SPEAKING ON A BILL | WATER AND CATCHMENT LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2019

Mr Melhem: I take the opportunity to also rise to speak on the Water and Catchment Legislation Amendment Bill 2019. This bill makes various changes to the Water Act 1989. One is that it will give some flexibility to the minister to look at the plans from 2018 to 2025, give Aboriginal communities some further say in our water management system and also make some changes to make sure we address the current issues the state is facing—in fact the country is facing—in relation to water resources and the threat of drought, which we know is still hitting the country hard, particularly in New South Wales, Queensland and parts of Victoria. It does not look like that is going to change anytime soon.

Obviously water in this state and in this country is a very scarce resource, and it is always a challenge for governments and communities to deal with that. I think it is something that all levels of government need to put effort into to make sure we protect that resource and we make it as efficient as possible to make sure that irrigators are able to receive the necessary water allocations they need to continue to grow crops and to generate the food which this country needs and the world needs. So it is very important that we maintain an efficient system, and in October 2016 the state government announced an investment of $537 million over a four-year period for projects to strengthen water security for communities and to protect jobs and agriculture, as I talked about, and also to recognise Aboriginal water values and to improve environmental health. That is an investment by the state government to make sure we address that issue. Also, it is important that we continue to maintain enough water for our residents, for just human consumption. Notwithstanding that we have had some reasonable rain, it is not enough obviously that our reservoirs, to my understanding, are still under 60 per cent.

Thank God for former Labor governments. The Bracks government had the foresight to actually build a desalination plant. For a number of years, even when I came to this place in 2013, the Liberal-National parties—including the period of four years when they were in government—basically kept hammering on about why the hell we built the desalination plant. It was built to provide that security I talked about, to make sure that we are able to confront the current situation in relation to water and water resources. The desalination plant is now operational and is supplying water to Melbourne, and that water has been pumped into the reservoirs to make sure there is enough capacity. It is important that we do that for Melburnians, basically the people in greater Melbourne, and for Geelong and other regional cities, as the water system is all interconnected. Because the desal plant is operational and is able to provide that water, we do not have to draw on other water resources—for example, from Eildon and various other dams. We can allow that to be used for irrigators and also for the environment. I think that is very important.

The other side have failed to accept that or understand that approach. Basically their argument is, ‘It costs so much money. We don’t know why you invested in the desalination plant’. Mr Davis talked about the issue of the drought. They are the very reasons why we have invested in that plant. The very reason also goes back to the Bracks-Brumby governments, when millions of dollars were invested in putting in place efficient irrigation systems in the Goulburn Valley in the foodbowl area to try to save water from evaporation. I think that was a groundbreaking project which has delivered a significant amount of water savings. It has enabled irrigators to use that scarce resource to make sure they continue on with their food production. This government has invested a great deal in making sure that we protect the scarce resource, making sure irrigators have still got enough water to continue their production, making sure the population of Victoria and greater Melbourne and major cities around the state have still got access to water, and hopefully we will not have to go back to the water restrictions we had 10 to 15 years ago. Also, what is more important is to make sure there is enough flow in the river system. We addressed the issue of salinity and made sure that we still have a healthy river system in Victoria. They are the three areas the government is focusing on, and it is delivering on them.

This bill will actually work towards those aims. I will now go to some of the main features of what the bill provides. The bill establishes greater recognition and involvement of Aboriginal Victorians in planning for and the management of waterways and catchments; requires greater consideration of the community’s recreational values of waterways; and also improves compliance with and enforcement of laws under the Water Act 1989 and water regulations. I think that is a very important aspect: making sure that people are compliant with the legislation, and when people are not compliant with these laws then enforcement is basically used. We should enforce the law. I think that is very important because unless we have very strong enforcement people would simply disregard the water regulations and we would just have chaos.

The bill also provides a stronger framework for the minister’s salinity mitigation program that offsets the salinity impacts of irrigation in the Mallee region. It also resets the date to undertake a long-term assessment of water resources in northern Victoria from 2018 to 2025 to align the timing of the assessment with the completion of Victoria’s program of works and measures to meet the Murray-Darling Basin plan requirements and with the commonwealth’s review of the basin plan in 2026. I think I touched on that earlier. The reason we are extending that is to give the minister some flexibility to be able to deal with whatever prevailing changes occur during that period. The minister will be able to make the necessary adjustment to make sure we deal with these challenges. I think providing that flexibility to the minister is very important. The bill will give that flexibility to the minister and make sure that those matters are addressed.

The bill also looks at reducing red tape. The bill amends the Water Act 1989 and the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994 and is a consolidation of the Water and Catchment Legislation Amendment Bill 2017, with additional amendments to improve the compliance and enforcement provisions for water which I touched on earlier. The bill will give traditional owners, Aboriginal people, more say in how we deal with water resources, and that is really important for a number of reasons. Aboriginal people have been on this continent for over 60 000 years, and they are probably one of the most environmental people you will find around the globe. So I think involving them in the process is very important. The bill requires the inclusion of traditional owners and Aboriginal Victorians in consultative committees and on the Victorian Catchment Management Council; consideration of Aboriginal cultural values and traditional ecological knowledge in the management of waterways and catchments; and also consultation with traditional owner groups for the preparation of management plans and strategies for waterways and catchments.

The bill also obliges the water corporations, the catchment management authorities and the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, when carrying out their functions under the Water Act, to consider opportunities to provide for Aboriginal cultural values of water and waterways consistent with their other obligations under the act. These amendments partner with effective programs on the ground. The government is investing $4.7 million in its Aboriginal water program for locally based projects and to build capacity through a network of over 20 Aboriginal water officers across the state. I talked earlier about compliance. I think that it is very important that we do have a proper enforcement regime in place, because unless we do then we will have all sorts of abuse of water resources. We have seen some of that upstream in the Murray in Queensland and New South Wales. If we look at the Four Corners report on the ABC, there was significant abuse of water rights by miners and by cotton growers. Basically they had an inland sea built and were taking water out of the system. I think that is real, absolute vandalism, and I think that should be condemned and dealt with harshly because we basically end up paying the price, the people downstream and in other states, just for the benefit of the few. That is why I think enforcement is very important.

The bill will significantly improve the provisions for compliance with and enforcement of water laws. As I said, that was as a result of the misappropriation of water in New South Wales in 2017. It is also good to point out that in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s basin-wide compliance review of 2017 Victoria received an excellent scorecard for regulating rights to water and other activities that can harm our water resources and waterways to the standard required under the basin plan. Of course there is always room for improvement, and that is why we are making these changes. But I am actually pleased that this government, after that review, and our state is doing the right thing. We will always continue to aspire to continue to improve so we can make sure we can deliver on these resources. I talked earlier about the long-term water resource assessment plan. I will finish off by talking about the issue with the salinity mitigation, which is a big issue not just in Victoria but around the country, and that is why it is important. Because we are using so much water the salinity obviously within the water table is coming up, and so we have got a major issue with salinity. That is why it is important to maintain a healthy river system—so that it can be flushed all the way to the ocean. We need to make sure we address those salinity issues, because if we get to a stage where we overuse our current water resources we could just finish up basically with salty water all over the place, particularly in the water table, and that is no good to anyone. We cannot have desalination plants in every region in Victoria to try to address that issue. That is why it is important to maintain healthy waterways, to make sure, basically, that water salinity is kept to a minimum and that we have a healthy river system so that these things can be flushed out.

I think these are important changes to the current legislation. It is a great bill, and with these comments I commend the bill to the house.