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Adjournment speech: National Water Commission

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 23 Jun 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:03): Among the numerous disappointments coming from the federal government, it is fair to say that the decision to shut down the National Water Commission is but one. But this is one that deserves close attention. As a nation, we are facing major challenges to our water supplies. The biggest threat, however, is the complete disregard from the federal government for the importance of this issue.

We are currently facing the likelihood of an El Nino weather pattern and with that increased risk of drought. At the same time, climate change continues to make it difficult to predict weather patterns. The Murray-Darling Basin plan is yet to be fully delivered, and we have ongoing conflicts around land-use over mining and its associated problems relating to water supply and safety. It is clear that now, more than ever, we need a national body to oversee the development of water policy that will protect agriculture, farming communities, our food supplies and our environment.

The government, however, is turning its back on our only independent body to oversee water policy. This is absolute incompetence. At every chance they can get, this government is turning away from their responsibilities to manage the precious resources we have. They are throwing away their responsibility to protect the biodiversity of the nation, as well as protecting land and water from mining. This is the only way one can understand why the coalition is out to bury the National Water Commission.

One of our most prominent environmental challenges is managing the Murray-Darling Basin. The MDB Plan has taken years to pull together. From the release of the plan, it took 15 months for the states to sign up. A little more than a year ago, the National Water Commission's first report noted that progress on the plan had been slow. More recently, the government announced that they wanted to move away from direct investment in buying back water Murray-Darling and invest in infrastructure instead. Despite being two to three times more costly, this is the path the government has chosen. It makes sense from their point of view to get rid of the National Water Commission. Of course, you do not want anyone pointing out that you are putting the Murray-Darling Basin Plan at risk.

If there is anything the Murray-Darling Basin should have taught us, it is the need for a national perspective on water. The National Water Commission was originally set up as an independent body to monitor the implementation of the National Water Initiative. In their most recent assessment of this process, they again noted that progress had been 'disappointingly slow'. What does the government do in response? It does not investigate further barriers to reform nor push the states to get their act together and protect our water systems; instead it gets rid of the commission. In addition to their functions of assessing and monitoring the National Water Initiative, the National Water Commission identified priority issues for water reform. In doing so, they have highlighted the numerous exemptions given to mining over water issues in some states. In 2010 the commission released a statement calling for 'a careful transparent and integrated consideration of water related impacts in all approval processes' for coal seam gas. Any cursory investigation into current processes shows that this is far from happening.

Across Australia, state coalition governments are increasingly moving to rationalise and to reduce their water departments. It seems that hiding from scrutiny over water issues is, across the board, coalition policy. Not only is the government getting rid of the National Water Commission, it is handing over the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, including the water trigger which communities worked so hard to have put in place-and the states cannot be trusted to protect our water. This, presumably, is why MP Kevin Hogan has tried to negotiate a clause in the get-rid-of-the-EPBC bill, to ensure the states consider the advice of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Developments. But take heed: there are no actual mechanisms proposed to make sure the government can intervene. As my colleague, Senator Larissa Waters, has pointed out, the state governments have allowed the rampant expansion of the mining sector in the first place: handing responsibilities under the EPBC Act back to the states is tantamount to removing the legislation entirely.

I am sure that in Queensland, where the CSG industry is ready running amok, it is no coincidence that they have already moved to shut down their water commission. It was shut down at the beginning of 2013. On 1 July 2013, we saw the creation of the GasFields Commission Queensland, which includes water and salt management as one of its portfolios. In with the gas commission, out with the water commission. This is surely a clear revelation of the government's priorities. And if that is not enough, there is more: let us consider the Carmichael project in the Galilee Basin. The Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Developments expressed concerns about the impact of the mine on groundwater, and said there was little confidence in the information provided by the proponent. Crucially, they highlighted the lack of knowledge available on connections of the coal seams to the Great Artesian Basin, as well as on the risks to local creeks and rivers. Despite this, the Newman government decided with the company, Adani, to approve the mine, which will produce up to sixty million tonnes of coal each year. The final approval process for the mine is currently sitting with the federal environment minister, and it remains to be seen whether the federal government will step in to protect our water. This case shows us just how problematic our current water policies are. And what is the federal government doing about it? Passing the responsibility back to the states, and removing the National Water Commission, which might have highlighted the problems with this. Could it be that the government feels it has more powerful interests to protect than the communities which rely on the water?

In my home state of New South Wales, I have spoken many times of the problems which mining-impacted communities are facing. A large part of the problem here is water. As the mining industry sprawls across the nation, and as new methods of extraction are developed, the attendant problems of water have become a prominent concern. There is already clear evidence from the US that fracking for coal-seam gas can cause methane contamination of drinking water. Even when it is not fracking for CSG, the mining process uses vast amounts of water and produces vast amounts of waste water. These are ongoing problems for communities in the vicinity of mining projects, and this is one of the reasons why mining is so fiercely opposed across the country.

In March this year, a meeting of 600 community members in Narrabri called for a blanket ban on coal-seam gas in New South Wales. The community in north-western New South Wales is dealing with a number of controversial coal and coal-seam gas projects, including Whitehaven's Maules Creek mine and a large coal-seam gas project in the Pilliga run by mining giant Santos. Although it is only in the exploratory phase, the community has already felt the impact of the Santos project. After leaking uranium, lead, aluminium, arsenic, barium, boron and nickel from a storage pond into an aquifer last year, Santos was fined a measly $1,500-that would not even be petty cash for this company. Local farmers are alarmed and have been putting their freedom on the line. So far, 21 people have been arrested in the Pilliga. Ten of them are farmers. Some of them are now also looking at court proceedings, just to have Santos provide them with information that might relate to the bores on their land being contaminated-clearly work that the government should be doing, instead of forcing farmers to spend their time fighting in the courts.

Recently, the New South Wales government has announced that they are removing their water commissioner and collapsing the New South Wales Office of Water with the Metropolitan Water Directorate. Concurrently, we have seen the New South Wales Chief Scientist &Engineer claim that filtration of water in the Sydney catchment area would suffice to make the water safe for drinking, while at the same time noting that there is 'limited data to analyse the cumulative impact of mining activities in the area'. The Independent New South Wales Scientific Committee's 2005 listing of longwall coal mining as a key threatening process affecting surface and ground water hydrology receives nary a mention anywhere-surely, given the level of concern around water and mining issues, the removal of specialist independent oversight of water policy is a mistake. The National Farmers' Federation says we need an alternative. The Australian Water Association says it is short-sighted. And I would say it is outright negligent.

There is a strong narrative here. The National Water Commission says water reform is moving slowly. The federal government shuts it down. The government wants to change the direction of the Murray-Darling Basin. What a blatant political and negligent act. The closure of the Water Commission is more than just an efficiency measure; it is deliberately calculated to remove scrutiny over federal and state governments- (Time expired)

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