Second Reading

Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (11:36): I rise to actually speak on the Water and Catchment Legislation Amendment Bill 2021. Unlike some previous speakers, I intend to actually speak on the legislation before us here today, or at least in part, although I give the member for Burwood some credit for getting in a dig at those who support Footscray in here in a water and catchment legislation bill, and I commend the member for Footscray for not putting up with that rot. It was good of her to take the point of order.

However, I am sorry to do this, having praised her just now, but I do want to actually pick up the member for Footscray on a couple of issues. We are talking about legislation here that does have a significant change with respect to the Murray-Darling Basin, particularly the Murray River and the Barmah Choke, which I will come to in a moment. The member for Footscray had a bit of a go at The Nationals federally for trying to stop more federal buybacks and for trying to stop the 450 gigalitres of so-called ‘up-water’. Now, whilst that criticism may be valid, that is criticism that comes from the South Australian Labor Party and is completely at odds with the Victorian Labor government’s position. I think the member might find that the Minister for Water is probably hearing about it right now, because she does not support further buybacks, and I am sure that the minister at the table, the Minister for Industry Support and Recovery, will confirm that that is a cabinet position, that the Victorian government does not support further commonwealth buybacks and indeed does not support the 450 gigalitres of up-water: the Minister for Water said in 2017, ‘It’s not possible’; in 2018 she said, ‘We won’t cave in’; and in 2019 she said, ‘We have made it very clear that we have no more water to give’.

A member interjected.

Mr D O’BRIEN: The Shadow Minister for Water is a bit alarmed. There has been a bipartisan position from Victoria on these issues and now it seems that the government is wavering, so that is certainly a concern, and I hope that future government speakers might confirm that they have not in fact wavered and that there is no intention to take more water from productive use in Victoria’s northern regions. That should be very clear.

This legislation largely is about at least one part of an attempt to deal with the Barmah Choke, and this has been an issue of difficulty in management of the Murray-Darling system for a very long time. One of the first things I learned coming into Victorian politics and trying to learn a bit about Murray-Darling water issues as a Gippslander was about the Bunna Walsh canal, and the Bunna Walsh canal was indeed an idea to effectively put a bypass in around the Barmah Choke. That has been touted a few times. I think the former Bracks government might have put it up as an option again when the Murray-Darling Basin plan was established in 2007, but it has not gone anywhere for a number of reasons, and this legislation again attempts to deal with that constraint issue that we find, where I think—and the member for Euroa might confirm for me—it is about a 10 000-megalitres-a-day constraint that the Barmah Choke provides, which means that you can only get a certain amount of water from the Hume and Dartmouth dams downstream on the Murray to what have been the growing horticultural areas, particularly further along the river around Robinvale, Sunraysia and into South Australia. So the Bunna Walsh canal was proposed.

I remember, as a former CEO of the National Irrigators Council, taking a former federal shadow minister for water on a flight over the Barmah Choke to explain to him the situation there—and I will not say who it was, but his initials were Barnaby Joyce. It is a difficult thing to explain what the Barmah Choke actually is. There is a physical constraint there, with literally a tilt in the earth’s crust, but also the great Barmah forest as well, which means that the more water you put down, the more just floods out over the forest, and that is an environmental issue in itself as well. But yes, that former shadow minister, when he flew over it and had it fully explained to him, said, ‘Oh, bugger. I thought it was really just that the banks were too close together and you’d put a big D9 bulldozer straight down and fix it’, which was a very Queensland idea of how you would fix an environmental constraint. But it is not that simple, as this legislation highlights. It is not as easy as just doing that. Indeed, the Bunna Walsh canal idea, which has been around for a while, also seemed like a simple solution, but various reports have been done over the years that suggest that it is not. There are probably good arguments both ways too as to why that should not occur in terms of equity and making sure that we are using water wisely right around the state and in different parts of the catchment.

That is something I also want to touch on from my own perspective, as the member for Gippsland South. This legislation providing a capacity share to getting around the delivery shortfalls caused by the Barmah Choke is an issue everywhere. Indeed, as I understand it too, this could apply to other parts of the state where there are those capacity constraints. The Latrobe River is one as well in part of my electorate. We have a significant issue there at the moment with the retirement of the Latrobe Valley coalmines and how they are going to be addressed. That is a threat for us at the moment in my part of the world in that the overwhelming solution is most likely to be pit lakes, which are going to require enormous volumes of water—for the three mines in the valley probably over 3000 gigalitres of water. That is six times the volume of Sydney Harbour—so a huge amount of water to fill those lakes, and there is a potential cost there. I am very pleased the Minister for Water has a number of times publicly rejected the notion that there will be any water taken off irrigators along the Latrobe. That is good. I know that she is concerned, as other members of the government are, about how this is actually going to be addressed. If we are going to fill the mines as pit lakes, where the water is going to come from is going to be a tricky question.

One thing I am very concerned about is that the government will look around for where water is available, and one area where there is water available in the Latrobe system is unallocated water. Indeed it is actually allocated water but unused water. Many years ago about 25 000 megalitres was set aside for what was called the Loy Yang 3/4 bench. It was a power station that was never built. That water, 25 000 megalitres, is sitting in Blue Rock Dam as we speak and has done for a couple of decades now, unused. It is allocated but it is unused. I am pleased that the Minister for Water—and I join the member for Euroa in welcoming her back to the job—has recognised that there is an opportunity, particularly in a changing climate, to enhance Gippsland’s potential to grow more food and fibre and to utilise the water that we have and that she has actually funded a Central Gippsland irrigation study. I believe that is actually finalised now, and it is probably with the minister or at least with the government more broadly. It does suggest opportunities to expand irrigation both along the Latrobe, in my patch, and indeed in areas such as the Avon, in the member for Gippsland East’s seat.

Mr T Bull interjected.

Mr D O’BRIEN: Well, I am not sure the local member has had a lot to do with it, but we will give him a little bit of credit. There certainly are opportunities there. There is already a lot of horticultural development—veggie growing—happening in that area of the Avon, and this could proceed further, and likewise on the Latrobe. But we need water. So it is good that we have an idea, we have a plan, for how the irrigation area could be expanded, but we actually need the water if we are going to do that, and there is 25 000 megalitres sitting there.

Now, the challenge for the government is that that is actually held by the Assistant Treasurer, because originally it was part of the old SEC. The Assistant Treasurer has responded to a question I put about releasing this water for productive use by saying it is still being considered—and it is actually being considered in the context of a sale, which is interesting in itself. That water should be put to good use in the Latrobe to make sure that we can actually develop more industries, we can grow more food and fibre for a hungry world and we can actually help the Latrobe Valley and my part of the world in Central Gippsland adjust to the transition that they are going through as those mines close. So it is good that the government is providing that irrigation study, but we do need the water.

Very briefly, the water register idea is certainly one that is supported by a lot of irrigators. They want to see some transparency in the market, but that does come at a cost. I think the member for Euroa has flagged some amendments to ensure that there are protections for people’s private information. I look forward to that happening in the upper house, and I am happy for this bill to go through.

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