The former LNP Government knew that reforming the Water Act was an essential precondition of future economic development opportunities in regional Queensland, particularly North Queensland. The Water Act, put in place by Labor more than 10 years earlier, was overly proscriptive and inflexible, with water users clashing with the government throughout the 2000’s.
In 2013, the Federal LNP Government unveiled a Northern Australia policy which presented an opportunity to align the resources of the Commonwealth with a modernised state water planning process, paving the way for new greenfield irrigated agriculture projects in North Queensland. Hence the LNP presented a bill to the Queensland Parliament to reform the Water Act.
The reforms involved four key initiatives – inserting a broader purpose into the Act to consider community and economic outcomes, as well as the environment; updating unnecessarily lengthy and rigid water planning processes; providing for consistency in how groundwater is managed across all resources industry sectors; and creating a pathway for the consideration of new, large scale water infrastructure projects (known as the water development option).
These reforms were passed by the Queensland Parliament in late 2014, but had not been enacted at the time of the election in early 2015. Since then, the Palaszczuk Government has delayed this reform of the Water Act. In late 2015, Labor introduced its own bill, which will reinstate a restrictive purpose into the bill to satisfy the Greens and prevent new, large scale water infrastructure projects being assessed and approved through the Water Act.
Ironically, after objecting to the changes which will make the water planning process more timely and efficient and condemning the reforms that will make the management of groundwater consistent across all sectors of the resources industry, Labor appears to have recognised the value of these amendments. These changes by the LNP will make a significant contribution to the improved management of Queensland’s water resources.
Labor’s bill provides an insight into their ideological bent when it comes to natural resource management. The return of the notoriously restrictive ‘ecologically sustainable development’ (ESD) as the overarching purpose of the Act should concern industry leaders, particularly those sectors looking to secure additional water to support new productive, job creating projects. The reinstatement of ESD is a clear sign of Labor being captured by the Greens.
However, the most serious loss for agriculture and regional Queensland is the exclusion of the water development option, which removes a pathway for the assessment and approval of greenfield irrigated agriculture projects within the Water Act. In doing so, Labor has signalled its opposition to economic development opportunities requiring new large water storage infrastructure. This is a blow for bush communities, particularly in North Queensland.
The former LNP Government delivered a modernised water planning framework that allowed for the productive and responsible use of water in Queensland. With the Federal LNP Government’s Northern Australia policy offering an opportunity to develop North Queensland, the Palaszczuk Labor Government is again proposing to make water much harder to access and secure.