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