Water: The Stuff of Life and Politics

By Sarah Moles

Globally, water supplies are being depleted at an alarming rate. Yet the use of water in Australia to extract fossil fuels is accelerating. Our governments appear blind to issues of future food and water security, to say nothing of the need to address climate change.

Leonardo da Vinci’s definition of water is my favourite quote about this most remarkable of molecules. He called it ‘the driving force of all nature’. W.H. Auden comes a close second with ‘thousands have lived without love, not one without water.’

Given its essential place in supporting life, it should follow that protection of water would be an over-arching principle underpinning responsible and sustainable water management. But it’s not. Our remarkable continent is in the fossil fuel business. These are thirsty and potentially polluting industries in what is, most of time, a very dry country.

Water achieved national importance in 1994. Then, at last, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) recognised the sad and sorry history of European water management and agreed to do something about it through a process called the water reform framework. COAG received regular reports on all things watery until late last year. At the first COAG meeting chaired by newly-minted Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the list of committees reporting to COAG was slashed from 22 to 8. The committee for environment and water vanished, but the committee for energy and resources remained.

Anywhere you care to look policy is trumping principle. It is a policy objective of governments, from both sides of politics, that there will be an expanded coal export industry and an unconventional gas export industry, come hell or high water – whatever the risks, whatever the cost, and apparently, whatever the damage to our international reputation.

It’s debatable which state of the wide, brown land does it best [or worse], but Queensland is right up there. As a Treasury official asked, while being briefed by my colleague on the risks of coal mining and coal seam gas to water supplies, “which part of the word ‘royalties’ don’t you understand?”

Over the past few years I’ve become quite giddy watching the revolving door down in the vicinity of Brisbane’s George and Alice Streets. A stream of pedestrian traffic flows between resources companies and Ministers’ offices, and a fair bit of senior level cross-pollination seems to occur.  It probably ensures the wheels of policy and industry mesh as profitably as possible.  If they’ve been particularly helpful, some of those leaving that lovely colonial building may be headed for well-placed board positions.  I  haven’t seen any brown paper bags or bottles of Grange, but the connections revealed by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption’s investigation into Australian Water Holdings suggests a strong light needs to be shone on relationships of this sort.

An important achievement of the Gillard government was the addition of a ‘water trigger’ to the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC). For the first time, the cumulative impacts of large mining and coal seam gas projects on our water supplies would be assessed, not just those of individual projects.

The Abbot government responded quickly to the needs of Big Business. Obviously, major donors to successful election campaigns want to see a return on their investment.  The federal government intends to not only remove the water trigger but also to give the Commonwealth’s own approval powers under the EPBC Act back to the States. In May this year, Commonwealth Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced the draft bilateral agreement with Queensland to do just this. This is a particular concern for those of us in the so-called Smart State. By way of royalties, the Queensland government often has a vested interest in the projects its agencies are assessing, presenting conflicts of interest.  Furthermore, Queensland’s parliament has no upper house to scrutinise decisions made in the Legislative Assembly – no checks and balances.

One of Campbell Newman’s first public declarations on becoming Premier was “Queensland is in the coal business”.  In parliament, Newman has embarked on a breathtaking program of legislative ‘reform’ to remove all that pesky red and green tape.  More than 20 years of hard-won environmental protection measures and good public policy development have been torn asunder and continue to be unwound in favour of the fossil fuel sector.

Close observers of this legal nitty gritty expect that all references to ‘ecologically sustainable development’ will be removed from Queensland laws by the end of the year – it seems certain this is just around the corner for our Water Act 2000. These words are likely to be replaced with phrases like “balancing social, economic and environmental outcomes”.  In other words, expect decision-making processes to be as flexible as needed to get important projects across the line.  Just don’t expect much transparency.

Other proposed changes to the Water Act would make it much [much] easier for mining and resources projects to acquire the water they need for activities like washing coal, settling dust, and fracking thousands of unconventional gas wells; but could make it much [much] harder for neighbours who might lose their own water supplies and even their livelihoods as a result of this development. We’ll probably hear less about these sort of conflicts though, as our rights to object to potentially damaging resources projects could also be substantially reduced – that’s certainly the plan.

Queenslanders deserve so much better – because we can’t eat coal and we can’t drink gas.

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