Second Reading

Danny O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (17:50): Whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over. So said Mark Twain, just to reinforce the points made by the member for South Barwon in terms of the contested and controversial nature of water policy. Indeed, even to that point, the quote itself is contested, and I am indebted to my colleague, the former member for Euroa, who pointed out to me that it was not in fact Mark Twain that said that, but no-one knows who did, so we will stick with Mark Twain for the moment. But it is absolutely a truism that water is an issue to argue and fight over, and nowhere more so than in our great nation, which is globally the driest inhabited continent on the planet. It therefore becomes a very contested issue.

This legislation, the Water Legislation Amendment Bill 2023, is yet another piece in the puzzle of water policy to try and deal with those issues of scarcity and who should get the water that everybody wants. As previous speakers have indicated, this is effectively a revisitation, an opportunity for the government to update the introduction of place-of-take approvals and delay that for some time to further discuss with the community, particularly with the irrigation community and particularly with the irrigation community downstream of the Barmah Choke on the Murray system. My colleague the Shadow Minister for Water, the member for Ovens Valley, explained very well what this is really all about, because while the place-of-take approvals will apply to all declared water systems – and that includes the north predominantly but also the Werribee system and the Thomson Macalister system in my electorate, in my part of the world and that of the member for Gippsland East – it really is about the Murray system, where scarcity is the biggest issue.

The member for Ovens Valley indicated the physical challenge of the Barmah Choke and the fact that – it was a surprise to me when he was talking about it earlier today – that is now down to 7000 megalitres a day capacity. When I was working in the industry some 10 years or so ago I think the figure was about 10,000 megalitres a day. So it is a constraint and it is a significant one. I am reminded whenever I speak of the Barmah Choke or hear people talking of the Barmah Choke, that when I was CEO of the National Irrigators Council we took a then shadow minister on a flight over the Barmah Choke to try and explain what it was, how it worked and why it was a constraint on getting water downstream on the Murray. Once it had been explained and shown to this then shadow minister, he was somewhat disappointed because he had the simple idea in his head that he would just get a very big D9 bulldozer, push a hole through and get more water through. But it is not that simple. So we do need this sort of legislation to come in and ensure that if we do face significant challenges with delivery of water down the Murray system in future everyone gets a fair crack at it, particularly, as the government’s information to the sector has indicated, to ensure that existing water users’ entitlements are protected.

That term itself reminds me of the strange nature of water policy around the world. Generally speaking I think Australia has some of the most advanced water policy when it comes to trade in particular, the allocation of rights and the like, perhaps reflecting our shortage or scarcity of water. I am reminded of the US where I understand in many states allocations are actually based on historic licence approvals, so the longer you have had a licence, you will get water before anyone. In some cases literally you will get 100 per cent of your water before someone else gets theirs. So if you got your licence in 1910, you will get all of your water before a person who got their licence in 1945 gets theirs.

Indeed, literally right now, as we are speaking, the Biden administration is facing a difficult decision on the Colorado River, which is severely overallocated – used by seven states, and a further two in Mexico – and they are actually having to look at how they are going to allocate that. California is one that is saying, ‘We are the original user, we’ve had the rights historically, so we should be looked after first.’ But what the Biden administration is looking at is ensuring that there is an even cut across the board if there has to be a cut – effectively what we are talking about here, in making sure that that place of take occurs fairly across the board. I should add the qualification that we do not yet know exactly how this will work. This is the framework being set up, and I do hope that through the consultation period we get to a situation where the practical process for allocation in the event of shortages and caps is done to – I will not say to the agreement of all, because having started with the way I started, we know that that is not necessarily a likelihood – get a fair process that most people will understand and will accept.

I also want to highlight, as I said, that this will apply to all declared water systems. My interest particularly of course is the Thomson–Macalister, the home of the Macalister irrigation district, which I share with the member for Gippsland East. I have long argued that we should be trying to expand the MID. This is certainly some of Victoria’s premier irrigation district. It is virtually the only major irrigation district in southern Victoria, and it is historically a very safe area in terms of water supply. We did go two years in a row of no spill just a couple of years ago, but historically it has been very safe. The reason I have been wanting to expand it is that in a changing climate there is great opportunity for us in Gippsland – where we do have a wetter climate and we have more reliable rainfall both in South Gippsland and on the ranges feeding into the MID – to actually expand irrigated agriculture.

I have been campaigning for that for some time, and in particular there is an unallocated amount of water on the Latrobe system known as the 3/4 bench water, which was originally set aside for power station development in the Latrobe Valley but is now no longer needed – clearly we are not going to be building a new coal-fired power station. The government last year announced that as part of the central region SWS, the sustainable water strategy, of that 25 gigalitres, 9 will be set aside for potential future energy use – and probably reluctantly I will agree and acknowledge that is probably a wise thing to do and a conservative thing to do – but 16 gigs of that water will be indeed allocated. It literally sits in Blue Rock Dam at the moment, not used, and is to be allocated on the basis of a three-way split between the environment, in particular the Latrobe and Lower Latrobe wetlands and therefore the Gippsland Lakes; the traditional owners – and the Gunnai/Kurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation will have a bit to say about that; and irrigators.

It is important of course that we protect the Gippsland Lakes and that we ensure that the Lower Latrobe wetlands are utilised. I was actually in the Lower Latrobe wetlands on Friday morning, not shooting ducks myself but with duck shooters, having a look and hoping and praying that that is not the last opportunity this year they get. But they do fantastic work, I might add, on the Lower Latrobe wetlands, particularly the Heart Morass, where it has actually been duck hunters that have done the environmental work there, a fact that is not recognised by those who would have the season shut down.

I do think we can do a better job of allocating water to irrigators. There is great opportunity for us to expand the irrigation area, whether in the MID directly or along the Latrobe. I know Southern Rural Water has done some great work on options for that to occur, and we now have a decision from the government that there will be some water. If there is a three-way split of that 16 gigs – whatever that is, 5 and a bit gigs each – I do not think that is potentially enough; I think we could potentially do more for irrigation and look at the opportunities to actually get some real economic value. In an area that is going through an industry transition, we need long-term, secure jobs.

I will very briefly mention the issue of mine rehabilitation, which is intimately tied up with water allocation in the Latrobe system as well. I encourage the government to get on with the work on mine rehabilitation. It has been some time now since we established the Mine Land Rehabilitation Authority. I know there is an environment effects statement process underway at the moment with Hazelwood and the mine there, but it is going to come to a head over the next few years, and we do need some direction. This legislation, as I said, should be a good thing. We look forward to seeing the details when they are developed. I also look forward to hearing from my colleague the member for Mildura, who has a much greater say in this, later in the debate.

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