Dam plan won't wash: Greens

29 Oct, 2014 01:00 AM
Short-termism is becoming endemic in the current government

OPINION: WITHIN a few hours of the Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce announcing his plan to choke off rivers across the nation his government colleague Senator Simon Birmingham, Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister, was revealing the degree to which his government is backtracking on water policy oversight.

Senate Estimates is a federal parliamentary process where Senators question bureaucrats and ministers about government policy. Details of bad policy is often uncovered at these hearings. However, too often due to the deluge of information presented the government of the day is spared the embarrassment they should be subjected to. Senate Estimates with the National Water Commission last week was such an occasion.

Barnaby Joyce has been talking up his big dam building plans - which will damage the environment, the sustainability of the nation’s water resources and the long-term viability of the agricultural sector.

On top of this back to the 1950s style of short-term economic thinking, the Coalition policy is scaling back scrutiny of water resources at a state and national level. Queensland shut down its Water Commission last year. NSW has just lost its Water Commissioner and merged the NSW Office of Water with the Sydney Catchment Authority and Metropolitan Water Directorate into one under the Department of Primary Industries. At a national level the setback is immense with the Liberal/National government pushing ahead with a bill before Parliament to wind up the National Water Commission (NWC).

The NWC plays a crucial role in monitoring, auditing and assessing water policy. Their watchful eye on national water policy would be a hindrance to Joyce’s plans to dam rivers across the country.

At Senate Estimates, Acting CEO of the National Water Commission Kerry Olsson revealed that the areas of expertise that will be lost if the Commission is closed include water management, planning, experience in industry, management of public sector programs, freshwater ecology, environmental scientists and hydrologists.

Senate Estimates also revealed how the government is failing with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. When I asked the National Water Commission about the government’s attempt to move the Murray-Darling Basin Plan audit from 2015 to 2018, Senator Birmingham jumped in before they could answer claiming that this date fits with the original intention of the Water Act.

When I asked the NWC for their response, the answer was different. Olsson said the Commission has “expressed a concern that 2018 may be somewhat late in that if there were some issues in the implementation processes up to that date, the assessment may come late in the process in terms of providing constructive input into those processes”.

It would seem that the government is not particularly interested in such constructive feedback on water policy. The key functions of the NWC are set to go to the Productivity Commission. The Senate Estimate hearings revealed that of the three staff who will be staying on to continue to guide water policy, none will sit within the Productivity Commission.

Short-termism is becoming endemic in the current government. Joyce’s attempt to appease farmers with his claims that he will fight for their rights against mining companies is another example of the Minister attempting to walk both sides of the road between his farming and mining interests.

Joyce argues that dams would be good for the mining industry. The question remains as to where the Minister’s allegiances lie, and how his plans will be adequately exposed to public scrutiny.

Joyce’s glib comments that "water is wealth and stored water is a bank" tell us only half the story. No-one doubts that water supports our economy, but it is much more than that. It supports life, and it needs to be managed well in order to continue to do so.

If we fail to manage our water properly the nation’s water could end up in the same dire situation as the Murray-Darling Basin in the last decade. That mistake cost us billions of taxpayers’ dollars and years of environmental damage.

After 10 years of service, trying to pull together the disparate stakeholders, including states, industry and communities, the National Water Commission still has a valuable role to play. If water is so important, surely we should be protecting, conserving and managing our water with as much vigour as we pursue economic growth.

Senator Lee Rhiannon is Greens water spokesperson

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Jenny Stirling
29/10/2014 9:18:28 AM

And this from is the same government that proposes coal seam gas drilling and coal mining which threatens urban water supplies and irrigation for farming and grazing. For example Neppean River (Sydney), The Great Artesian Basin (Qld), Darling Downs and Northern Rivers NSW.
29/10/2014 9:37:21 AM

I will take the sort of nation-building "1950s style of short-term economic thinking" (think Snowy-Hydro) over today's short-term electoral cycle economic thinking any day. The Greens need to start thinking about how Australia can be productive and sustainable and global instead of just trying to stop any kind of growth in any kind of industry based on superficial "environmental" grounds.
James Diack
29/10/2014 2:59:17 PM

Water is such a critical resource we should take care not to muck it up. Ignoring science and/or doing away with review processes seems short sighted. We need healthy rivers to sustain agriculture over the long term. Dams may sound popular but they can have bad long term impacts if not carefully thought through. I know Greens have damned the other parties for neglecting infrastructure like rail freight that has seen the grain harvest travelling by road in so many places. They also support action on weeds and feral animal control, it's not so simple to say they just stand in the way.
Avoid Our Mistakes
30/10/2014 1:24:29 AM

Avoid the mistake we have made in the United States, by damming almost every river we have. We are no longer building dams here because of the huge negative impact on watershed health, fisheries, and public safety. We are also realizing how inefficient and costly dams are when compared to less harmful and more effective water storage solutions like groundwater recharge and aquifer storage. Storing water in a huge reservoir exposed to the sun and sediment transport in a river is an insane proposition; many dams loss more water to evaporation that they utilize and sedimentation fills them in.
30/10/2014 8:54:27 AM

AOM & JD, Mercedes cars are much higher quality vehicles than Corolla's, Fiestas, Mitsubishi's, & Hyundi's etc, but most people do very well with the lower quality vehicle don't they. How about just a little reality and balance, and we might just get this nation up and running again, instead of sitting on our butts and relying on welfare?
30/10/2014 9:46:33 AM

I find it extraordinary that one of the best pieces of public policy John Howard delivered is to be torn down by the Abbott government. If we need a national policy on anything it is water. It doesn't respect our (mostly) arbitrary state boundaries and the very expensive disaster in the MDB is abundant evidence that the States are not competent to manage it properly. In the north we still have rivers and water resources that function properly. Lets use them widely, learn from and avoid the mistakes of the past and above all value water properly.
30/10/2014 10:31:49 AM

Damned if you do, damned if you dont....
Bushie Bill
30/10/2014 2:43:25 PM

Argie old son, would you mind explaining your mind burp in the post above? How, exactly, are posts from AOM and JD devoid of reality and balance, and how, exactly, do Mercedes and other brands of motor vehicles have the slightest relevance. You been out sniffing the local weeds again?
1/11/2014 6:09:41 AM

Building more dams ignores what we should have learnt with the Millenium drought. Dams don't create more water they distribute water to those who live upstream while those of us who farm downstream get screwed
1/11/2014 4:57:55 PM

Since when was providing water security for agriculture a bad thing? The vision that saw the Snowy Scheme built was one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The Greens make a lot of fuss about renewable energy when they really have no idea. Hydro Power is the most renewable energy there is. The sun draws water into the clouds and it falls as rain and snow and flows down to dams with a turbine producing electricity as needed. There are plenty of places to continue the program to provide for Australia's future. That is what "Direct Action" should be.
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