Water security in the 2020s and beyond

By Terri Butler MP

08 October 2020

Today I want to talk about Labor’s approach to Basin issues, and the importance of instilling trust, confidence and respect into water management and governance. Before I do, I wanted to acknowledge your organisation’s work.

I pay tribute to your President, my good friend Councillor Linda Scott, for her leadership and advocacy. With her at the helm you have worked together through difficult circumstances to achieve real results for your residents. You have secured partnerships and alignment with the New South Wales government, and you have made sure local government has been at the forefront of making sure communities have kept safe during covid. You have done this while dealing with a range of other crises and their aftermath.

As I said to you when I addressed you in Albury last year, Labor sees local government as partners and experts in water management.

And one of the biggest issues for local governments is water security.

I know many of you have faced the threat of running out of water, and for some of you that threat became a reality. Last year was a horror year. We saw places having to truck in water, with ten regional NSW cities or towns at or close to day zero, and others having only six to 12 months of supply, or water quality problems.

It is wrong to blame local governments when regional cities and towns reach day zero or are under stress from water scarcity. The recent audit report has shown that. That report has found the government wanting.

The auditor’s finding that the government does not have strategic water plans in place at state and regional levels is quite shocking. So too is the finding that the government took four years to even start regional water planning, after making a commitment back in 2014.

In our system of democracy the Minister bears responsibility for the actions of her department. The buck stops with the Minister.

She must now act on the audit report in order to build resilience and make sure that towns can have water security as the climate changes and droughts become longer and more severe.

At the same time, the Morrison government must act on water security for the nation.

When Infrastructure Australia released its priority lists in February this year, it included two new specific high priority initiatives on water: a town and city water security priority, and a proposal for a national water strategy.

I know that between droughts, fires, floods, the pandemic and the worst recession in almost a century, the Morrison government has plenty of problems. But that does not relieve them of the responsibility to show leadership and take action on our nation’s water security, and the Infrastructure Australia proposals are a good place to start. We need a government that can manage all of the competing priorities and that means planning for the future, not lurching from crisis to crisis. It means making good on commitments, not just making announcements that don’t come to fruition.

We also need the Morrison government to restore trust and confidence in the Murray Darling Basin.

We have had report after report say the same thing: people are losing trust.

So, the government should take action on the various reports, and implement real change to improve water management and governance.

We welcomed the Minister’s recent announcements, including funding, and the separation of compliance out of the MDBA. We had committed to do so at the 2019 election, and the Productivity Commission had recommended the separation in 2018. So I’m pleased that the Minister has announced an intention to do this.

But the Morrison government has a tendency to be all about the photo op, and not about the follow-up. So the real test will be not what they say, but what they do.

For example, a year after the Interim Inspector General position was announced and the government claimed to have secured the agreement of the Basin jurisdictions, the position remains interim. It has no statutory basis, and no statutory powers. Despite the government’s claims more than a year ago, there is no National Integrity Commission for it to refer to.

And now the Daily Telegraph is reporting that it will take another year for the new compliance agency to be up and running. No wonder people are losing trust and confidence. This is crucial because losing trust means losing good faith and the inclination to cooperate. If you feel like you’re being taken for a mug, or that there is corruption, or that others are not complying with the rules, then it’s human nature to be less inclined to follow the letter and the spirit of the rules.

As another example of announcing but not delivering, consider the National Water Grid Authority. The government has broken its election commitment to establish this as a statutory body, which would have given it independence. Instead, it’s a group within the department. The government recently announced a new advisory committee for it. This announcement is being made six years after the government declared “mission accomplished” on water management and abolished the National Water Commission. And it’s a long way short of delivering on the National Water Strategy that Infrastructure Australia has proposed.

Let me make some further short remarks about the Basin.

As you all know the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists recently published a report on observed versus expected flows, which showed that two trillion litres, or 20%, of water was missing over the past seven years. They found that 24 of 27 sites received less water than expected when modelled in 2012, even accounting for the drought conditions, and three sites received less than half of what was expected. There were various potential reasons for the reduction. But what it is crystal clear is that monitoring and data collection must be improved, and the government must redouble its efforts to improve water management and governance. It should do so in close partnership with local governments.

Among the many reports and issues posing challenges for the government, the forthcoming ACCC report will be of great importance. The interim report has shone a light on serious flaws in the water market arrangements – including the lack of regulation for brokers and intermediaries, the absence of market surveillance, pronounced information asymmetry, inconsistencies between the states, the disconnect between the rules of the trading system and the physical characteristics of the river system, and governance failures. The report says that these problems have the effect of eroding trust in the markets and the institutions. As I have just said, trust is crucial and its erosion is a significant problem. So I look forward to seeing the final report, due in February, and, importantly, I look forward to hearing what the government intends to do in response to it.

And Australians need to be reassured that the Morrison government has not given up on the Murray Darling Basin Plan. The Minister’s recent positioning on buybacks has led to no practical change for communities, because there have been no buybacks for some time. But what his announcement has done is significantly weaken his bargaining power with the states. 

And a matter of days after the federal Minister took away this incentive for the states to make good on their commitments, the New South Wales Minister told a Senate Inquiry that New South Wales cannot deliver key projects on time. That directly puts water recovery in jeopardy. The water recovery targets were reduced on the basis that the Basin jurisdictions would deliver equivalent savings with these projects. So the Morrison government must say how they intend to make sure the 605 gigalitres will be delivered. They should do the same in relation to the 450 gigalitres as well, since less than 1% of that volume has been recovered according to the Water for the Environment Special Account Review.

Let me end by saying that in the current environment of great uncertainty and difficulty, Australians want Oppositions to be constructive and they want leaders to work together despite party differences. This is the approach I am seeking to take as the shadow water minister. Where I can agree with the Minister, I will do so. This does not mean I will abrogate my responsibility to hold the government to account, apply scrutiny, and offer constructive criticism, which I have tried to do today.