Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021


Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:50 am

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to make my contribution to the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. This amends the Water Act to effectively split the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to create a new agency with responsibility for the compliance function and to create a new position of Inspector-General of Water Compliance to head this agency and establish new offences and civil penalty provisions for unlawful conduct relating to contraventions of the Basin Plan, taking water when not permitted and insider trading with water.

I should state from the outset that Labor supports this bill. It's a long overdue and much needed addition to the regulation of this country's largest river system. But unfortunately this bill does nothing to address one of the principal threats to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and to communities and ecosystems up and down the river. The threat is the junior coalition partner, the National Party, under the leadership of Mr Joyce. One of the first acts of the National Party after Mr Joyce's re-elevation to leadership was to vote against a motion on Monday supporting the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full and on time. Minister Pitt may well say that the government is committed to implementing the full Basin Plan, but let's wait and see how long he maintains that portfolio or, indeed, his party maintains that position.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan includes 450 gigalitres of additional flow that was supposed to be secured through efficiency measures. It was a key part of the plan. In fact, on some views, it was this commitment that secured South Australia's participation in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. That additional water was supposed to be delivered by 2024. But here we are, just three years out, with no clear pathway forward. The government has ruled out on-farm measures and buy-backs and would be looking exclusively to off-farm efficiency measures to find the additional 450 gigalitres. The problem is that the government's listed infrastructure is almost exclusively for irrigation infrastructure in New South Wales and doesn't specify how much water, if any, would be saved by the investment. In fact, only two of the 450 gigalitres have been delivered so far.

This outcome seems relatively unsurprising when you take into account the ongoing antipathy towards this additional water allocation by the Nationals. Back in 2016, Deputy Prime Minister Joyce, as he was then and as he is again now, wrote to the South Australian water minister to say that the 450 gigalitres couldn't be delivered without hurting river communities. He was more blunt in other comments, saying there wasn't 'a hope in Hades of South Australia getting the water'. Mr Joyce's comments were so alarming that the Nick Xenophon Team promised to block everything that came through the Senate, prompting then Prime Minister Turnbull to confirm in writing the government's commitment to the plan. Well, Prime Minister Turnbull's gone and Deputy Prime Minister Joyce is back and, with that, the water allocation for crucial ecosystems is under threat.

As Senator McKenzie explained to the Senate on Monday, the Nationals believe that the 450 gigalitres was never guaranteed and apparently, 'The science is now pointing to a complete rethink of how we manage the Lower Lakes in South Australia.' Even the coalition government in South Australia is spooked, with the Liberal state water minister, David Speirs, saying: 'I would be extremely disappointed if the change in the leadership for the Nationals saw a change of approach. The time for talk is over and we will continue to push all basin jurisdictions to get on with delivering what's already been agreed.' The problem is that delivering what's already been agreed, as quoted earlier, hasn't been a strong suit of this government, and this bill is the perfect example.

It is worth reviewing how this legislation came to us. Compliance has been an issue of concern for a long time and has been considered in reports, including the 2017 Murray-Darling Basin water compliance review conducted by the MDBA. The issue registered on the public's attention, though, with the 2017 Four Corners investigation into water theft, which went on to spark no less than a royal commission. In 2018 the government, in effect, accepted the recommendation of the Productivity Commission to create a Basin Plan regulator when it appointed former AFP commissioner Mick Keelty as Northern Basin Commissioner in 2018. A year later, the government scrapped the role and replaced it with an inspector-general for the Murray-Darling Basin. That appointment was on an interim basis. It was supposed to be a statutory position. It was supposed to have powers attached to it. The role was supposed to be able to refer matters to a Commonwealth integrity commissioner. In fact, Mr Keelty spent his entire time in the role without any of these things happening. It is only now, years later, that the government has introduced legislation to do any of these things. Mr Keelty's replacement in the role of Inspector-General of Water Compliance is still performing his functions on an interim basis until this legislation is passed. This hasn't been an omission without consequences. It has meant that the regulator who is meant to be charged with protecting the basin has been without the powers needed to properly investigate water crimes. It has meant that prosecutions have depended on state bodies and authorities. And it has meant that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been left to 'mark its own homework', as the Productivity Commission put it in its review.

So although Labor supports this bill, we are disappointed that it has taken eight years for this government to get to this point. This government has consistently failed to put in place the regulation needed to support the plan. It has failed to make the investments needed to make the plan work. The river, its communities and its ecosystems would be better off if the government were half as interested in delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as the National Party under Mr Joyce is in turning it into a culture wars issue. Australia's longest river system deserves so much better.


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