Water minister says farewell

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Former Water Minister Lisa Neville. Photo by Rodney Braithwaite

Retiring Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville will be remembered for many things, but for anyone irrigating in the past decade there’s one particular issue they might be grateful for.

The $2 billion Foodbowl Modernisation Project, touted as a major transformation of irrigation infrastructure, was headed for disaster when she intervened in 2016.

A cacophony of dismayed voices were impossible to ignore in 2015 when the project, which had been shifted from the Northern Victorian Irrigation Renewal Project in 2012, to Goulburn-Murray Water, had just about come to a complete halt.

The project needed an almighty shake-up (politely described as a ‘reset’) under new governance and the new water minister found some useful leaders in Mike Walsh and Frank Fisseler.

She took the step of wresting control from G-MW management to a new project group, which reported directly to her.

When she first accepted the portfolio she was assured the project, now called Connections, was on track and going well.

“A number of people were telling me how great it was; it did not take long to see this was a disaster and we had to decide not to continue or else get some experts in to be honest with me about what needed to be done,” Ms Neville said.

“Then I did a bit of a tour and after talking to farmers realised it was not, and we had to reset.

“The reality was that we didn’t have the right people with the right skills to deliver a project of that kind.

“We did a review, got Mike Walsh and Frank in and they, under G-MW, basically set up a new organisation to fix legacy issues and work out how to achieve it, without sending G-MW broke.

“I was lucky to have the right people at the right time to do that.”

Remarkably, despite the predictions of some critics (including scepticism from Country News at the time) the project came in on time and within budget and delivered the 429 gigalitres of savings.

“Getting the water savings back to farmers was a significant one that I was proud of,” Ms Neville said.

Many in the political world were surprised to hear Ms Neville was admitted to hospital in February for a ‘medical condition’ and requiring a week off while she recovered.

She later publicly disclosed she was suffering from a flare up of Crohn’s disease, diagnosed years earlier, which is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation of the digestive tract and can be quite debilitating.

The longest serving Labor water minister, and the first female police minister, had to call it a day, so late in June she announced she would be stepping down as water minister, though serving out her term as Member for Bellarine.

She was praised by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews for her knowledge across the detail and complexity of water policy and water leaders have praised her for her understanding and dedication to the job.

Next week: Lisa Neville talks about one of her unfinished projects she describes as “complex”. Read about what she has handed on to her successor in Country News next week.

G-MW chair Sarah Scales, Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville and Connections project director Mike Walsh back in 2016 when the project was rebooted. Photo by Julie Mercer
Byrneside farmer Ken Woods with Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville in 2016, the year the Connections project was ‘reset’. Mr Woods was one of the farmers who helped inform the minister of where the project was going wrong. Photo by Julie Mercer