Speech to the Australian Water Summit – Labor’s national leadership in water policy
Anthony Albanese MP – Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Water
2 April 2007
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This speech is also available as a PDF: Labor’s national leadership in water policy – Speech to the Australian Water Summit.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak today about Australia’s water challenges.
Addressing Australia’s national water crisis is an urgent task, requiring consistent long-term policy and leadership from all levels of Government, particularly from the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth has a leadership role in helping ensure every Australian – whether they are in rural or urban Australia – have a sustainable supply of water. That has been Labor’s consistent approach.
Today, I’m here to talk about the need for consistent national leadership in water. And I do so proudly knowing that Federal Labor Governments have always walked the walk, not just talked the talk.
Federal Labor Governments have consistently implemented programs to develop urban infrastructure and ensure urban water supplies.
In 1943, the Chifley Labor Government invested in our cities by establishing the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement.
In the mid-70’s, after decades of neglect, the Whitlam Government took an active role in urban and water infrastructure – ensuring the outer suburbs of Sydney and other growth areas of our cities had sewerage and other basic water services.
And in the late 1980’s, Brian Howe and the Hawke/Keating governments gave us urban renewal and revitalised our cities.
We take that important infrastructure for granted today, but it was Labor that delivered regular water supplies and services to many urban areas. That water infrastructure wasn’t always there – it didn’t just happen. It was delivered because of Labor’s commitment to a leadership role for the Commonwealth in urban infrastructure.
And let’s not forget that the first time governments began taking the water quality and salinity in the Murray Darling Basin seriously was in 1973, when the Whitlam Labor Government initiated the River Murray Working Party.
And in 1994, the Keating Labor Government initiated further significant water reform, using the COAG process to commit to water reform.
They included broad issues of water management, including environmental allocations of water. This was revolutionary thinking at that time, and very controversial to some, who wanted unfettered access to the Murray Darling flows. It is from this seed that the National Water Initiative grew.
Those policy issues have been of critical importance.
As a nation, our water supplies have been taken for granted: over-allocated, undervalued and misdirected.
Australia’s water resources are highly variable and range from heavily regulated rivers and groundwater resources, to rivers and aquifers in almost pristine condition.
Over 65% of Australia’s water run-off is in the sparsely populated, tropical north. But Australia’s large urban areas are in southern Australia and irrigated agriculture is principally located in the Murray Darling Basin, where only 6.1% of the national run-off occurs.
In February it was revealed that inflows to the Murray River had slumped further, falling to just 30 gigalitres in January 2007.
That figure for January was 12 per cent of the long-term median inflow for January, and was almost half of the previous record low of 52 gigalitres in January 1983.
Southern Australia and the city of Adelaide are moving into uncharted territory in terms of the amount of water available to irrigators and for domestic and industrial use.
The Howard government has sat back for 10 years and watched while the Murray River has been reduced in some places to a trickle.
This giant river that sustains the nation has been reduced to the point whereby it needs dredging more often than not just to leave the mouth of the river open. It’s clear to me that we need to consider a minimum annual flow to the mouth of the Murray.
Common sense tells you that the Murray River’s problems, and water supply issues generally are linked to climate change. Of course, you can’t solve the water crisis without tackling climate change.
John Howard is only doing something on water and climate change because he is worried about the election. He has been far too slow to act and doesn’t really believe that climate change is a threat. Indeed, senior Government Members have often dismissed the link between our water crisis and climate change.
Practical immediate action and long term vision on both water security and climate change – that’s Labor’s agenda. But where has it been on the Howard Government’s agenda?
We all know John Howard is sceptical about whether climate change is real. And, in 11 Budget speeches, the Treasurer Peter Costello has not mentioned the words “climate change”. Not once. Bearing that in mind, it is somewhat ironic that today, I understand, Peter Costello will be launching the Government’s inter-generational report.
Labor believes climate change is the ultimate intergenerational equity issue. Our response to climate change will determine the quality of life of our children and grandchildren.
It has been said that “coming events cast their shadow before” – therefore, we have dark shadows gathering around us indeed.
The attempt to compartmentalise the water crisis from climate change shows the Howard Government just doesn’t get it. The challenges of the new century such as climate change are simply beyond the grasp of our current Prime Minister.
And if any speaker from the Government says that “Australia is leading the world on climate change”, please laugh politely, even if you think climate change humour isn’t all that funny.
The National Water Plan
There is no doubt that the decision by NSW, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT to refer their authority over the Murray Darling Basin to the Commonwealth represents a very significant reform. Bilateral discussions between Victoria and the Commonwealth are taking place. Federal Labor looks forward to a positive outcome.
At a Federal level, Labor has consistently called for a national approach to water policy including:
• Commonwealth leadership on water;
• the appointment of a Minister for Water,
• the creation of a single Commonwealth water authority,
• the commitment of more funds for water management and efficiency programs right across Australia,
• the development of water trading and economic instruments to drive reform; and
• the existing $2 billion Australian Water Fund to be used on practical projects.
The Prime Minister’s announcement in January was consistent with many of these objectives and therefore received Federal Labor’s support.
However, it was reasonable for all the stakeholders to scrutinise the National Water Plan and continue to ensure that the details are got right. Critics of the lack of detail were from right 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.
It is worth remembering that none of the National Water Commissioners were briefed until the morning of the speech. Ian Sinclair has stated the Murray Darling Basin Commission was not asked for advice. Irrigators and farmers were not consulted. And the States and Territories were given contrary advice at the time of the November 2006 Melbourne Cup Day water summit.
Critically, the Prime Minister’s announcement did not go to Cabinet, nor was it properly costed or modelled by the Departments of Finance or Treasury. The Department of Finance was asked to “run an eye lightly over” the costings less than a week before the announcement. To top it off, the acting Prime Minister for most of January, the National Party’s Mark Vaile, was not briefed on the plan until the last minute.
I believe the reason the $10 billion announcement was not taken to Cabinet, not costed by Treasury or Finance and not shown to the Acting Prime Minister was simply because John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull did not trust the National Party. Maybe they were right.
Following the script written by narrow sectional interests, the National Party has continued to undermine John Howard’s $10 billion water plan.
Since the announcement in January, the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party, 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 over allocation and are resolute that buying back water entitlements should only be a "last resort". 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 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.
John Howard must keep his 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.”
John Howard has got to decide what’s more important, the national interest or the National Party. But this dilemma for John Howard may not be easy to fix. 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 future direction of water policy in Australia
So what of the future direction of water policy in Australia.
Labor strongly supports the principles of the National Water Initiative. It emphasises the need for cooperative effort, in the national interest. The National Water Initiative highlights the importance of community education about the delicate water balance of this nation. It recognises the importance of investment in water infrastructure to deliver efficiencies and water savings. The principles behind the National Water Initiative are therefore very sound.
It puts public and environmental needs into an economic system – it attempts to establish structures to manage growing demand for water and a diminishing supply, in a way that uses water efficiently and productively. The fact is we need to get the price right for all our natural resources.
Australia needs new ways of working with water and a policy framework that guarantees river health and greater certainty and security for investors, farmers and communities.
While current policies include broad principles around allocating water for the environment, restoring flows to stressed rivers and water quality objectives, they remain general and unspecific.
The time has come for some clearer national goals, targets and benchmarks in river health, water recycling and water quality. That requires leadership from the national government. And that leadership must also be directed towards meeting the urban water challenge.
Meeting the Urban Water Challenge
John Howard has made it quite clear he does not see a leadership role for the Commonwealth in urban water. While seeing a strong role for the Commonwealth in the Murray Darling and other irrigation areas, on 25 January John Howard stated it was
"less obvious that the Commonwealth should be directly involved in the provision of urban water."
The Prime Minister’s speech made his view clear that if the Commonwealth handles the Murray Darling, then the States should handle urban water on their own.
Labor takes a different view. On this issue, we always have. Labor believes that the Commonwealth has a responsibility to provide leadership and assist in securing water supply for the 17 million Australians who live in our capital cities and towns on the coast.
Water use and water supply in urban Australia is a national crisis. It requires a national response. Labor doesn’t just see clean water as an expenditure of money, we see clean water as an investment in the future of Australia. Urban infrastructure is important for the jobs and lifestyles of those who live in our major cities – but it’s much more than that. Urban infrastructure is critical to improving productivity and economic growth. And investment in urban infrastructure is essential in the creation of sustainable cities that can adapt to climate change.
Kevin Rudd’s announcement of a “Major Cities” Program envisages a renewed role for the Commonwealth in our cities – in the provision of transport, energy and communications, as well as water infrastructure.
It is consistent with Kevin Rudd’s nation building agenda, including the roll out of broadband across Australia that will deliver broadband services 40 times faster than most current speeds. Broadband is enabling infrastructure. It enables productivity gains, creates new markets, fosters new businesses and creates new jobs.
The Howard Government can’t have it both ways. In their criticism of Labor’s Broadband commitment we have been accused of economic irresponsibility and been told that it is not the government’s responsibility to provide such infrastructure. According to the Howard government such spending should be confined to the private sector.
Yet, this government has allocated funds to some 17 different broadband programs which have done little except leave Australia’s broadband technology falling further and further behind.
This Jekyll and Hyde approach to infrastructure policy is not good for Australia.
The real economic responsibility issue here is not Labor’s proposal to use Future Fund resources for infrastructure investment.
It’s theHoward government’s failure to equip Australian businesses with the 21st century infrastructure they need to succeed in a highly competitive world.
Labor regards provision of infrastructure for communications, transport, energy and water as essential for securing our prosperity beyong the resources boom.
We have a national plan in the National Water Initiative and we have funding through the Australian Water Fund, but unfortunately not enough is happening.
It is extraordinary that since the $2 billion Australian Water Fund was set up in 2004, more than half of the funds remain unallocated.
Last year’s budget figures showed that the Government allocated $337 million to the Australian Water Fund but spent just $77 million – less than one quarter.
We have been frustrated that good projects have been unnecessarily delayed.
States requesting funding support from the Australian Water Fund for good water projects, such as south east Queensland’s Western Corridor water recycling scheme, have been subjected to a wall of bureaucracy and red tape.
Please compare the Howard Government’s intense requirement for details for projects under the Australian Water Fund to its slip-streamed approach to the approval of the Prime Minister’s $10 billion water plan.
And please note that the Howard Government refused to support water recycling in Toowoomba until there was a referendum.
But when Queensland Premier Beattie showed leadership and said they would put purified recycled water back into the drinking supply for south east Queensland without a referendum, John Howard was on Brisbane radio within the hour to commend him.
This Jekyll and Hyde approach to important water policy is not healthy.
The community does need to be closely consulted, and there needs to be proper financial checks for water projects.
But politics needs to be put to one side. Australia’s water crisis is too important for those games.
Labor has announced it supports the nation building projects such as the Queensland Western Corridor Water Recycling Scheme, Western Australia’s Gnangara Mound aquifer recharge project and Harvey Water Piping Project and South Australia’s proposed desalination plant in the Upper Spencer Gulf.
As most of you would be aware, Labor has set a 30 per cent waste water recycling target by 2015.
A Rudd Labor Government will support practical, nation building projects to help deal with Australia’s water crisis in our major coastal cities where 17 million Australians live.
In delivering a sustainable national water policy Labor has four significant advantages over our opponents.
Firstly, we believe there is a constructive role for the Commonwealth Government in urban water infrastructure. Labor’s record of action and achievement show that we mean it.
Secondly, we are not at the beck and call of the National Party. When it comes to dealing with sustainability and long-term water security for our agriculture and our rivers, we put the health of the rivers and sustainable water supply first.
Thirdly, we won’t engage in the blame game as an excuse for inaction. A Rudd Labor Government will co-operate with the States, and we will show national leadership.
And fourth, but not least, Labor understands that climate change is the moral challenge of our generation.
Further significant water policies will be announced by Labor in the lead up to the election. But be assured – a Rudd Labor Government will be true to Labor’s heritage.
The national interest will always come first for Labor. It always has.
Labor firmly believes that the Commonwealth has an important leadership role in ensuring each and every Australian – whether they are in rural or urban Australia – has a sustainable supply of water.
Labor will also ensure that our river systems receive a sustainable environmental flow, so they can return to health.
We must develop the economic mechanisms which deliver a sustainable water supply and ensure future generations can live and prosper.
The time has come to meet the challenges of the new Century – avoiding dangerous climate change and securing water supply for all Australians.
Labor is up to this challenge.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.