Mar 30, 2006

Speech: Snowy Hydro Ltd

SNOWY HYDRO LIMITED

30 March 2006

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (11.00 a.m.)—The Snowy Mountains Scheme is indeed one of Australia’s great iconic infrastructure projects. It consists of seven power stations, 16 major dams, 145 kilometres of interconnected tunnels and 80 kilometres of aqueducts. The scheme is acknowledged to be one of the civil engineering wonders of the modern world. It took 25 years to build and made an important contribution to building multicultural Australia. More than 100,000 people came from over 30 countries, bringing with them their commitment to building a new life for themselves and their families in Australia in the postwar period.

The scheme also has a number of benefits. It provides renewable clean energy and related products. It supplies water for irrigation and for agricultural production. Snowy Hydro Ltd is the chief provider of peak renewable electricity to the national market. At the moment it provides some 3,756 megawatts. It is important, in the context of climate change and the need to expand the renewable energy industry in Australia, to acknowledge that the scheme prevents some 4½ million tonnes of carbon dioxide being released each year. That is the equivalent of the exhaust of a million cars. So it is not surprising that Snowy Hydro is an integral player in the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target program, a program that is effectively due to cease because of the failure of the government to take seriously the need to expand renewable energy in a carbon constrained world. Indeed, that mandatory renewable energy target of two per cent is pathetic. Its collapse is due to a failure of leadership not only on the environment but also on industry and securing future economic growth. Snowy Hydro is also a participant in the national Greenhouse Challenge Program and the National Green Power Accreditation Program and it will be a part of a state based emissions trading scheme to be introduced by the states, once again, in the absence of national leadership.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that there was a negative result of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. That came about by the diversion of water from the Snowy and downstream from the Murray, Murrumbidgee and other systems. Australia used to have a view, as the world did, that you could just divert rivers, construct dams and it did not have an impact in the long term. We have moved to more enlightened times where it is acknowledged that that is not the case. Hence, in recent times governments have got together to ensure that environmental flows are returned to the Snowy and alpine rivers and the Upper Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers in line with government commitments. My main concern with the privatisation of Snowy Hydro is to ensure that those commitments are not endangered. Therefore, I am very pleased to support the amendment moved today by my colleague the shadow minister for finance, the member for Melbourne. I am pleased that the government has accepted that amendment to the motion before the House.

The amendment goes to a number of issues. Firstly, it seeks to ensure that local employment will be increased; secondly, that privatisation will lead to innovative maintenance of the Snowy scheme equipment and infrastructure; thirdly, that privatisation will not affect water releases or water rights of downstream users in New South Wales, Victoria or South Australia; fourthly, that obligations to release specified volumes of water into each of the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers every year for the next 72 years are kept; fifthly, that Snowy Hydro meets the environmental flows for the Snowy, Murray and other rivers agreed by the New South Wales, Victorian and Australian governments in the Snowy Water Inquiry Outcomes Implementation Deed for the corporatisation of the scheme in 2002; and, further, that there be a report back in five years time on the consequences of the passage of this legislation.

The Snowy River environmental flows were part of this significant agreement. Originally the agreement was that flows for the Snowy River must reach at least 21 per cent of natural flows by 2012. It is a sad reflection perhaps that there had to be an agreement between two states and the Commonwealth government that the flows of this magnificent natural river had to reach 21 per cent. However, that was the case. I note that, as part of the agreement, the Commonwealth committed $75 million. Once again, it was state Labor governments providing that national leadership, with both Victoria and New South Wales committing $150 million each to the project. Some progress has been made—10 gigalitres into the Snowy River since corporatisation in June 2002 and 19 gigalitres into the Murray River. There is some ongoing concern about the environmental impact of privatisation. My colleague the member for Fremantle outlined some of the philosophical views on privatisation with which I would concur.

The reason public ownership can be important is that it guarantees that governments can directly intervene given changed circumstances. When we look at environmental flows in rivers and at water in general, we need to acknowledge that climate change will mean we will face a very different Australia in 10, 20 and 30 years. According to the government’s own report Climate change: risk and vulnerability, which was received by the government in June last year, we can anticipate a 30 per cent loss in rainfall and a further 30 per cent loss in run-off in southern Australia. So I put on record my concern that agreements made today need to ensure that they deal with the tomorrows we face as a result of climate change. Against that, it must of course be acknowledged that Snowy Hydro does not actually own the water and never has. This legislation will not change that. Snowy Hydro owns the assets only, and therefore environmental allocations will not be affected by the privatisation of Snowy Hydro.

I also note there are a number of legally binding agreements which ensure that environmental flows are protected. These include the Snowy Water Inquiry outcomes implementation deed, the Snowy water licence and the annual water operating plan. None of these agreements are affected by the legislation before the House today and by the privatisation of the asset by New South Wales, Victoria and the Commonwealth.

I am very pleased that the amendment moved by the member for Melbourne has been accepted by the government. Once again, it has been up to the Australian Labor Party to be diligent and to make sure that the important national interest that the environmental flows in the Snowy River and other river systems represent are protected. I commend the amendment to the House.