Water is THE big issue - The Good Oil by Rod Brown

The federal government’s $1.3 billion National Water Infrastructure Development Fund is a paltry effort in the scheme of things.

Its objective is ‘to identify and build the water infrastructure of the 21st century’. But this amount of money goes nowhere in a vast water-deficient continent.

Deputy PM McCormack speaks often about the need for more dams. Regional towns running out of water presumably shape his position.

The lack of any new dams in western NSW since 1987 is cited as a culprit.

The NSW Government is on the same page, and is talking similar dollars to the feds for projects like raising the Wyangala Dam wall, pipelines in the Hunter and Central West etc. Queensland is also pushing for more dam construction. Progress is pitifully slow, and politicians push out disingenuous sentiments like ‘building transformational water infrastructure for future generations’ and ‘drought proofing the east coast.’

South Australia Premier Marshall insightfully suggests that government bodies are ‘marking their own homework.’  

The solution lies squarely with the three levels of government – and local government could actually be the dealmaker because it’s in the midst of the issue and has the passion to push through.

Let me outline five core elements of what could be a New Deal originating within local government.

1. Funding boost
The problem is that federal government pays lip service to the water security issue. Why else would the feds find $50 billion for a dozen submarines of dubious value, and then brag about $1.3 billion for a Water Infrastructure Fund?
My gut feel is that the feds should be committing around $25 billion over five years, to be matched by the states/territories. That equates to a total $10 billion annually.

2. 50 pilot projects
The NSW Government has reportedly been exploring the piping of water from coastal rivers inland, and the headwaters of the Clarence River is talked about. But already there is alarm at the impact on estuaries and seafood, and the cost of pumping water. So let’s commission expert opinion and run some trials – these will provide the evidence base.

Why 50 pilot projects? Well the water security affects every state and territory, and each jurisdiction needs to learn from others. Get every state/territory to nominate its key projects.

You need an Australian Water Infrastructure Authority to negotiate and monitor the projects – a mix of conventional pipelines, solar pumping systems, evaporation minimisation, recycled water, stormwater capture, water-saving vegetation and grasses, desalinisation etc. And our political leaders would keep us fully informed of the overall progress because the nation must understand and own the outcomes.

3. Ditch private sector ownership wherever possible
Water security is of national importance at so many levels. Water ownership by the private sector in a largely unfettered way was always going to end in tears. And you can’t have private investors trying to create monopoly positions on water, which they will inevitably do.

Cubbie Station is the exemplar of failed public policy. It went into receivership near the end of the drought, but instead of buying it back, the federal and NSW governments allowed it to be sold to the Chinese textile giant Shandong Ruyi. Cubbie Station reportedly uses 150,000 to 200,000 ML annually and has annual revenue of around $50 million. Bite the bullet and buy it back. The Chinese would grumble, but privately they’d understand.

4. Royal Commission
Labor has left the door open to holding a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, calling on the government to explain the ‘scandal’ surrounding $200m in water buybacks. Indeed pressure is on the Coalition to explain the signing off of controversial water purchases in 2017 without a public tender process.

Even last month we had a Moyne Shire councillor expressing marvellous dismay at a $1 million grant from the federal Drought Communities Program when there are many more deserving communities. The jury is out on whether it was the Nationals doing more pork barrelling or whether it was simply a f..k up.

We must get politics OUT of the water issue. The Royal Commission into the Banking Industry, with forensic questioning by Kenneth Hayne and his legal team, has ushered in fundamentally new standards in banking. A nationwide Royal Commission into the Water Industry can do the same. But the Morrison Government wouldn’t move on this unless the Opposition, the states and local government upped the ante.

5. A Grand Plan
PM Morrison likes the big picture and has the marketing background. Let’s unleash him on arguably the biggest agenda for Australia – or at least as important as defence, immigration, drugs and jobs. Perhaps a Group of Eminent Australians to assist him.

Postscript – the Victorian Alps
I spent a few days in Falls Creek and Mount Hotham last month, and what a reacquaintance with this beautiful region. The climate is friendlier than over the border, hence the farms are in good shape, as are the towns like Beechworth, Bright and Mt Beauty. More next month.  

Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant and lobbyist specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction and clusters, and accessing federal grants. He also runs the Cockatoo Network.
Phone: (02) 6231 7261 or 0412 922 559
Email: apdcockatoo[@]iprimus.com.au