Jul 27, 2007

Advancing water policy beyond the Election

Advancing water policy beyond the Election

Speech to the Australian Water Association

Annual Dinner in Brisbane

27 July 2007

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you tonight as Labor’s Shadow Minister for Water.

I respect the work of the Australian Water Association and its members.

As I’ve said before, this AWA is one which Labor likes.

You have been at the forefront of the water debate in Australia for many years. Indeed it is fair to say that the people in this room have been in advance of the political debate and have long recognised water as a precious and finite resource.

And, before such an audience, I am proud that, at the political level, Labor has been leading on the national water debate.

The current water debate’s origins can be traced back to 1994 when the Keating Government put national water reform on the COAG agenda. This provided the foundation of the National Water Initiative.

Simon Crean’s commitment in his Budget Reply speech of 2003 to return at least 1500GL in flows to the Murray, helped put the health of that mighty river on the political agenda.

For a long period Labor has consistently called for greater national leadership in water policy.

In December 2006, I circulated a Discussion Paper titled Protecting our Precious Natural Environment and Water Supplies. This was the first Labor discussion paper under Kevin Rudd’s leadership.

The core of Labor’s approach and the rationale of that Discussion Paper was to focus the Government’s natural resource programs on national priorities, streamline decision making and make sure that it is water that flows, rather than red tape.

And, as you know, from day one Federal Labor has provided in principle bipartisan support for the National Plan for Water Security.

It is unfortunate that negotiations broke down between the Commonwealth and Victorian Governments.

It would have been better for the Commonwealth Government to have worked constructively with the Victorian Government to reach an agreement.

It is a lost opportunity if we end up with second or third best legislation for the Murray Darling Basin, as appears likely because drafters will be focussed on making sure the legislation survives the High Court, and less on the survival of the river system itself.

For that reason, we urge the Prime Minister to rethink his approach and reopen discussions with Victoria.

It might be politically convenient to establish a line of conflict between the Commonwealth and the States on a range of issues, but the blame game is not in the national interest.

Of course, Federal Labor will examine the details of any Bill put forward by the Howard Government relating to the Murray Darling when those details are made available.

And we will deal with it the legislation on its merits and in accordance with the principles we have advanced.

The Prime Minister got the direction right in January, but the detail was sorely lacking.

Indeed, it was a headline looking for a policy.

No funding details, no timelines and no governance arrangements.

No consultation with the States, the National Water Commissioners, the Murray Darling Basin Commission, the National Farmers Federation, irrigators or environment groups.

No proper scrutiny by Treasury or Finance.

And there was no consideration even by the Cabinet.

Since January 25, I understand there have been at least eight versions of the legislation, with reports of very different approaches appearing in drafts and then disappearing, just as quickly.

Throughout this period Federal Labor has been constructive in our approach.

We have given in principle support to the national approach, whilst recognising it was reasonable for all stakeholders to scrutinise the National Plan for Water Security to ensure that the details were got right. Critics of the lack of detail were from across the spectrum and included the National Farmers Federation and the irrigation industry.

It is clear from the evidence that more effort went into writing the Prime Minister’s speech than making sure the Plan dealt properly with water planning issues, and the governance and financial arrangements for the Basin.

Labor was critical that in the May Budget, just one half of one per cent of the $10 billion – just $53 million – was allocated for the coming financial year. A mere $15 million of that was provided to deal with over-allocation in 2007/2008.

The Commonwealth Government should be purchasing over-allocated water entitlements and, as the Prime Minister said on 25 January,

“We could muddle through as has occurred in the past, but frankly, that gets us nowhere. Without decisive action we face the worst of both worlds.”

Common sense tells you that given the immediate water crisis, funding should be front end loaded. Economic sense tells you that it will cost less to deal with over-allocation of water entitlements sooner rather than later.

I think something quite interesting has been revealed by the debate over how to resolve the over-allocation of water.

It is clear that the real division over water policy in Australia is between the reformers on the one side, and the blockers in the National Party on the other.

The National Party are the handbrake on national water reform.

There is a conflict between the national interest and the interests of the National Party.

The Coalition by it’s nature is incapable of resolving this conflict.

The reformers understand climate change, and they understand the need to reform the way we use and manage water.

Following the script written by narrow sectional interests, the blockers in the National Party have continually undermined the $10 billion water plan.

Since the announcement in January, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mark Vaile, Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran, Bruce Scott, and Senator Barnaby Joyce have all publicly undermined the Prime Minister’s water plan.

The National Party members oppose the plan to address water overallocation and are resolute that buying back water entitlements should only be a "last resort".

This directly contradicts the Prime Minister’s commitment made on 25 January “to invest up to $3 billion in buying back water entitlements and assisting irrigators in the unviable or inefficient parts of schemes to exit the industry”.

The dismal failure of the tender program for water efficiency which closed on 14 February highlights the failure of the National Party’s approach.

From a Budget of up to $200 million, just $765,000 was spent – less than one per cent.

Malcolm Turnbull stated on 19 June 2006 that, “the Government would not be seeking to acquire more than 200 gigalitres”.

Did the tender acquire 100 gigalitres? 50 gigalitres? 10 gigalitres? Even 1 gigalitre? No.

The program acquired just 454 ML, or 0.2% of its objective.

One wonders why they even bothered. They hardly troubled the scorers. And more money was spent on administration than on water.

And the Government refused to acknowledge it was a failure. Perhaps that’s because Peter McGauran is really opposed to dealing with over-allocated water entitlements.

Expert scientific advice is critical to the success of national water reform, but National Party members are also opposed to the CSIRO’s involvement in water allocations.

The National Party and its sectional interests are at the core of the water problem, and they are also at the core of the Howard Government.

The National Party’s blocking approach to water and climate change was again demonstrated on Monday this week.

Mark Vaile, the National Party member for Lyne and Deputy Prime Minister was interviewed by John Laws. John Laws asked the Deputy Prime Minister how global warming rated as an issue of concern to people, and Mr Vaile said:

“Well I don’t know, it’s still out there as an issue John and one in terms of public policy we’ve got to continue to address but the reality is climatic change is cyclical and we are in the midst of one now”.

That is an extraordinary statement from the Deputy Prime Minister.

He clearly does not get climate change and the long-term threat it poses to water supply. This is a fundamental policy issue.

Climate change will directly affect water supply, temperature and the frequency of extreme weather events, and there is no question that all areas of Australia will be affected.

The key climate change impacts for Australia on water supply, on our cities and on agriculture will be less rainfall and increased evaporation. Water problems will intensify by 2030 in southern and eastern Australia.

Water supply issues and climate change are two sides of the same coin. Without a strategy for climate change, you don’t really have a strategy for water.

As a nation we must take action on water and climate change every year, not just in election years.

And we will not get climate change solutions from a government full of climate change sceptics, or in this case, deniers.

No wonder the Head of Treasury, Ken Henry, has expressed serious reservations about Government policy development on relation to water and climate change.


I am proud that when Kevin Rudd talks about a national water plan, he talks about a water plan for all Australians.

In order to promote sustainable water use, Australia needs clear targets and benchmarks for environmental performance.

Water in Australia is over-allocated, under-valued and misdirected.

The National Water Initiative must be the foundation of water policy implementation.

This is the case beyond the Murray Darling.

Water for urban areas, where 18 million Australians live, must be high on the Commonwealth Government’s agenda.

Australia needs a national perspective to water issues.

There is a critical role for the Commonwealth in developing urban infrastructure, which includes ensuring urban water supplies.

Of course past Commonwealth Governments were critical in delivering water infrastructure through pipes and sewerage to our outer suburbs.

It is time to renew the Commonwealth’s engagement in our cities.

Australian’s want real solutions to our water crisis.

A national urban water strategy must be comprehensive and support major infrastructure, down to individual household measures.

Labor has a plan for major new projects, a plan to fix existing infrastructure such as leaky pipes, and we have a plan for households.

Labor has announced support for important water supply projects.

The first announcement was here in South East Queensland, the Western Corridor Water Recycling project. When we announced we would contribute $408 million for the project it was ridiculed by Malcolm Turnbull. Six months later he copied our announcement, to the dollar.

In his Budget reply, Kevin Rudd announced a $250 million National Water Security Plan for Towns and Cities to secure water supplies by repairing water pipes and reducing leaks, wastage and evaporation.

It is a practical and commonsense response to the impact of drought and climate change on Australia’s towns and cities.

We must ensure security of water supply for all Australians regardless of whether they live in our rural and regional communities or our towns and cities.

We want to secure water supply and make sure the water gets to the tap.

As the water experts and managers in this room know, a small leak can waste more than 500,000 litres of water in just 12 months.

With matching investment from local water authorities, our $250 million National Water Security Plan for Towns and Cities will mean means there will be half a billion dollars to help fix our leaking pipes throughout the nation.

And, of course, Labor has set a 30 per cent waste water recycling target by 2015.

And we will provide the support and investment to help achieve that target.

To assist with demand management, a Federal Labor Government will offer all households loans of up to $10,000 to help make their homes greener and more energy and water efficient. So they don’t have to find the upfront cash to benefit from significant potential savings.

The community has the will to take action, and our plan will help provide the way.

And in Brisbane in June, Kevin Rudd announced support to help 500,000 households across Australia install rainwater tanks or grey water pipes to help combat Australia’s urban water shortages through a National RainWater/Grey Water Plan.

$250 million will be invested over six years to offer a rebate of up to $500 for 500,000 homes to help install new piping for grey water use or rainwater tanks.

Tackling the nation’s urban water shortages is also about securing Australia’s economic future and prosperity.

Australia needs an aspirational target that by 2020 all homes where suitable, would be more energy and water efficient through technologies and appliances such as rainwater tanks and grey water re-use systems.

The National Rainwater/Grey Water Plan is a common sense approach to dealing with the national water crisis.

We want every Australian home and its roof to be a personal water catchment area, maximising re-use and collection of rain water.

It’s an example of a practical project, consistent with our vision on climate change.

The drought and climate change are putting pressure on water supplies for farmers, and as a result there’s been an increase in prices, and just this week milk went up 50c, adding $5 to the average weekly grocery bill.

With some notable exceptions, Governments of all persuasions have been complacent and slow to realise the need for efficiency in the way we use water across all sectors – in households, on farms and in industry.

2007 is an election year, and we have a desperate Prime Minister who has ignored water issues and denied climate change for over a decade.

It’s taken an election year to get any response from the Government about the water crisis.

Australia needs consistent national leadership on water policy and urban infrastructure.

We are not only considering the threats, but also developing policy to capitalise on the opportunities presented by climate change.


For an after dinner speech this has been more political than I would normally be. But then again, it’s been that kind of week.

I want to conclude with a reflection.

It’s just over two years since I was appointed Shadow Minister for Water in June 2005.

This was an innovative appointment, given I had no one to Shadow, as there was no Minister for Water at that time.

Indeed, a journalist questioned the decision and declared it was a strange appointment.

He asked me, ‘why do you need a Federal Spokesperson for water, isn’t that a State Government responsibility?’

Two years on, it is incomprehensible that any Government into the future will not have a Minister for Water sitting in the Cabinet Room.

The rise to prominence of water as a national political issue has been aided by human activity on two fronts.

On the negative side, human activity has significantly contributed to climate change.

On the positive side, human intellectual activity will provide the policy response and solutions as we move forward.

And, of course, nature itself has been reminding us of its innate power.

Climate change has reminded all of us – with the exception of the sceptics in the Howard Cabinet – that we survive by the grace of nature, and that our very short presence on earth is miniscule compared with the power of our natural resources and, in particular, water.

When water’s in trouble, we’re all in trouble, and our absolute dependence on fresh water to survive should never be taken for granted.

The activity of people in this room has been critical, as is your commitment to raising awareness that water is a precious finite resource and that real solutions are available if the political will is there.

Your activity and innovations have ensured there has been a sophisticated water debate in Australia well in advance of water commentary appearing daily in the media.

Had that not occurred, we would have been no where near able to find real solutions to the challenges which face us today.

For your contribution, the nation and future generations owe you a great debt.