SWAN AND CANNING RIVERS MANAGEMENT AMENDMENT BILL 2014

HON LYNN MacLAREN (South Metropolitan) [3.46 pm]: I rise to advise the house that I believe that the Greens supports the Swan and Canning Rivers Management Amendment Bill 2014. However, much in the same way as Hon Stephen Dawson has just outlined, the Greens struggle to see how the bill deals with the main problem of river health. The bill seeks to amalgamate the roles and functions of the Swan River Trust with the Department of Parks and Wildlife. Decision-making responsibility and operational management will be transferred to the chief executive officer of DPAW and the Swan River Trust will remain an advisory body to the Minister for Environment. It is not clear to the Greens that this moving of the deckchairs on the Titanic, if you will, and the oversight of the trust work will meet the need that has not been met in the past 10 years. What we need is a comprehensive approach and a whole-of-government approach. I have not yet heard that the government is willing to address clearing on the Swan coastal plain, for example, or address urban expansion.

Many citizens have spoken up about the health of the Swan River over the past 10 years, and amongst that there is a lot of cynicism about the state government’s approach to the Swan River and the trust. Recently, a petition was tabled in the other place that read, in part —

              The decision to axe the Swan River Trust will place huge stress on the deteriorating Swan River that has been crippled by algal blooms, low oxygen levels, fish and dolphin deaths.

The petitioners ask further that —

             … the Trust must be reinstated as catchment manager, recognising the complexity of this responsibility. Furthermore, the staff, with their unique catchment management skills, must not be lost in a parks management agency.

That is what the people have called for.

If one looks at the government’s commitment, I question how the government will ensure that the current staff on board the Swan River Trust are not lost when they are transferred to DPAW and that their skills are focused on, and continue to develop, the problem of river and catchment management. Does this bill set up a framework to aid comprehensive management of the rivers and their catchment? What has not been effective has been the defunding of community environment groups in the previous state budget, a program that many times multiplied the public funds that went into it to empower volunteers to improve and maintain our natural environment resources. I have been quoted several times in this place as bringing attention to the government’s shame of withdrawing that funding to community groups. It particularly affects the South Metropolitan Region, which has many volunteers, over many local government authorities, who are passionate about taking care of the foreshore and the river area.

I want to briefly comment on the fertiliser action plan. In 2013 the then environment minister was reported as saying that the Liberal Party had no plans to ban water-soluble fertilisers that enter the Swan and Canning Rivers despite their role in causing algal blooms. I therefore now ask the government: how much has it invested in reducing the inflow of nutrients? We have to stop this blooming toxic algae and the flows from nitrogen and phosphorous. We know that most of these are from water soluble fertilisers used in the catchment in agriculture. I understand that we may not be able to look at a ban, certainly not under this government, but what is the government doing? How is it moving forward? It appears from this Swan and Canning Rivers Management Amendment Bill before us today that the government is simply moving the deckchairs. The honourable member who spoke before me talked about previous governments’ action in relation to the Swan River. It developed a fertiliser action plan for a phase-out of water-soluble nutrients. The fertiliser partnership of 2012–16 supersedes the fertiliser action plan of 2007. The Department of Agriculture and Food, the minister for which sits in this chamber, recognises that improvement is needed. The department’s focus is on “reducing nutrient loss from the rural and urban areas”. Is there any way to reduce fertiliser inputs rather than just nutrient movement into the river? The Swan–Canning water quality improvement plan was released in December 2009. How has the government progressed on that plan? This might be an opportunity to update this chamber to show that, indeed, maybe it is not just moving the deckchairs, but that some action is occurring.

There is a motion on the notice paper under which these issues will be discussed at length. I look forward to hearing other members talk to that motion and going into further detail about the health of our rivers. To conclude my remarks today in the second reading debate of this bill I want to summarise the points the Greens have identified for immediate action to save our Swan River. Rather than moving the deckchairs, we would first request that the Economic Regulation Authority analyse a range of sustainable funding options for improved catchment and drainage management. Second, we would develop an independent management body with catchment-wide responsibility and authority by either expanding the range of the current Swan River Trust or by instituting a new body. Third, we would conduct drain-status assessment over the whole urban drainage network and collate this material centrally. Fourth, we would develop an order of priority for metropolitan drainage works. Fifth, we would provide the Department of Water with the resources to undertake catchment-wide strategic planning functions. Sixth, we would continue to expand catchment-specific research necessary to the effective implementation of best practice drainage management in Perth. Seventh, we would develop water quality management provisions based on local water quality improvement plans to be added to the licence conditions of drainage licensees so that that information becomes available.

In much the same way the member before me started his remarks on the second reading speech, I would like to conclude mine by quoting from the Conservation Council of Western Australia, which is one of the many stakeholders we consulted in addressing the bill before us. Briefly, it says that, overall, it is concerned that the amalgamation of the Swan River Trust into the department will reduce the ability of the Swan River Trust to deliver reports on the health of the river as an independent statutory agency. The council asks: will the public reporting on the health of the river continue under this new model? The Conservation Council was not aware at the time this plan was mooted whether the Department of Parks and Wildlife or the Department of Environmental Protection would be housing the Swan River Trust. Given that the Swan River Trust has had both hands-on management functions as well as regulatory roles, how could either of these agencies be a good fit for the Swan River Trust? Overall, is this simply moving around the deckchairs—I attribute my quotes to the Conservation Council, which first mooted that point—without addressing the real problem, which is fertiliser pollution of the catchment and the river system. The Swan River Trust never had the power to tackle that, anyhow, because its power was constrained to the river rather than the catchment. I think I made clear that the catchment is where we need to see more action rather than changing where people sit. When this was originally mooted, the Conservation Council expressed concern over the abolition of the Swan River Trust. In a media statement the council said —

                       the move is designed to reduce public scrutiny and limit public information about the ill-health of the river system.

                      “One of the most important roles that the Trust performs is to provide independent monitoring and information on the State of the River.

It said, finally —

                     “What the river needs is a strengthened regulator with the powers to tackle the pollution problems …

Although we support the bill before us, it is really difficult for us to see the benefits of it to the Swan River. I challenge the government in this move to deliver on what the Auditor General has called for, which is improvements of our river health.