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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14963

Ms BURKE (9:00 PM) —In resolution 55/196, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater. This proclamation provides the opportunity and impetus to further implement water resource management principles on an international level and, consequently, on a national, state and municipal basis. It is a pity that Australia has not adopted this international year. Fresh water is the most important natural resource in existence—a fact especially relevant to Australia, the driest inhabited continent in the world. Fresh water is vital for human health, social development and economic productivity, with its scarcity or abundance being an indication of the wellbeing of the population, the economy and the nation as a whole.

Given this backdrop, it is not surprising that when there is a decrease in the per capita availability of fresh water there is a need for concern. Over the past 50 years or so, with increased water abstractions and pollution coupled with population pressures, the international per capita availability has dropped by nearly 60 per cent. This is predicted to fall further as abstractions progressively increase and ground water pollution worsens.

My electorate of Chisholm is fortunate; it lies within the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, one of only five cities in the world that has protected wilderness catchments which are closed to human activity to protect water quality and public health, with water that is largely unfiltered, with minimal chlorine. However, just like the rest of eastern and northern Australia, there is an ever-reducing amount of water due to the climatic changes brought about by El Nino, bringing on one of the worst droughts in living memory; a drought that has devastated rural communities and altered the water use habits of those in the suburbs.

So what can be done about this devastating situation? Many would argue that nothing can be done—but not my state Labor parliamentary colleagues. They have implemented enterprising initiatives to manage us through the present crisis and beyond. Victoria is the first state in Australia to have a Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, a position with the responsibility to properly manage and protect our natural heritage. They are amending the Victorian constitution to entrench in public hands the responsibility for the delivery of water services. Moreover, the presenting of the Savewater awards in March gives deserved recognition to those businesses that implement and promote water sustainability. But arguably the most dramatic measure has been the courage to implement water restrictions, which many would have said was political suicide. However, what these detractors do not realise is that, when a decision is based on what is best for the people, then those very people will offer at least their understanding, if not wholehearted support.

This lifestyle sacrifice has been adhered to, if not embraced, by all Victorians, with not one prosecution necessary to date for breaching the stage 1 measures in place. In fact, the measures have encouraged volunteer groups to become more active in improving waterways and the surrounding areas. I take particular pride in mentioning two such groups in my electorate: Friends of Damper Creek, and Friends of Scotchman's Creek and Valley Reserve, which have received grants to continue their important work.

But can the same attitude and principled approach be said of the federal government? Typically, no. Everyone affected by the current drought conditions is trying to do their part, but the federal Liberal government is being its usual obstinate self. In an effort to further sustainable water management, the Victorian government is committing $77 million to the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline project, a project of national importance. But what has the federal government done? Instead of matching the amount for this project, it has committed less than five per cent of the amount, which will make the project proceed in a piecemeal fashion rather than in the comprehensive manner that it so very much deserves. This project is vital. It is estimated to save 83 per cent of the water lost through seepage and evaporation, which is about 93,000 megalitres per year. Unfortunately, this is typical of the Liberal government. After seven years of drought and the challenges facing the Victorian people, it has ignored them when they are in need. When will the Liberal government understand that such a vital resource as water is not a political football? It is about people's lives, the sustainability of their community and the wellbeing of the country.

I want to conclude with two points. First, I want to acknowledge the efforts of all Australians, especially Victorians and most particularly those in Chisholm, in reducing their water consumption. I know it has been a challenge, and their efforts have been extraordinary to say the least. Second, I want to congratulate the Victorian state government on taking responsible action now and having a long-term plan for water sustainability for future generations. They have given this issue the prominence, attention and action it deserves. It is a true pity that the federal government has not done the same; it continues to drag its feet.