing plan and extractions are responsible for pushing the Darling to the brink of ecological collapse are deeply concerning and these findings are echoed in two previous significant scientific assessments.
The Vertessey report, one of the most significant contributions to date, found that “whilst we would not assert that excessive water extractions caused the lower Darling fish deaths in 2018-19 per se, it is clear that historic patterns of extractions in the northern Basin over the last two decades (and particularly since 2012) have reduced the resilience of riverine ecosystems in the lower Darling”.
Also warning that “maintaining the present pattern of water extractions into the future will further weaken the resilience of the riverine ecosystem and make it more vulnerable to fish death events. As such, water access and water sharing arrangements in the Barwon–Darling should be reviewed and modified”.
The Academy of Sciences report, commissioned by Labor, also found that:
“The conditions leading to this event are an interaction between a severe (but not unprecedented) drought and, more significantly, excess upstream diversion of water for irrigation.”
We need action and we need it now.
Reviews and reports into the Murray Darling over the last five years are numerous. There is, of course the Productivity Commission’s reviews from 2017 and December 2018, as well as the SA Royal Commission, as well as three compliance reviews over 2017 and 2018, and numerous Basin Reviews.
The point is, we know what needs to happen, and so the Morrison Government needs to take action now.
It’s clear from these reviews and reports that monitoring and measurement is inadequate, confidence, transparency and integrity are lacking. The Productivity Commission has made significant recommendations in this area.
Improved measurement means that communities of the Murray Darling Basin and Australians more broadly can have confidence in the Plan, it means they will have faith that sustainability and fairness are the guiding principles in the allocation of the Rivers’ water.
We know that we are in the middle of one of the worst droughts on record. Which is why this is so important.
It is also not appropriate in this environment that everyday farmers and the environment are being forced to compete with speculators and corporate water giants for much needed water, while those same organisations are being subsidised by public funds. Water speculation is clearly problematic.
I have said publicly before, that while I appreciate the Minister looking into this issue, I am concerned that a referral to the ACCC and assessment of the problem through a competition lens, doesn’t adequately address those concerns around fairness, fairness for our farmers, our communities and for the environment.
We need national leadership on water management, not a national policy vacuum where local communities are forced to fend for themselves. In Opposition, Labor is determined to hold the federal government to account for this vacuum and we will be working closely with your communities to highlight the problems and importantly listen and learn from your experience, when shaping much needed solutions.
I don’t need to tell people here today, that water is our most precious resource. Which is why it’s an honour to be the Opposition’s federal spokesperson on these issues. We must put science and facts at the centre of our decision making. We all have a deep and abiding interest in getting this right.
I look forward to meeting with many of you in the near future, and discussing how we can best work together, empower and strengthen local voices in the national water debate, to ensure the health and future sustainability of the Basin.
I know that you will all join me in continuing to push for action to ensure the health of our rivers; for farmers, for your communities, for First Nations peoples, for our environment, and for the nation.