18 October 2023

I move amendments (4) to (6), as circulated in my name, together:

(4) Schedule 2, item 49, page 24 (lines 9 to 13), omit the item.

(5) Schedule 2, page 24 (after line 13), after item 49, insert:

49A After subsection 7.27(1)


(1A) The Inspector-General may:

(a) audit calculations made by the Authority for the purposes of Parts 2 and 4; or

(b) appoint or establish a person or body that is independent of the Authority to audit calculations made by the Authority for the purposes of Parts 2 and 4.

(6) Schedule 2, item 50, page 24 (line 15), after “Inspector-General”, insert “(unless the Inspector-General is conducting the audit)”.

Under the 2012 Basin Plan, basin states and the Commonwealth agreed to recover 2,750 gigalitres of water for the environment. To achieve this goal, the Basin Plan allows states to propose projects that will deliver an equivalent environmental outcome to buying back water licences without removing water from the consumptive pool. This is known as the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism, and projects are referred to as sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism projects, or SDLAM projects. In total, the proposed SDLAM projects promise to deliver 605 gigalitres of equivalent environmental benefits, yet we’re seeing delays. There are significant questions about whether the projects will deliver the promised benefits. In New South Wales, in particular, many of these projects have not even begun or have changed so significantly that they will not deliver the promised benefits.

This bill extends the deadline for these SDLAM projects. I support that. It also includes provisions which ensure basin states are held to account for meeting their obligations in relation to these projects. These are important provisions, which I support, so we can deliver on the 2012 base plan targets, but they can be improved.

Independent and transparent scrutiny of these projects is absolutely necessary to ensure the Australian public and the environment are not being short-changed on taxpayer money for projects to return water to the basin. This scrutiny is the role of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance. The inspector-general must have appropriate powers to hold basin states accountable and to determine compliance with sustainable diversion limits and the promised outcomes of projects.

My amendments further strengthen the inspector-general’s powers to make sure the states and projects are delivering. They enable the inspector to undertake an independent audit of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s sustainable diversion limit, or SDL, calculations. These audits can be undertaken by the inspector-general or an independent person or body they appoint. SDLAM accounting, knowing what water is returned to the environment via supply or efficiency projects, should be done in a comprehensive, transparent and publicly accessible way that uses the best available science. This is to ensure that benefits for the environment are aligned with the targets of the Basin Plan.

It’s the general practice of the inspector to make its work publicly available and therefore transparent, so, if these independent audits are showing that projects are not meeting their promised environmental benefits, we will know. The public then must see a path to compliance or a path to ensure the environmental benefits are delivered by other means.

In drafting this amendment, I particularly wish to thank the Water for Indi group, a voluntary community group that I set up in 2019 with local experts, including Dr Anna Roberts and Patten Bridge, who have experience across all impacted sectors. Water for Indi note that improved accountability includes the need to provide better publicly accessible information, such as catchment-by-catchment information about sustainable diversion limits and progress against meeting catchment-by-catchment targets. We need to improve the granularity of hydrological modelling and water reporting units, and, linked to this, we need better data and we need whole-of-basin modelling. Better data includes additional gauges to report on inflows and outflows of tributaries across the basin.

The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists’ work also informed this amendment, and they want that process used by the basin authority for determining the sustainable diversion limit with the best available science.

Improving data and modelling will improve the accountability and outcome for all basin actors, and any independent audit must encompass these best-practice methods. I thank the minister and her office for working with me so constructively on this particular amendment, and I look forward to her response.

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