Minister for Water — answers to questions
Date:Thursday, May 17, 2012
Extract from Hansard
HON ALISON XAMON (East Metropolitan) [5.33 pm]: I bring to the attention of the house the lack of quality of responses to questions I have asked of the Minister for Water. This has been an ongoing problem for me, which has meant that I have had to ask a great many questions and a great many follow-up questions because the answers I have been receiving have been vague to the point of being almost complete nonsense. I note also that earlier this year my parliamentary colleague Hon Matt Benson-Lidholm ran into this problem when he asked about drinking water quality. He also felt compelled to point out how greatly the answers failed to meet his very reasonable expectations. The answers obviously fail to also meet the expectations of the minister’s representative in this house who, at the time in this place, offered to get the information that had been asked for.
I am now rising to speak about my own recent experiences with answers from the Minister for Water, who is proving to be a bit of a serial offender in this matter. For example, in my last round of questions I asked for the stakeholders in the draft compliance and enforcement policy referred to in answer to question 181 to be identified.
The answer reads in full —
The stakeholders are government, industry, community groups and representative bodies that have a specific interest in water compliance policy.
Hon Sue Ellery: That’s appalling.
Hon ALISON XAMON: That is the answer. I could not quite believe it. Quite frankly, if the minister meant by that wholly unaccountable answer that he had not yet thought about it because the process is not that far along, he should have just said so. It would be a far more useful and relevant answer, and far less likely to get an immediate response from me demanding something approaching quality information, which, of course, is what happened.
I also asked about the number of water extraction licences exceeding 500 000 kilolitres in the Gnangara groundwater management area. This is a really important part of the work I have been doing, trying to keep the Department of Water accountable on water licensing, metering and compliance issues. But the entirety of the answer to that question was that I should look at the publicly available information from the water register on the department’s website. Apart from the fact that that sort of answer seems to be recognised within this place as being a totally unacceptable way to respond to a parliamentary question, I am now going to point out the circumstances that illustrate just how totally unacceptable that answer was.
To give some context to this, I was informed late last year that the answer to questions regarding the number of licences in particular areas and the volumes of those licences could be extracted from the water register. I am very much in favour of the kind of transparency offered by that, so I was pleased to hear it and I resolved that I would get my figures from the water register if at all possible. But it turns out that getting figures from the water register is much harder than one would expect, particularly considering how glibly I was directed there. My office has reams of correspondence covering December through February with the department’s help desk and with our own Department of the Premier and Cabinet IT help desk attempting to get the water register working. A huge amount of time and effort from my office has gone into trying to access this so-called publicly available information. A simple search of the water register will return a long list of licences, but not all of the licences if there are more than 1 000 records, with no method of sorting, filtering or extracting, and requiring multiple click throughs to reach a level where any information is revealed at all. It turns out that we have to export it to text, open it in Excel, and only then are we able to perform any operations on it like sorting or filtering. But, as it turns out, even then it is not as easy as one would think. The standard DPC-provided system and security system settings simply will not allow the water register to export to text. We were told to adjust the security settings on Internet Explorer to the lowest point we could without administrator access. We managed to actually achieve an error message, which was a step up from just getting the screen to flash; it turned out that we needed to install an alternative browser on our system so that we could actually export information to text.
After we had spent a couple of months picking away at the problem and getting the process to at least the point when we could successfully get the information contained in the database into Excel, we found multiple identical entries for a huge number of the water licences, with no ability to tell whether this was yet another problem with the process or a problem with data cleansing in the database or whether this is an accurate reflection of reality—meaning that licences with multiple identical entries are permitted to draw the cumulative total of all those identical database licences. So, I have reluctantly asked the Minister for Water to supply these figures again, and once again I have been directed back to the water register, which, as I believe I have detailed, is not as publicly available as the minister would have the Parliament believe!
I appreciate that it takes time to get systems like this up and running and to iron the bugs out, but my tiny office of only two full-time equivalents, when I have 17 portfolios, should not have to spend time, on the fly essentially, undertaking quite high-level IT work—that is not what I employed them to do—in order to get sensible, so-called publicly available figures out of a government department. So, if the Minister for Water intends to continue to refer me to websites instead of answering my questions—which I have to say is actually rude enough as it is—then the minister should be absolutely certain that those websites and reports are actually accessible with the tools that our electorate offices have been given. It would also be a good idea if those websites contained the information as promised. Quite frankly, it is not good enough.
I note that most of the other ministers can manage a direct answer to a direct question—often politely and sometimes even with a smile—and if the response from the water minister is that he is not able to give me the information I requested for whatever reason, then be up-front and honest about it. The water minister needs to take a long hard look at how he is responding to these questions and consider giving members of Parliament the information they are asking for, or being at least up-front that the work has not been done. If the water minister is managing our water resources as badly as he is handling his information distribution, we are all in a lot of trouble. I am saying to him: just answer the questions!