Environment & energy, Government and governance, Food & water | Australia

30 April 2019

In the wake of the ‘Watergate’ scandal, the Coalition, Labour Party, and Greens have all proposed their own solutions to Australia’s water woes, Quentin Grafton writes.

Three weeks into the federal election campaign and who would have thought that water – at least in the Murray-Darling Basin – would become such an important issue?

Concerns mainly revolve around the purchases of water entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin. The scandal, which began in 2017 when Barnaby Joyce was Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources, is now referred to as ‘Watergate’.

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Watergate has connected big money – more than $180 million in negotiated purchases from single sellers – to water, but the parlous state of the Murray-Darling Basin was already in the minds of voters with massive fish kills along the Darling River and Menindee Lakes in January 2019.

These fish kills triggered two inquiries: one initiated by Bill Shorten on request to the Academy of Science, and the other initiated by David Littleproud, Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources.

On top of the general lack of water in the region, these events may have contributed to two additional seats, Barwon and Murray, being won by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party in the New South Wales State Election held in March this year.

Also earlier this year, the Productivity Commission’s five-year assessment of the Murray-Darling Basin was released, as was the South Australia Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission.

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Findings made by the Royal Commission have been highly embarrassing for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. In relation to past decision-making, the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission has accused the MDBA of “gross maladministration”.

With all of this in mind, then, what water and Murray-Darling Basin policies are the major parties trumpeting in this election campaign?

The Coalition’s water policy is committed to business as usual, with a promise to deliver the Basin Plan on time and in full. Just before the election was called, David Littleproud announced a $70 million package in response to the newly released report on the Menindee Lakes fish kills prepared for the MDBA. This funding package includes $25 million for improved water metering and $20 million for additional research.

They’ve also focused on the socio-economics of water recovery in relation to the Basin Plan. To this end, the Coalition has established a five-person panel to report back to the government by the end of 2019. In response to Watergate, Littleproud has asked the Auditor-General to undertake an audit on all water buybacks from 2008 onwards.

On 30 April, Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Nationals, announced that a National Water Grid (NWG) would be established should the Coalition be re-elected. The NWG would be a statutory authority that would promote and support the construction of pipelines and large-scale water diversions. The NWG would have an initial $100 million budget to investigate how to deliver new water diversion projects. This NWG funding would complement the Coalition’s planned commitment of more than $3 billion for state and territory governments to fast track water infrastructure projects in Australia.

The Labor Party supports the continuation of the Murray-Darling Plan but believes that changes must be made to current settings. Labor has stated that it would remove the current 1,500 gigalitres (GL) cap on water recovery via water purchases, as well as restoring the ‘integrity’ of the MDBA by moving its compliance functions to a to-be-created environmental protection agency.

It promises to reverse recent changes made to how the Basin Plan is implemented and, specifically, how an additional 450GL of water will be recovered for the environment.

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Further, Labor promises to order a formal review of claims that public servants acted unlawfully in relation to the implementation of the Water Act. Moreover, it plans to review climate change impacts in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin and to renegotiate the Menindee agreement which determines how the lakes are managed.

In response to Watergate, they’ve committed to a judicial or parliamentary inquiry to investigate the negotiated sale of water entitlements in 2017 identified in Watergate.

Overall, however, the Greens propose the biggest shake-up to current water policy. They are calling for a Federal Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling that would also include the issues around Watergate in its terms of reference. This is, in part, to ensure that federal public servants testify under oath after the Coalition, in 2018, prevented them from appearing before the South Australia Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission.

The Greens also want a reversal of the Northern Basin Review that was approved in May 2018 in Federal Parliament. Under this framework, the amount of water to be recovered for the environment in the northern Basin is reduced by 70 billion litres per year.

Moreover, they support the removal of the 1,500 GL cap on water buybacks, are opposed to government subsidies for irrigation efficiency infrastructure as a means of water recovery for the environment, and have vowed to place a ban on corporate cotton growers to directly divert water from streams and rivers.

Australia desperately needs better water policy. Vote wisely on 18 May!

This article is part of Policy Forum’s Australian Election coverage, and published in partnership with The Australian National University

Note: this article was amended on 1 May to reflect the Nationals’ commitment towards the establishment of a National Water Grid.

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