By Tanya Plibersek

02 May 2024








Acknowledgments omitted.


This is my first Ozwater conference. And I want to thank Corrinne, for extending the invitation for me to speak.


I think one of the most notable things about this conference is the incredible diversity of the discussions that take place, the people who are attracted to this conference, the conversations about all the different roles and demands on water in Australia.

You all know that water is not separate from the rest of life, and that to manage our water resources properly, we need to look at the whole of the environment, the whole of our community, the whole of our economy, and how these pieces all fit together. That's the approach that we're trying to take as a government as well.

We live on the driest inhabited continent on Earth. And that means competition, including sometimes very fierce competition, for our most precious resource.

Water to drink, water for the environment, for agriculture, for industry, to make our cities and our towns liveable.


It's all important, and sound government policy based on science can respond to many of those challenges that we face when it comes to water.

Today, I want to talk a little bit about some of the initiatives that we're taking in the water portfolio in government to continue to improve the sustainability of our beautiful natural water systems, and the availability and the quality of the water that we have for those human needs.

So, I wanted to look briefly today at climate change and net zero, regional and remote community water supplies, the Urban Rivers program, the Murray Darling Basin Plan - I promise I will do it briefly - and the National Water Initiative, which of course we're in the process of updating.

So, you will know that the government's commitment to net zero by 2050 is a fundamental commitment that we have made as a government that brings into play a whole range of areas of government effort.

No national water plan can be made without considering the urgent goals we have around reducing carbon emissions. And it doesn't matter which area of natural science we're talking about, whether it's water or land management, or our environment more broadly, we - all of us, across those spheres, are working together to deliver on net zero by 2050 because of the enormity of the challenge that it provides us.


We need to plan for hotter, drier, less predictable weather. That's critical - in particularly now, as we're reviewing the Murray Darling Basin Plan and working on the Great Artesian Basin, on town, water suppliers and on environmental protection.


But we're not just thinking about the effect that climate change will have on water resources, we have to think about the role that water plays in helping us reach net zero.


And of course, because we have these incredibly ambitious goals to become a renewable energy superpower.


Australian green hydrogen has to be something that we are contemplating to make that ambition a reality.


Hydrogen has got the potential to be a really important contributor on our journey to net zero through its use in industry and transport, in grid firming, in chemical and metal production.


And we've so far invested more than $2 billion in our Hydrogen Headstart program to support Australian based, large-scale renewable hydrogen projects by bridging the commercial gap between the cost of producing renewable hydrogen and the market price.


My colleague, Chris Bowen is doing a fantastic work in this area.


But in my position, as Water Minister, of course, I'm continually thinking about the challenge that's posed by hydrogen as a thirsty technology.


So, I wanted to start by reassuring you that as we develop these green hydrogen projects, the arrangements for those projects will include the same sort of rigorous assessment and planning processes that that any other projects would include, that we have to contemplate the use of water or the need for water in the production.


So we really do need a comprehensive understanding of the region's capacity to support changes in water demand that go with something like large scale investment in green hydrogen.


So as hydrogen production increases, I think we really need to be looking at the industry meeting its needs, more and more from what we could call climate independent sources, like recycled water and of course, also desalination.


And I know that a lot of the conference over the last few days has focused on this increasing demand and I would say increasing opportunity for the use of more recycled water in Australia.


The interlinkages between water security and our nation's transition to net zero have to be managed carefully.


And the National Water Initiative, which you know, we are revising at the moment, will be absolutely crucial to ensuring that our national water policy settings are fit for this future, including to ensure that the transition to net zero can be achieved without degrading our water supplies.


I wanted to talk a little bit about water in remote communities, in particular as well.


This is another area that when we came into government, I think you could fairly say had not received the attention it deserved or needed over the previous decade. Of course, we now have to catch up, we need to address this area as a matter of urgency.


More than 25,000 people in remote Australia don't have access to water that needs that meets basic health guidelines.


I know you're all experts in this area. I know you all live and breathe this stuff. But I honestly believe that most Australians would be shocked to know that there are 25,000 people mostly, let's face it Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who don't have access to proper standards of drinking water in Australia today.


And then there's another 600,000 people who live in places without access to water that meets recognised standards, relying on water that's murky or contains unsafe levels of minerals or heavy metals and chemicals.


Poor water security, both quality and supply, of course has negative impacts on health and well-being and this is something that we need to address in the next national water agreement, but we can't wait for that work to be done to begin to make the changes that are so glaringly obviously necessary.


So, we're focusing on improving water infrastructure now. The first round of this investment is $150 million commitment to remote First Nations communities water infrastructure, meaning that we can be sure that there will be safe and reliable drinking water that meets those fundamental health, well-being and, and overall quality of life outcomes that we want for all Australians.


We made that $150 million commitment, so far $60 million of that commitment is out the door in projects that are underway, and in some cases already complete. And I'm super proud of the fact that we haven't waited to do this work.


Just over a month ago, there's just a couple of examples. Just over a month ago, I announced with the Northern Territory Government a $21 million project to support water security projects in Maningrida.


This particular project will include a new water tank to expand storage capacity alongside pipes to connect the network. 90% of those pipes are already laid.


In Milingimbi, off the coast of Arnhem Land, the Australian and Northern Territory governments are investing $11 million to improve access to reliable water sources, and that investment will fund new bores for that community.


It’s obvious what that means for drinking water, it's obvious what it means for things like being able to provide remote dialysis in communities that haven't previously had it.


But the Milingimbi example is a really good one, about the social impact beyond water. This investment in water has been that 32 existing homes can be expanded, and another new 32 homes can be added to the community.


So as well as dealing with all of the normal things that you would associate with providing better quality drinking water to a community, we're actually dealing with issues of overcrowding in that community as well, by being able to provide new housing in that community.


That's not just the case here in Milingimbi, that's the case in a range of these water quality projects that were funded, particularly in the Northern Territory. And it just gives you an insight into the unexpectedly broad social impact that this investment can have.


We're making communities more liveable, we're supporting housing development, and we're dealing with overcrowding.


But it also means that we can expand our Dialysis on Country program to a whole lot of additional communities. That means that people don't have to travel to Darwin and stay away from the places they love for months or even years at a time because they can't get treatment in their home communities.


We're also improving the sustainability by addressing significant historic water losses in the Yirrkala and Gunyangara in north-east Arnhem Land for example.


More than 80% of the water that was being transmitted along those old asbestos pipes was being lost in in transmission, more than 80%.


When we re-laid those pipes, the sustainability of those water resources, impacts dramatically. And I particularly want to call out the voice, the role of your water industry here, particularly the 2022 Voices from the Bush conference that was co-hosted by the Australian Water Association.


And I know you've got another one of these Voices from the Bush conference is coming up in September. It's places like that, that we have the conversations that enable this kind of work to be done effectively.


More broadly, the Commonwealth government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars directly in water infrastructure projects around the country.


In October 2022, we changed the remit of the National Water Grid Fund, so that I can now directly fund town water supply projects, particularly in regional and remote communities.


Prior to this, the fund was restricted to providing support only for projects that had a productive agricultural element to them.


I think by lifting this significant barrier to the investment parameters of the National Water Grid Fund, we've now funded projects that absolutely wouldn't have previously got a look in. It includes things like $107.5 million dollars towards water security for Cairns and $30 million for a reliable long term water supply for Mount Morgan in Queensland.

Mount Morgan, I've been there, it's a beautiful little town that they had been relying on carted water for two and a half years, I think before we started laying these pipes. The pipe work now is being done, they're going to have decent secure water supply in the future.


Plus $26 million to improve water quality in the Victorian towns of Portland, Heywood and Port Fairy.


And I have to say, the National Water Grid Fund is a really important opportunity for all types of water infrastructure projects to come forward, including water recycling, and including other circular economy solutions that can see that both a water perspective and a waste perspective.


The expansion of the National Water Grid Fund facilitates this type of investment for town and water suppliers in regional and remote communities, and we'll continue to work with state and territory governments, with industry and particularly with remote communities to make sure that the solutions that we're coming up with are fit for purpose.


That they meet identified needs and that they provide sustainable benefits.


I also wanted to talk a little bit about our Urban Rivers projects. Many of you may have been involved in some of these.


We've got a $200 million Urban Rivers and Catchments Program that's restoring the health of our urban waterways, and the native plants and animals that call them home and providing of course, much needed beautiful natural escapes in the heart of many of our urban communities.


I'd like to acknowledge that there are people at this conference who have been involved in these projects and many of you are involved in sensitive, water sensitive urban design and restoring waterways to enhance the liveability of our cities. This programme provides a fantastic opportunity to accelerate the work that many of you have been engaged in.


I live in one of the most densely populated parts of the country. I'm the member for Sydney, I take in the Sydney CBD and the inner suburbs. But, even in my little neck of the woods, seeing these urban water projects, take life and transform our local environment, just it's just such a beautiful experience to see what used to be a drain turned into a chain of wetlands.


It's a beautiful thing to see the way that nature returns when you do that.


We know that nearly half of all nationally listed threatened animals and a quarter of threatened in plants occur in our urban areas, and the sort of projects that we're funding create the environment for the turtles and the frogs and the water birds, and in some cases, even the platypuses to return to areas where you would not imagine these creatures could have survived.


And yet when we provide the environment for them, they can. As well as benefiting nature, these urban rivers projects transform concrete drains back into natural creeks and wetlands. We benefit nature - we also benefit all of those people who live in the areas where these projects happen.


We see a reduction in heat related impacts in our urban areas. We see the ability also to not just create a little pocket of nature here, but to use those waterways as corridors through our suburbs and through our cities to help the animals and the plants expand from area to area.


We're doing things like riverbank revegetation, stream renationalisation, chain of ponds and wetland creation initiatives to slow and filter stormwater, water quality improvements to benefit aquatic species, the reestablishment of these pathways to support the movement and migration of aquatic native species and the prevention of storm water source plastic entering aquatic and marine environments through installation of litter and gross pollutant traps.


So far 45 projects totalling $91 million are underway or complete. And as part of the program plan, just a couple of examples. We've allocated $10 million for the Cooks River in Sydney, to reestablish free planting along the banks and mangrove planting within the Cooks River.


In Perth, we've allocated $15 million for the Swan and Canning waterways to do erosion control and sediment reduction, weed removal, and the replanting of native vegetation.


Closer to home for many of you here in Melbourne, we've approved $1 million for the Darebin and Merri Creeks to restore the creek corridors and their surrounds, containing habitat and populations of significant plant and animal species including the Growling Grass frog, the Golden Sun moth and a whole range of plants that are part of the Victorian volcanic plains biological community including wetlands, native grasslands, and eucalypt woodlands.


One particular favourite project of mine that I visited a couple of times with my colleague Josh Burns in his electorate of Macnamara is the project to turn the old Elsternwick golf course into a chain of wetlands. It's just magnificent and has come from the local community.


As part of the restoration of these urban waterways, we'll be working with Indigenous Rangers in particular and local communities to regenerate.


We've also of course, made significant progress on the Murray Darling Basin Plan. We've got the Murray Darling Basin Plan back on track after a decade of deliberate sabotage. The Murray Darling Basin Plan, we got agreement from the States and Territories at the end of last year.


I mean, this is worth a whole keynote address on its own. It is perhaps globally significant as a water policy initiative that has been designed and had the support of successive governments over time.


We've now got the cooperation of all of the Murray Darling Basin states to make the Basin sustainable for the future, and that means that we finally have a pathway to deliver the plan in full.


We've just opened a $494 million program towards an expanded range of infrastructure projects that will help us deliver the 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water. And following our first voluntary purchase water purchase tenders in New South Wales and Queensland, and including urban water efficiencies in the ACT we've, since coming to government returned and recovered more than 30 gigalitres of water per year, completing the Bridging the Gap targets in three of seven remaining catchments that were short.


We've now also accredited 12 of the 20 delayed water resource plans in New South Wales, meaning that the Inspector General of Water Compliance can continue to investigate whether the states are doing what they said they would do, in relation to the Murray Darling Basin Plan.


We're also investing $100 million in the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program, to secure water entitlements as part the Murray Darling Basin Plan, providing cultural social, spiritual, economic and environmental benefits for First Nations people across the Basin.


We're heading into the period of the Basin Plan Review as well, where our new investments in science will be absolutely vital to predicting our water needs across the Basin for the future, helping us work out how to better manage for the next phase of the Basin Plan.


And after a busy 18 months getting the Basin Plan back on track, the next cab off the rank is the new water, National Water agreement.


It's been 20 years since the last water agreement was struck with states and territories and so much has changed since 2004.


We're enduring the shocks of climate change. And I hope one of the things that has changed very much for the better in the last 20 years is we're finally beginning to properly take account of First Nations water knowledge and First Nations water needs and priorities in the way that we design our water systems.


We better understand the connections that good water quality can have with liveability and with physical and mental health, the importance of green spaces and blue spaces and swimmable rivers in our cities. First Nations people have recognised that for a long time, but the rest of us are beginning to catch up.


And for us, I think the message is very clear we need to do, we need to do much better in this contested space of water management as the effects of climate change intensify, as there are increasing demands on water resources to support a wider variety of needs.


Particularly as we move into an area when an era when renewable energy and circularity become vital to our economy.


And all of you, you are at the coalface of making these decisions.


You manage the water services that Australians rely on, and you play a key role in securing our water future.


You've got the ideas and the expertise that can better equip us to manage the impacts of climate change, and the increased occurrence of extreme weather events.


You helped deliver desalination to our shores and I hear you loud and clear as you make the case for more recycled water use in Australia.


I know that the Australian Water Network recently wrote to me about water recycling. I agree that given that we live in the driest inhabited continent on Earth, we could and should be a global leader in this area.


The National Water Agreement is the opportunity at a national level to help drive that evidence-based decision making that we need to engage in. And also, to support better public awareness of water sustainability, including around water recycling.


I really want to acknowledge the great work that's already been done to integrate purified recycled water into Perth’s water supply since 2018.


And more recently, the opening of Sydney Waters Discovery Centre and Quakers Hill which I hope to get to in the near future.


I know that many of you have been calling for greater recognition, and partnership and participation for First Nations people also in our water economy. And that's going to be a key part of the next National Water Initiative.


You know, and we’re managing, the pressures on ageing infrastructure in urban and rural areas as well, again, something that we need to plan for at a national level.


That's why we started that conversation here last year when my department ran a workshop to explore the opportunities and gaps that we need to focus on in that next National Water Agreement.


That workshop helped build the ideas in the discussion paper that was released six weeks ago, that highlights the areas of priority reform for the new agreement.


If you haven't already, I really want to make sure that you take the opportunity to have your say through the consultation process that's currently open.


We're going to close that tomorrow. But given I'm here at the conference, I'm giving you an extra week to do your homework, if you haven't got it in already. So please, if you haven't taken the opportunity, please do. We'll close submissions on the 10th of May.


For the next stage, as we develop Commonwealth and State and Territory action plans, of course, there'll be further opportunities to have your say, but I always think that if you can get in at the beginning of the discussion, and shape the direction of that discussion, from its foundation, you have a much better chance of seeing what you hope to achieve included in the final agreement.


All of you we're here today because you are interested in and passionate about water. And I welcome your contributions to this important agreement.


I intend for the next phase of the agreement to be with State and Territory Ministers as soon as possible. And then the real work of bringing what's on the page to life can begin through the development of national and jurisdictional action plans.


And I was going to finish here but there was a conversation I was having off the stage before I came up, to say governments can do a lot through setting policy, through direct investment and I've talked a little bit about both of those things, the policy direction and the investments we're making.


There's another way that we can really impact what happens in a nation as well. We are the nation's biggest purchaser of goods and services.


We recently released the government's Sustainable Procurement Plan. This is another fantastic opportunity for those of you who are engaged in thinking about how we transition to a more circular economy, thinking about how we get products and services that use water in particular, more sustainably - creating the environment for you to expand your interests and your businesses, your involvement.


So, if you haven't checked out the government's Sustainable Procurement Plan, have a look at that as well.


We've got a plan for a secure water future for Australia, and we are absolutely determined, as your conference theme says to accelerate action.

So thank you, Corinne, and your team for bringing us together. To learn from one another, to explore the challenges and the opportunities that we're facing.

It's through conferences like this, that we can collaborate and develop our thinking to plan for a future with less water, greater demand and more variability. I wish you all the best for the last day of the conference and I look forward to hearing how your discussions evolve.

Thank you.