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Bureacracy building won’t help the Environment

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Legislative Assembly 5 October 2021

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (11:16): I must say that there has generally been a tradition in this house that at least the first speaker for the government talks a little bit about the bill— about what is in the bill and how the government, beyond the detail required in the second-reading speech, actually came to the position it did and why it is implementing the changes—and generally makes an effort to respond to the issues raised by the lead speaker for the opposition.

By my count it took until the last 28 seconds of the Member for Footscray’s speech for her to actually address an issue that related to the bill at all, and I think that is absolutely a record.

I know debating standards in this chamber—I am not talking about behaviour, but the standard of debate—have been declining for years. But could we at least have a situation where the first speaker for the government actually talks about what is in the bill—not the history, not what may be happening in another party in another state, but actually what is in the bill? That might be helpful.

The Water and Catchment Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 is fairly straightforward, amending the Water Act 1989 and the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994.

This is I think in many ways an unremarkable bill, but it is also a significant bill because it is abolishing the Victorian Catchment Management Council. It is reassigning the duties of the Port Phillip and Westernport Catchment Management Authority (CMA), which has been operating since—what, 1997? Something like that.

Of course, as the Member for Footscray did finally mention, it is merging City West Water and Western Water and turning them into Greater Western Water as well. But it is doing a lot more than that.

The Member for Euroa particularly talked about the changes to the Water Act and the way they apply. The area that is likely to be most affected is of course the Murray River and particularly the issue of water supply downstream of the Barmah Choke.

Now, I know what the Barmah Choke is, I know where it is and I know a little bit about the issues around that, but I certainly do not pretend to be an expert. But it is clear that if you have reduced flows and you have increased utilisation of water downstream, then you are going to have issues. I think while, as the Member for Euroa mentioned, there are some concerns with the mechanism and there are some concerns with the regulation process still to come, the actual initiative, as she mentioned, was actually proposed by the coalition, by the Liberal and National parties, prior to the last election, and clearly it is an area that we are actually supportive of.

I did want to concentrate most of my remarks on the abolition of the Victorian Catchment Management Council and the issues arising from the Port Phillip and Westernport CMA merger with Melbourne Water.

Now, with regard to the catchment management council, they characterise themselves in their annual report, and I think it is borne out by the legislation, as the government’s peak advisory body on catchment management. They say that they are uniquely placed, that they are able to take a long-term view and that they are able to influence change in working towards their vision for catchment management, working towards the government’s vision for catchment management.

In particular, they talk about ecologicallyand sustainable and productive  catchments. Now, I think that is an ambition that we would all consider to be reasonable, so it does beg the question of why this body is to be abandoned. I particularly refer to the report State of the Environment 2018—we have another one coming in 2023, but this one came out in 2018.

While it has a range of indicators in it, the ones I am always interested to look at relate to biodiversity. Remember, ecologically sustainable and productive catchments and biodiversity are inextricably linked—they are inextricably linked.

Yet when you look at the report and the biodiversity indicators, 35 of them, none were good—none at all were considered to be good. Seven were considered to be fair, 21 were considered to be poor and seven we just do not know—we just do not know. So 80 per cent of the indicators are either poor or unknown, and the balance are to be considered fair.

You would have to say that is an appalling record when it comes to biodiversity. Yet here we are today debating the abolition of the Victorian Catchment Management Council, which is about ecologically sustainable and productive catchments.

I really find that rather surprising, I have got to say.

The other aspect, as I foreshadowed, that I want to talk about is the merger of the Port Phillip and Westernport CMA with Melbourne Water. Now, of course Melbourne Water is the successor of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, a bureaucratic juggernaut that was well and truly due for winding up when it was broken up in the 1980s.

Of course it has a history well outside simply the supply of water, particularly when it got into planning and other matters, but that is really outside the scope of this debate. But the Melbourne Water of today, being the successor of that body, is still primarily a water supply body.

When you look at the annual report, again:

We manage water supply catchments, treat and supply drinking and recycled water, remove and treat most of Melbourne’s sewage, and manage waterways and major drainage systems in the Port Phillip and Westernport regions.

When you contrast the activities of that with what the Port Phillip and Westernport CMA is largely engaged in, when they talk about their summary performance they are talking about a collaborative strategy, they are talking about supporting Landcare, they are talking about working with the Indigenous communities and working with the broader community.

The thing that really struck me when I looked at the numbers here was that they are working with 86 Landcare groups in the Port Phillip and Western Port region and they are working with 4500 volunteers. They are also working with 25 councils. It is very much about partnership, it is very much about work on the ground, and we know that probably the most significant impact you can have is through this work on the ground.

Now, I am not being in any way critical of Melbourne Water. Melbourne Water work closely with a number of my community groups. They provide the funding. They do quite a decent job.

Members interjecting.

Mr MORRIS: I will tell them to shut up in a minute, Acting Speaker, even if you will not. I cannot hear myself.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Connolly): Order! Can I remind the Members in the chamber that the Member for Mornington is debating this bill, and I am unable to hear his contribution.

Mr Battin interjected.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Connolly): Member for Gembrook, I am looking at you.

Mr MORRIS: Thank you, Acting Speaker. I am not being in any way critical of Melbourne Water, but they are very, very different bodies, and I am not sure that this is the best model.

The theory that bigger is better, in my view, does not apply in this case, particularly when you have got such an appalling record in biodiversity, as I mentioned earlier.

The system is not working. Consolidating existing units and just making it bigger is not going to help, in my view. It is not going to help.

Land management or catchment protection—yes, it needs to be integrated, but is that the best model in terms of the Port Phillip region? I really have some significant concerns that it is not.

Because you only need to look at the map here—this is a region that stretches almost but not quite to Geelong, a bit like the metropolitan area, up to Ballan, across the slopes of the Great Divide. It then goes across to Healesville and down to West Gippsland.

It is a very, very big area, and while it does reflect the catchment boundaries it does not in any way reflect land use. It cannot. When you look at the land use outside this door and you look at the land use on the slopes of the Great Divide, it just could not be more different. It does not in any way reflect the conditions. It does not in any way reflect the terrain.

So I am not sure that this is really the best opportunity. I have significant concerns with the legislation. I have greater concerns with the approach of the government. We have got an agenda driven by a need to suit the convenience  of the government. It does not do much for the communities, it does not do much for the environment, and while the opposition will not opposing the bill, I am not sure that this is really a solution.