The Rudd Government is refusing to answer key Estimates questions relating to water policy, Coalition Murray Darling spokesman Simon Birmingham said today.
“The Government’s failure to answer key questions makes a mockery of the Senate Estimates process, usually one of the more effective means of accountability,” Senator Birmingham said.
The October round of Supplementary Budget Estimates saw 188 often multi-faceted questions in the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts portfolio taken on notice, either during the course of the hearings or submitted in writing.
“These questions cover a broad range of topics from Caring for our Country, environment protection legislation, Green Loans and the Whaling Envoy’s expenses to the activities of Screen Australia and other arts bodies,” Senator Birmingham said.
“Of 26 questions remaining unanswered more than six weeks after the deadline, 18 of them* relate to water and some of the more politically sensitive matters such as water saving infrastructure failures, water licence buybacks and Victoria’s ‘North-South’ pipeline.
“One of the unanswered questions seeks the amount of spending on on-farm irrigation projects, the answer to which last time was an embarrassing ‘no funding … in the past 12 months’.
“Water Minister Penny Wong has already shown a capacity for delayed release of sensitive answers, waiting until the second day of October’s Estimates to provide an answer about off-farm water infrastructure spending failures from the previous Estimates in May.
“If the Rudd Government has nothing to hide in relation to water policy, why has it failed to meet the deadline in relation to so many questions? And why do nearly 70 per cent of these unanswered questions relate to Senator Wong’s water portfolio?
“Is Senator Wong planning to delay the release of these answers until Senators and journalists are buried in the coming February round of Additional Estimates?”
*see examples below
Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts – unanswered questions from
October 2009 Supplementary Budget Estimates
The 18 unanswered water questions, asked by Senators Birmingham (Liberal), Heffernan (Liberal), Macdonald (Liberal), Siewert (Greens), Fielding (Family First), and Xenophon (Independent) include:
  • 1.         How much has the Government spent on off-farm infrastructure projects since its election? 
2.         On what projects or programs has expenditure been made?
3.         What targets for off-farm infrastructure projects (in value and volume) does the Government have for each remaining year of the program, including this one?
4.         What water saving/infrastructure projects were committed to or identified by the Intergovernmental Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform signed by Prime Minister Rudd and First Ministers of Murray-Darling Basin states and territories in July 2008?5. What progress has been made on each of these projects? What funds have actually been expended on each of them?
  • 1.         How much has the Government spent on on-farm infrastructure projects since its election? 
2.         On what projects or programs has expenditure been made?
3.         What targets for on-farm infrastructure projects (in value and volume) does the Government have for each remaining year of the program, including this one?
  • 1.         How much has the Government spent purchasing water entitlements since its election?
2.         What targets for water purchases (in value and volume) does the Government have for each remaining year of the program, including this one?
3.         Given the restrictions placed on purchases by NSW and Victoria, what is the maximum volume of entitlements the Government could purchase from each of those states?
  • 1.         How much has the Government spent purchasing entitlements in the past 12 months?
2.         How much is allocated for the next 12?
3.         What is the delay by state between acceptance of the Government as a tender and completion of the transfer?
4.         Of the 2008/09 accepted tenders, what value (by dollars and megalitres) failed due diligence and were not settled?
  • I refer to Senator Wong’s announcement on 3rd July 2008 of an allocation of $3.7 billion for urgent priority irrigation modernisation projects. On 7th October 2009 Senator Wong committed $21.7 million to the Gwydir Valley Pilot Project to support more efficient irrigation through on-farm modernisation projects.
1.         How much of the $3.7 billion Murray Action Plan funding has been allocated to date?
2.         What amount of funding has so far been given to projects in NSW and Victoria?
3.         What benchmarks are being used to determine whether this expenditure is worthwhile?
  • The 2002 agreement between the NSW, Victorian and Federal governments was supposed to increase environmental flows down the River Murray. However, since 2005, a total of 96,787 ML has flowed into the RMIF account, but only 38,000 ML has been released by Snowy Hydro Limited who controls the water.
1.         Isn’t this a breach of the 2002 agreement?
2.         What review is being conducted or will be conducted into this agreement which was supposed to deliver 70,000 ML of entitlement to the Murray River?
  • The MDBA’s drought update earlier this year found that South Australia, NSW and Victoria have only enough “critical needs” water for another year – and that irrigation water for the food bowl will be dependent almost entirely on rainfall as basin states hold back water for critical human needs.
1.         Is this still the case?
2.         What is the average monthly inflow currently?
3.         How much water has been purchased from the northern and southern parts of the Murray-Darling river system?
  • Budget Paper 2 outlined a commitment of $300 million for a new on-farm irrigation efficiency program from within the $12.9 billion Water for the Future plan: this program will invest in projects in the southern Murray-Darling Basin that deliver more efficient irrigation systems, secure long-term economic growth for irrigation communities and deliver substantial and lasting improvements to the environment.
1.         Why has the Government only provided irrigators with a six week window to apply for funding under this program?
2.         Why was no advance notice given to irrigators informing them as to when the application guidelines would become available?
3.         Why is there a requirement that irrigators must hand over water entitlements to the Federal Government before any on-farm work is able to commence?
4.         Will any funding that is not allocated towards improving on-farm infrastructure be used to purchase water entitlements?
5.         What consultation occurred between the Federal Government and Murray Darling Basin irrigator bodies to determine the guidelines for this program?
6.         (If none) Why weren’t any groups consulted?
7.         How many projects does the Government expect to fund through this funding?
8.         Will there be further funding be made available under this program for on-farm irrigation works?
  • My office has been contacted by a number of irrigators who have faced lengthy delays to finalise buybacks of their water licences.
1.         What is the timeframe in which water buybacks are being/should be approved?
2.         Why are delays occurring and how is this being resolved?
3.         Between the approval of the purchase and payment, what is the average timeframe for settlement?