Interview with Jaynie Seal – Sky News Regional

Subjects: Murray Darling Basin Plan/water buybacks, Local Water Utilities Joint Select Committee inquiry, weather warnings/preparation.

E&OE…

Jaynie Seal: Thank you so much for joining us. The bill (Restoring Our Rivers) has certainly pleased some, but upset many in the community as well.

Steph Cooke: There’s certainly a high level of fear and uncertainty, and understandably so, right across the Basin communities in New South Wales, with the passage of this legislation, Jaynie, at a federal level. And so now, the attention certainly turns to the New South Wales Labor Government in the case of our state, and what they will be doing to ensure that our communities are protected from (water) buybacks.

We know that the federal government is determined to deliver that extra 450GL for the environment; this is a real worry if it comes through buybacks. We know that buybacks are a blunt instrument; they deeply hurt our communities. We have seen that in the past, and that’s what our communities are really, really upset about. And we need to see greater transparency from the New South Wales Water Minister, and from the New South Wales Premier, on what the deal is that they have struck with the Commonwealth around this new plan, and what it means for our communities.

Jaynie Seal: We’re also hearing people are concerned about food price increases and people perhaps moving out from certain areas across inland Australia, as a result.

Steph Cooke: Look, there’s no doubt that when you remove that amount of water through buybacks from the consumptive pool, it will have an impact on our ability as a state to produce all of the great food and fibre that we supply, not just to Basin communities, but in fact to people all over New South Wales, Australia, and the globe. And so, if we remove that water, what goes with it is our ability to produce. And when you have a reduction in supply, of course, prices will go up.

And we’re already seeing many families across New South Wales, particularly in regional areas, struggle with cost-of-living pressures at the moment, and the last thing that they need to feel going into 2024 is the likelihood of even further price increases because farmers just aren’t able to produce food cost-effectively, thanks to a reduction in the availability of water.

Jaynie Seal: And Steph, you’re also a member of the Select Committee on Protecting Local Water Utilities from Privatisation, and they’re having their first hearing today in Sydney. What will you be discussing?

Steph Cooke: It’s our opportunity as a committee to talk to local water utilities, mostly local councils, regional councils, about what we can do at a state level to ensure that their assets are protected from privatisation. This committee has come about as a result of some legislation that the New South Wales Labor Government introduced when they were first elected. It was an election commitment that they gave to protect Sydney Water and Hunter Water from privatisation, but they left out entirely the 89 local water utilities across the rest of New South Wales from that legislation.

In Opposition, I led amendments on our behalf to change that at the time. The Government decided, in their wisdom, not to support those amendments. But what has evolved out of it is a New South Wales inquiry, which will now examine that issue in detail. It is a very, very important issue, particularly for people living in regional and rural New South Wales, to ensure that our assets are also remaining in public hands.

So, the first hearing is today; that inquiry will continue into the first part of 2024, and we look forward to what that will bring about.

Jaynie Seal: Yes, I’d be interested to see the outcome of that. And as you well know, we have extreme weather today, including extreme and severe heatwave conditions for a large part of Australia, and a cyclone off the Queensland coast. How confident are you that authorities are prepared for this severe weather?

Steph Cooke: I’m very confident that our emergency services will be working around the clock to make sure that our communities are protected, and that they receive all of the most up-to-date information as it comes to hand. And so, I would encourage people all over New South Wales in particular, but there are other states, South Australia as you mentioned, to please pay attention to the messaging that our emergency services agencies put out; they do so to protect you and to keep you safe.

There’s a great app in New South Wales, ‘Hazards Near Me’, it has all of the latest warnings and all of the latest information about what’s occurring in your local community. We are seeing extreme heat over the coming days. There are total fire bans in place across large swathes of New South Wales today, and I expect that to continue into the coming days.

And I think, at a community level, it would be very helpful if people checked-in on their neighbours. We have a lot of elderly people in our communities, we have a lot of vulnerable people, and with these extreme conditions, I think it’s important that we all pull together and make sure that everyone gets through it in one piece.

Jaynie Seal: Yeah, very good advice; we can’t hear it enough. Steph Cooke, great to see you. Thank you so much for your time.

Steph Cooke: Thanks so much Jaynie.

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