Federal Politics

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Memo Premier: It's not too late to get us a better deal on water

Baillieu will be blamed for the desal disaster, unless he cleans up Brumby's mess.

PUBLIC opinion across the political spectrum is overwhelmingly against privatisation of major infrastructure assets.

At last October's Liberal Party State Council meeting in Bendigo, listed for debate was a Kew branch motion to the effect that the Baillieu government should save billions of dollars by breaking the 28-year ''take or pay'' contract for water from the Wonthaggi desalination plant.

The motion called on the government ''to renegotiate the contract for the Wonthaggi desalination plant with a view to saving billions of taxpayer dollars and to use such of the valuable infrastructure as would facilitate the transfer of readily available excess water from Tasmania to Victoria and hence to South Australia, creating $18 billion of extra gross domestic product and facilitating the expansion of mining in the Roxby Downs area''.

It came with a supporting statement prepared by long-standing Liberal and chairman of the Docklands Science Park, John Martin, who has been negotiating with the Tasmanian government to buy surplus water to sell to potential mainland customers at a fraction of the price of desalinated water.

The statement said: ''Tasmania is very much in need of the funding that royalties on the water could produce. The water produces hydroelectricity as a first duty.

''They have 5000 gigalitres available in the North West area alone and the proposal is to use 1500 gigalitres of that to supplement the Melbourne water supply [total unrestricted Melbourne usage is 500 gigalitres], fix any problem in the Murray-Darling Basin, assist irrigation and make Adelaide's water supply fresher and more secure.


''The reorganisation of water supplies in south-east Australia would be achieved by this scheme which is extremely economical and will deliver greater benefits than the Snowy Scheme. The renegotiated contract should be a win-win situation for all Victorians.''

There wasn't time to debate the motion. Delegates were asked to indicate by a show of hands whether they supported the motion. It was unanimously supported, with applause.

The Kew Branch expected the motion to be listed for debate at the next council meeting, which took place in Melbourne over the weekend. It wasn't. Liberal officials say it wasn't removed from the agenda at the instigation of government ministers, but simply fell off the list because the Kew branch failed to resubmit the proposal.

Concern about the desalination plant extends well beyond the leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

Richard Martin, the chairman of the Liberals' committee responsible for policy development relating to rural and regional development, regional cities and water, submitted a motion for debate at the conference, asking the government to conduct ''an independent review of the financial, economic, social and environmental impacts of the current Wonthaggi desalination plant against known alternatives and the amendment or cancellation of the desalination plant contract if the findings of the review warrant such an outcome''.

The agenda committee replaced this section with a request for ''a review of standing recommendations against existing government generated reports, strategies and inquiries''.

This decision is inexplicable. There is a near-universal consensus among rank-and-file Liberals that the desal contract is odious and has to be renegotiated if Victoria is to develop its water resources in a safe, secure, affordable manner, which promotes, rather than inhibits the state's development.

Every day the Baillieu government avoids cleaning up the mess it has inherited from the Brumby government the blame for the problem will be ascribed to the Liberals rather than Labor.

The Labor opposition and the relevant bureaucrats in Treasury and the Department of Sustainability and Environment are hopelessly compromised over the desalination plant and are only concerned to protect their jobs and reputations.

An example of the corrosion of DSE's ability to offer sensible, disinterested advice to government is the report published last week setting out how Melbourne can extend its water supplies without major investment in new infrastructure, using instead innovative methods of conserving and recycling water.

It would have been an excellent report if it had been written five years ago, before the decision to build one of the world's biggest desal plants.

The report's lead author, Rob Skinner, was for six years to 2010 the chief executive of Melbourne Water and was intimately involved in the decision to go ahead with the Wonthaggi desalination plant.

The desalination plant is not even mentioned in the report. The mind boggles. The government and its advisers are either serious about the desalination plant or about the conservation of rainwater.

The report took a year to write. Except for more recent rainwater statistics, there was nothing in the report that couldn't have been written before 2009 when the contract for the desal plant was written.

The Baillieu government should listen to its members - its political survival may depend on it.

Kenneth Davidson is a senior columnist.

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