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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 258

Senator KEMP (1:27 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

This is an historic Bill and I congratulate the Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, for his bold vision.

We now have a genuine opportunity to have the Murray Darling Basin managed in a sustainable fashion.

The Bill has overwhelming support.  Of course some would like to make further changes, but it is certainly true to say virtually all stakeholders want this legislation in place.

Four Labor governments, the ALP Federal opposition, farmers organisations and many environmental groups support the Bill.

In short, a remarkable consensus has emerged. But there is one stakeholder that has fought tooth and nail to derail this historic reform. I refer to the State Government of Victoria.

As result of the wreaking activities of the Victorian Government the original proposal announced in January seeking a referral of powers from the States in now not practical and the Commonwealth has now had to legislate to bring about the necessary changes.

Nevertheless, as Mr Turnbull points out, through this legislation the Commonwealth will obtain about 75% of the reforms we set out to achieve. While we are disappointed with the Victorian Government’s lack of cooperation, this reform, this legislation, represents the biggest, most important reform of water management in our history.

It is 100% better than the current arrangements in the Murray-Darling Basin.

As I indicated, everyone has offered their contributions to the development of the proposed bill. There has been an extensive consultation process prior to finalisation of the Bill. 

But, the Victorian Government has been singularly uncooperative in that process.

Almost from the word go, it appeared that the Victorian Government was prepared to wreck this proposal.

But, while Mr Bracks was apparently giving early signals Victoria was prepared to support the plan, it is now apparent that they were never going to negotiate in good faith.

And I don’t expect things will be getting any better given the attitude of Premier Brumby.

Premier Brumby’s attitude has been reflected in the attitude of Victorian Public servants.

Numerous meetings have been held with state officials over the last 5 months to finesse the proposal. I understand the Victorian officials made virtually no contribution to the deliberations of these committees.

The Bill was considered by the Senate Environment, Communications, IT and the Arts Committee on Friday.  I am sorry to report to the Senate that the performance of Mr Harris, Secretary of the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria, surprised a number of members of the Committee.

Mr Harris’ comments were strangely political for a public servant.

All the senior Public Servants from other states were careful not to enter into political debates. But not Mr Harris. His efforts to score political points were poorly received.

He also made several statements that were hard to reconcile.

For example, he argued that the Victorian Government position enjoyed widespread support from the farming and irrigation communities as well as environmental groups.

But the Victorian Farmers Federation and the Northern Victorian Irrigators—the two peak bodies representing irrigators in Victoria have publicly supported the Commonwealth Bill.

The environmental groups appearing before the committee, while, certainly raising some issues, still wanted the bill to proceed immediately.

So Mr Harris’s claim of widespread support for the Victorian Government’s position seems to be totally unfounded.

 Mr Harris’s evidence in relation to Victorian initiatives to upgrade infrastructure was also unsatisfactory. He indicated that Victoria had committed $1 billion to a water reform package to upgrade Victoria’s infrastructure. 

But when I questioned him on this he admitted that it amounts to just over $150 million per year, over 6 years.

If I was a Victorian irrigator I would certainly want to carefully monitor the delivery on this promise.

Then, by his own admission, he explained that really the Victorian Government needs a further $1 billion to undertake the necessary upgrades.  The Victorian Government needs to spend $2 billion to upgrade their aging and very leaky water infrastructure.  Yet they have committed to invest half this amount over the next 6 years.

In short the Victorian Government has at least a $1 billion black hole when it comes to investing to upgrade their water infrastructure.

By stalling, by refusing to cooperate, Premier Brumby is rejecting the biggest and most important reform of water management in Australian history.

The weak performance of the Victorian Government on the National scene is not surprising particular given its mishandling of domestic water supplies to Melbourne.

We are now in the tenth year of the worst drought in one hundred years. Victoria is facing a water crisis. Where, has been the forward planning?

What we have is a dog of a project, the North-South pipeline, which is being imposed on the good people of the Goulburn Murray Valley.

It is already a huge issue in Victoria.

Prior to the election Brumby and Thwaites strongly criticised the Liberals proposal for a desalination plant. But now they have embraced this concept. But as is the practice with Victorian Government initiatives, there are already problems over implementation including the location of the plant.

Water policy is going to be a major area of public debate in Victoria in the years ahead.

The performance of the Victorian Government to date, in particular its efforts to wreak the National approach to the Murray Darling basin gives little confidence in their capacity to deal with the massive water challenges facing the state.

With an incoherent water policy, despite a desperate lack of water, I cannot see why the Victorian Government is so eager to reject the Commonwealth Water Bill, and the significant investment that comes with it.

Premier Brumby has everything to gain and nothing to lose by supporting the Plan, and were it not for election year politics, he would readily admit this. 

This is a vital piece of national legislation, and not just for our generation but for the next as well.

I, for one, commend the Water Bill 2007 to the Chamber.