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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8172

Mrs MARKUS (9:30 PM) —Tonight I draw the House’s attention to the plight of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River. While the national spotlight has been on solutions for the Murray-Darling, and rightly so, at the same time we have a major problem right in our own backyard. The Hawkesbury-Nepean river system supports five million people in over 20 local government areas, including my electorate of Greenway. The river system supports an annual farm gate value of well over $1 billion. The river system supplies 97 per cent of drinking water for metropolitan Sydney and can no longer be ignored.

Recently, I joined 80 other concerned local people at a river summit hosted by the Hawkesbury City Council. The purpose of the summit was to raise awareness of the problems, articulate the issues and come up with a range of solutions to give the Hawkesbury-Nepean river system a fighting chance. Environmental flows, erosion, flooding, population pressure, sewerage, storm water irrigation, water quality and weeds were just some of the problems raised. I stayed at the summit all day to listen to the concerns and challenges facing people who want something done now.

I became aware of the issues when my electorate expanded to cover the Hawkesbury and when in government the coalition committed significant funding to address the problems. Since the election of a Labor government, it seems like the Hawkesbury-Nepean has become the forgotten problem. Back in June 2008, I directed a question without notice to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, the Hon. Peter Garrett, and he responded as if he did not have a clue what was happening to this vitally important river system. The minister’s response on 16 June was to blame the New South Wales government. He said:

I want to put on the record that the Australian government has invited the New South Wales government to bring forward a comprehensive proposal under the Water Smart Australia program …

He said:

… the level of Australian government funding for this activity will be determined on the basis of the New South Wales government’s proposal.

He also said that:

… as part of Caring for our Country, the government has committed funding of just over half a million dollars for the implementation of a river health strategy and investment in in-stream habitat.

Half a million dollars is an embarrassment when compared to the $132.5 million committed by the federal coalition in 2007.

What has the New South Wales government done about this proposal? It appears to be nothing. I raised the issue of the $132.5 million promised by the coalition directly with the Hon. Nathan Rees, who also attended the summit. Mr Rees is now Premier of New South Wales but a month ago was the New South Wales Minister for Water. He said he would look into it. I wrote to Mr Rees earlier this month to follow up. I also wrote to Mr Garrett. In my letters, I called on both men, as a matter of urgency, to immediately release the $132.5 million in funding so that work could start on improving the health of the Hawkesbury-Nepean river system.

With Labor governments federally and in New South Wales, the Labor government has fostered an expectation of cooperation between the levels of government to address critical issues as they arise. I am sad to say that those expectations are proving to be unrealised as, to date, neither man has responded. How long does the river have to wait? How many times do local people, local governments and local businesses have to develop solutions that never materialise because the Labor government is ignoring this important river system?

The solutions are there, but no-one in either Labor government is listening, and their deafening silence in answer to calls for the release of funding clearly shows they either do not care about the Hawkesbury-Nepean River or are not competent enough to juggle competing water crises. I am not talking about ignoring the Murray-Darling at the expense of the Hawkesbury-Nepean or vice versa. Why can’t both be given the funding they need? The coalition left a great economic legacy—a healthy surplus and no federal government debt. Why then can’t they find the $132.5 million already committed to fund the Hawkesbury-Nepean program to save the river?

There is a lot of talk by the government about the Hawkesbury-Nepean River system, but there is no action. Even the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator the Hon. Penny Wong, back in April 2008, talked up the government’s response to secure a long-term water supply for all Australians through the Water for the Future program. This plan, the minister said, was an election promise to develop a single, coherent, national framework that integrated rural and urban water issues. As far as I am concerned, if there is no funding going to the Hawkesbury-Nepean then this program is just all talk and no action. At the summit, people restated the obvious: the river is severely degraded, the problems will only get worse with increased population pressure and people want action now— (Time expired)