Speech to the Water Services Association of Australia Dinner

01 August 2023

Thank you for the warm welcome to Old Parliament House.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

And I reaffirm our government’s support for a successful Yes campaign later this year.

It’s lovely to be here, in the spiritual home of Australian democracy, to discuss the future of water policy, here with the leaders of Australia’s water industry.

Can I thank the Water Services Association for inviting me tonight.

And can I thank all your members, all around Australia, for everything you do. 

I know you don’t go into this industry for recognition or applause.   

But to that I would say – if you supply twenty four million people with their most pressing human need, you at least deserve a bit of gratitude.

And I’m happy to represent those Australians in saying thank you here tonight.

Don’t take this comparison the wrong way, but you’re a bit like garbage collection in that regard.

People will rarely ever thank you for doing your job. 

They expect you to do it, of course: promptly, reliably, and silently if possible. 

But if you ever stopped going into work, if you ever stopped doing that job, then people would notice, and they would notice very quickly.

In fact, you’re some of the rare people whose absence would be registered faster than the missing rubbish collectors.  

Which might just be the definition of essential.

The world ‘utility’ come from the Latin word for ‘useful’.

And that’s what you are: very, very useful.

This might sound like faint praise, but I promise you it’s not.

I’ve worked in large organisations most of my life – and useful might be the highest tribute I can give out. 

It’s certainly better than the alternative.

People in this Association solve problems. You suggest answers. 

You keep the machine of urban living ticking over.

Sometimes I think we take that machine for granted.

As if it was conjured up by magic, and then sustained by a team of very industrious fairies.

But every day we live in a city is a triumph of human ingenuity.

And every time we turn the tap on successfully is a minor miracle.

It makes the Roman aqueducts look like a high school science project.

City living requires engineering, and coordination, and planning, and maintenance. 

And your members are a vital part of that invisible network.

But as you all know – water policy is much bigger than a single, isolated service. 

Water intersects with all the other major concerns of government and public life.

Like environmental sustainability. Like urban planning and liveability.

Like social justice and inclusion.

There’s the big question – of who gets access to clean water.

And the even bigger question – of who doesn’t.

That’s what I want to talk about tonight.

About what our government is doing to make social and environmental progress through water policy.

And in light of the report you just launched, about how we can work together to deliver on these goals.

I know the Water Services Association has been out in front on these questions.

And I want to recognise the report you released last year, on drinking water in remote First Nations communities.

It was a serious piece of work, and from my perspective as Minister, I can tell you it was influential within government.

It showed us the shocking reality in parts of this country, where people don’t have access to clean and healthy water.

I still don’t think this is widely known, but it should be.

Here in the lucky country of Australia, over 25,000 people don’t have access to water that meets basic health guidelines.

And over 600,000 don’t have water that meets recognised aesthetic standards.

In a rich nations like ours, we can’t accept that kind of deprivation.

It’s a deprivation that holds people back in life.

It makes people sick. It damages people culturally.

And it makes economic progress that much harder. 

Your report helped make the case for change.

It was a forceful case, built on real evidence and credibility.

And I’m very happy to say that our government has begun the process of making that change – of bringing clean water to the places that need it.

Earlier this year, we committed $150 million to building water infrastructure in remote First Nations communities.

And last week, we announced two of those projects in the Northern Territory.

One is in Yuendumu, three hundred kilometres north-west of Alice Springs – where we’re funding new projects to prevent water leakage and increase transfer capacity, in support a new housing development.

The other is in Milingimbi, in East Arnhem Land – where we’re building three new projects, which will also support new housing, while reducing overcrowding, and driving community development. 

That’s another thing about water services. It’s never just about water.

It’s about the things that water can facilitate.

It’s about the lives your infrastructure can make easier and healthier and more secure.

Which is why, in the budget, we also included $92 million to supply water, electricity and sewerage to the town of Mutitjulu.

This is a town sitting at the base of Uluru, in one of the world’s most recognisable national parks.

And even there – the power grid is unsafe, the sewerage is over capacity, and the water unreliable. 

I actually visited Mutitjulu last week, in the Northern Territory and we saw what a difference even small improvements in water infrastructure can make.

We saw a tank the town had installed recently, which filtered out harmful chemicals and minerals. And we heard local people tell us what it meant for their community.

It’s not asking for much – clean water. But it can change everything.

It can transform a town’s sense of the future and lift up people’s hopes and aspirations.  

Water isn’t just a combination of hydrogen and oxygen – it's a tool of social justice.

I want to thank all the Association members who have helped in this campaign.

You’ve helped publicise a national injustice.

And with your passion and expertise, you’re helping to overcome it.

In late June, we hosted a forum in Alice Springs, which I understand Adam and perhaps others in this room attended.

We need to hear these stories from community members living on Country.

About the very real struggles they face each and every day around access to safe and reliable water.

And we need to work across boundaries of geography and industry to develop real, sustainable and culturally sensitive solutions.

That’s one very significant problem, in remote Australia.

Another question we’ve been trying to deal with is the health of Australia’s urban rivers.

Every city in Australia has a river running through its heart.

People gravitate towards these places – for relaxation, for family time, for some quiet contact with nature. 

In the hottest parts of our major cities, they can stand out like an oasis.

Which is why Labor is investing $200 million to restore and revive these urban waterways. 

We want to make them healthier, cleaner, and more beautiful to look at.

By revegetating their riverbanks.

By filtering out stormwater.

By keeping out plastic and other rubbish.

And by connecting our waterways up more effectively, so animals can swim through them safely.

Which is also great for our campaign to protect threatened species, because half of our threatened animals and a quarter of our threatened plants live in urban areas.

Your report mentions a plan for Moonee Ponds Creek – a plan to make it more welcoming, more pleasing on the eye, and more environmentally connected.

And that’s a vision we share with all our urban river projects.

It’s a nature positive vision – where we protect what matters, while also restoring places that have been damaged in the past.

We’re currently delivering the first round of projects, and we’ve just funded the second round in our budget.

We want to support urban biodiversity. And we want to enhance urban liveability.

So people will have lovely places to walk their dogs, or to picnic with their families.

Or maybe, one day, if things go really well, a place to swim in summer.

These our two of our water programs, which will deliver dozens of projects, in response to very clear problems.

But we also need to get the overarching policy architecture right.

Which is why our national policy reforms are so critical.

Like reforming the EPBC Act – to protect nature, while providing quicker and clear decisions for business.

Like delivering the Nature Repair Market – to bring more private and philanthropic money into restoration.

And in particular, tonight, I’d like to highlight our commitment to renew the National Water Initiative.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of this blueprint for national water reform.

It was a shared commitment, signed by all Australian governments, to ensure sustainable management of our water resources.

It was created to promote more efficient water use, greater certainty for water investment, and improved water security for rural and regional communities. 

And on these points, it’s been a real success story.

We’ve done well, but we can’t afford to be complacent.

The world has changed in the last twenty years, and we’re now facing up to climate change, population growth, and the spectre of El Nino, at the same time as community expectations are evolving and growing. 

That much is clear from the broad range of topics being discussed in this forum.

It’s not just about pipes, pumps, taps and tanks anymore.

It’s about liveability, circularity, net zero and nature positive.

It’s understanding the connections between water and people and the landscape.   

We need to take these ideas and put them into action.

In May, I received your Association’s discussion paper on the renewed Initiative.

I want to work with you to deliver better urban water management, more liveable cities and towns, greater recognition of First Nations interests, while preparing Australia for the impact of climate change.

My hope is that, by providing national leadership, by creating the right sort of policy environment, and by working with expert partners like yourselves, we can write the next chapter of Australian water security together.  

Thank you.