Community has say on SE Drainage Network levy

THE State Labor Government still wants to impose a contentious levy on the region's landholders for the maintenance of the SE Drainage Network.

During a visit to Naracoorte last Thursday, Minister for Water and the River Murray Ian Hunter said the government wanted the community to have their say.

But he said an increase in government funding to the network was out of the question unless a levy was imposed.

Minister Ian Hunter (third from left) meets with SE NRM board presiding member Frank Brennan (left), SE Aboriginal Focus Group member Doug Nicholls, from Kingston, and Boandik elder Des Hartman (also originally from Kingston).

Minister Ian Hunter (third from left) meets with SE NRM board presiding member Frank Brennan (left), SE Aboriginal Focus Group member Doug Nicholls, from Kingston, and Boandik elder Des Hartman (also originally from Kingston).

"We won't be contributing any more on top of the $2.1 million we do currently," Minister Hunter told the Herald. "I'm still for it (the levy)."

Minister Hunter said the government would not pull the funding it already gives. 

"The State Government is committed to maintaining our current $2.1m in annual funding to the network," he said.

"This drainage network is a critical piece of infrastructure for the region.

"It delivers water to wetland habitats from the SE through to the Coorong, and also reduces flooding on farmland and helps to manage groundwater salinity. 

"But, as ageing infrastructure needs to be replaced, it is inevitable that new funding sources will need to be found."

Minister Hunter held firm on his belief the people who benefit from the drainage should be the ones footing the bill.

"We need to start talking about how the system will be maintained in the future, who benefits from this important infrastructure, and how those beneficiaries can contribute to the system's ongoing maintenance," he said.

This belief has long been challenged by Liberal Member for MacKillop Mitch Williams, who has branded the idea of a levy as "nonsense".

"My position is, and always has been, the drainage system in the SE provides a broad public benefit," he said.

"It would be unfair to tax the farmers as the drainage system also provides transport and environmental benefits.

"In no other part of the State are others charged for the bridges and roadways they use."

The SE Local Government Association has also opposed the possibility of a drainage tax in the past, with Wattle Range mayor Peter Gandolfi particularly scathing. 

"This government I believe is exploiting the people of the SE; (these drains) not only benefit the SE but the rest of the State," he said.

"It's a cop-out in undertaking its responsibility to the SE."

"If we allow this to occur, it will occur over and over again. I think this is pathetic and gives a clear indication of this government's contempt for the SE."

Primary Producers SA's Jack England said years ago the State Government was to foot the bill.

"Lower SE farmers paid for drains via betterment rates and historically it was agreed that the state would bear the cost of maintaining the drainage network...mid and upper SE farmers have in the last decade paid the last instalment for the drainage scheme completion and now they are expected to pay another levy. ," he said. 

"Increased land productivity, stamp duty, taxes all contribute to State coffers.

"If the drains were to operate at sub-optimal levels then this would be reflected in company taxes accrued."

Mr England said it seemed farmers are expected to fund environmentally-based schemes where there are whole of state benefits.

Minister Hunter last week met with a range of stakeholders including local government, the Aboriginal community, the farming community and conservation groups to discuss future maintenance of the network. 

To further formulate ideas on how to best provide funding for the maintenance, a community panel is being established within the next few months.

"This new community panel will be led by the local NRM Board (who have taken responsibility from the disbanded drainage board), and will examine the value of the drainage system to the region, who it benefits, who it impacts and how that value can be calculated," Minister Hunter said. 

"What we want to see from this process is a series of recommendations from the local community, to directly benefit the local community through ongoing, increased maintenance to the network and how it will be funded. 

"We want to see the best possible outcome for all stakeholders, and I would like to assure the community that no decision will be made on this matter until the consultation process is complete and the community has had the chance to have their say."

The community panel's findings will be used when Labor's SE Drainage System Operation and Management bill, which was blocked in the upper house in 2012, is re-presented to the upper house.