The Victorian Government is keeping secret its business case for the $2 billion irrigation upgrade and north-south pipeline project, refusing to release a report commissioned to ensure taxpayers' money would be well spent.
The Sunday Age, under freedom-of-information laws, requested the business plan for the Food Bowl Modernisation Project, but the Government has refused to make the document public, citing cabinet confidentiality.
The business plan, by consultants KPMG, cost taxpayers $333,810 and was considered by cabinet last August. It acts as the framework for the upgrade of leaking irrigation systems in Victoria's north. One-third of the project's water savings, up to 75 billion litres each year, has been promised to Melbourne when the north-south pipeline is finished next year.
Recently, the Government has come under pressure to prove the project will deliver the water savings to make the $750 million north-south pipeline worthwhile. Last week, The Sunday Age revealed that the Government ignored advice, contained in an alternative water plan considered by cabinet, that the pipeline was not needed and could not be relied on if the drought continued in the state's north.
This added to previous reports that Victoria's top water officials were preparing for the pipeline to deliver much less water than promised, because of the drought.
In April last year, the Auditor-General found the State Government had developed its $4.9 billion water plan with "inadequate rigour applied to estimate costs, benefits and risks of some of the key component projects".
The Auditor-General recommended the Government "publish the detailed analysis underpinning the estimates of water savings and costs for the Food Bowl Modernisation Project".
Nationals leader Peter Ryan said $2 billion was an enormous amount of taxpayers' money to invest without a transparent and publicly available plan.
Melbourne Water recently dropped its threat to prosecute a Coalition staff member who was pursuing an FoI request about the north-south pipeline.
The Sunday Age asked the Water Minister's and Premier's offices on Thursday and Friday last week for the business case, but the media advisers said they had not had enough time to respond.
Meanwhile, contract documents released to The Sunday Age under FoI laws last week reveal that ACIL Tasman — the author of the alternative water plan — believed its report would be made public. The contract documents between ACIL Tasman and the Department of Sustainability and Environment also reveal the Government wanted the $295,000 report to have the working title Victoria's Water Plan.
The 2007 report was a cabinet secret until The Sunday Age revealed its existence this year. Two weeks after cabinet received the advice, which also recommended getting "ready" to build a desalination plant but not actually building one, the Government revealed its $4.9 million water plan, which included the Wonthaggi desalination plant and north-south pipeline.
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