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Estimates Reply – Minister Barnett

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Tags: Water Quality, State Budget, River Health

Ms O'CONNOR - Mr Deputy Chair, in the brief amount of time that we are given to respond to a whole range of portfolio issues, I am going to talk about a tale of four reports relating to the mismanagement of the Water portfolio under Mr Barnett.

The first report that we asked a series of questions about to no avail, I must say, was a report that the Government tried to hide for more than a year and a half where a decision was made internally by someone - whether it was the secretary or the minister or somebody else - not to release the temporal and spatial patterns in river health across Tasmania and the influence of environmental factors.

This report was one of a series of water ecology reports that the department has been undertaking for many years. Every report prior to this one was publicly released. Why was this report not released? We could not get a straight answer from the minister about that. The secretary of the department told us that this incredibly scientific and detailed report was superseded by another report, the Rural Water Use Strategy, which is a policy document. I will get to that one in a moment.

The temporal and spatial patterns report found that river health across Tasmania in most of our major river systems is in decline and this decline has accelerated from 2014. I refer any member who is interested to pages 97 and 98 of the report that the Government tried to conceal, which we obtained in the caretaker period through right to information. It makes for alarming reading. It is also very much in the public interest.

Tasmanians should know what state their rivers are in and this was produced by scientists in the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment in good faith in the public interest. One of those scientists who, for 25 years, had dedicated his life to the health of Tasmania's rivers, water ecologist, Chris Bobbi, was so dismayed by the department's attempt to conceal the information on river health that he resigned from DPIPWE. He told a national audience that he believed the department was failing in its duty of care to protect Tasmania's rivers.

When we tried to get the answer about why this incredibly important scientific report was not made public, we were told by the secretary that it had been superseded by the Rural Water Use Strategy. The Rural Water Use Strategy is a policy document. It makes no mention of the temporal and spatial patterns report on river health. It also explicitly excludes examination of urban water supplies and it says that is outside the scope of the Rural Water Use Strategy. It gives passing mention to river health, making no mention of the most important report on river health - the one that was finalised a year beforehand.

This Rural Water Use Strategy props up the Government's plan, the AgriVision plan to increase by 10 times the farmgate value of agricultural production in Tasmania. What we know is that in order to do that, the Government would have to suck the rivers dry.

The third report I want to talk about is the Tasmanian Freshwater Project Report, freshwater condition, by the highly regarded Dr Christine Coughanowr, which was released in August of this year. Her findings are incredibly alarming. She says:

Tasmania's freshwater resources can no longer be considered clean, green and abundant. The recent river health monitoring program review 2018 20 indicated that up to 43 per cent of sites were classified as impaired and that nearly 70 per cent of sites have declined, often significantly, during the five years of the program.

River flows have declined in many rivers across the state. This decline in river condition is playing out within the context of poor information about existing water use due to limited metering, together with ambitious growth targets for agriculture, salmon farming and renewable energy.

What I forgot to mention is that the Rural Water Use Strategy, which excludes river health and urban water supplies, makes provision for hydrogen. How that fits into a rural water use strategy, I cannot understand.

We raised Dr Coughanowr's report with the minister and he made some glib reference to Dr Coughanowr being invited to the round table on rural water use. When you go back and have a look at the Hansard, the impression you gain is that Dr Coughanowr will be an integral part of that river health round table. No, we have checked. Dr Coughanowr, who used to run the Derwent Estuary Program, highly respected, has only been offered an opportunity to brief the round table. Another example of the minister being utterly misleading.

What we do know from Estimates - and I will get to the fourth report in a moment - is that there is extremely limited understanding of water quality in Tasmania. We believe there is no nutrient sampling. We are still waiting for a question on notice about what level of sampling there is of nitrogen and phosphorus in Tasmania's rivers.

We are really concerned about the state of Tasmania's rivers, together with people like the Anglers Alliance of Tasmania, oyster growers and, of course, TasWater, which wrote a damning reply to the Rural Water Use Strategy which, again, was dismissed out of hand by the minister.

I sat down with my 21-year-old daughter the other night to have a look at Mr Barnett's Estimates and I took some pleasure from the look on her face, which reflected how many of us felt at that table. It was utter disbelief that a minister of the Crown could dissemble, obfuscate, conceal, and refuse to answer in the way that Mr Barnett does. That is one thing I would have to agree with Dr Broad about: at the Estimates table the minister you are least able to get a straight answer out of is Mr Barnett.

The fourth report was the national 7.30 Report, which went to air last week talking about the declining state of Tasmania's rivers, the attempts to conceal the critical scientific river health report, the testimony of anglers like Rick Lohrey who has been fishing the rivers of north eastern Tasmania for more than 40 years. He says of the South Esk:

You could catch fish pretty much any time, anywhere on any stretch of the river. It was just a magnificent river. Now, long stretches of the stream just appear to be barren.

The 7.30 Report told a national audience that our minister responsible for water, Mr Barnett, did not read the most critical scientific report on the state of Tasmania's rivers, the one his department, or he, tried to hide for more than a year, the Temporal and Spatial Patterns in River Health report.

We also saw on 7.30 reports back from the waterbug program which shows that life in the rivers is in decline, particularly in areas of intensifying agricultural production. Why is this important, Mr Deputy Chair? Because water is life.

We hear constantly from the minister catchphrases like 'water is liquid gold'. That tells you a lot about his state of mind. It is all about the making of money. It is not about the fact that without clean, fresh water, we are lost socially and economically. The evidence is mounting that under this Government our rivers are under increasing pressure.

This issue first came to my attention in a really deep way about two or three years ago when I started talking to people. I was talking to a fellow who installs dams and pumping systems on rural properties who had been working in the water space for many years, and he was alarmed. That set off an alarm bell in me, and the more our office investigates this issue, the more worried we are about the state of Tasmania's rivers.

We do not believe the department is fulfilling its duty of care to Tasmania's river systems. We believe Chris Bobbi. We are deeply concerned about this minister's mismanagement of water in Tasmania, bending over backward for irrigators, going hell for leather for an agri vision policy that will not only see our surface water supplies depleted but now we know irrigators are after groundwater.

We are in a drying climate. We know water is life and we need to get on top of this. We are prepared to work in a constructive way with Government and across the parliament to make sure we have the best possible water management regime in place, that we have monitoring of water quality, that we are testing for nutrients and that there is an equitable allocation of water resources in Tasmania.

This is a very important task for the parliament. The climate is drying. Water will change. Rainfall patterns are changing. We cannot just take it as a given that we will continue to have access to clean, fresh and abundant water. The science confirms this.