National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (11:20): Of all the important debates which take place in this parliament, none will have a more profound impact on the future of our nation than those involving water. Water is life. Life is water. The American forester and founding member of the Wilderness Society, Bernard Frank, said:

You could write the story of man's growth in terms of his epic concerns with water
He was right. American author, Samuel Langhorne Clemens—better known as Mark Twain—is credited with saying: 
Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over. 

He is right too. Irish-born pastoralist, New South Wales politician, and pioneering Riverina irrigator Sir Samuel McCaughey was also correct when he said, in 1909: 'Water was more precious than gold.' Water and health are the biggest issues in the Riverina. In the western end of the electorate, it could be said that the two go hand in hand. 

Addressing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority public meeting in Yoogali on the 15th December last year, Elizabeth Watson, now Stott, and the wife of Dallas, a third-generation irrigation farmer, whose family farm is near Whitton, had this to say: 
We have to account for every drop of water used, and need to continually justify why we need it. The Commonwealth Government is about to become the largest irrigator in Australia and spend billions in tax payers' dollars in the process. Until the MDBA can obtain some more scientific certainty and until there is an environmental watering plan which outlines why the water is needed, how much is required and what the ecological outcome will be, I don't see any accountability nor any justification for the water reductions proposed in the draft basin plan. 

Of course, she is right as well. 

As a parliament, we have to get anything related to water right. We must address the needs of feeding the nation and other countries, whilst maintaining a healthy, sustainable river system into the future—Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, as a South Australian, I am sure you would appreciate that. It is called, having a triple bottom line—taking into consideration all of the necessary economic, social and environmental implications. 
The National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012 will continue the National Water Commissioner as an independent statutory body beyond its current wind-up date of 30 June this year. Prior to forming the National Water Commission in 2005, in 2004 there was an intergovernmental agreement on a national water initiative. This represented a unified position on water reform issues with the objectives of the agreement seeking to achieve 'a nationally compatible market, regulatory and planning based system of managing surface and groundwater for rural and urban use that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes'. 

The National Water Commission was established by the Howard-Anderson government in 2005 under the National Water Commission Act to assess progress in implementing the National Water Initiative. At this time eastern Australia was at the height of the drought and the National Water Commission was established in recognition of the need for substantial reforms to all aspects of water policy in both rural and urban areas with a particular focus on reform of the 1994 Council of Australian Government's water reform framework, and the national competition policy. 

Schedule C of the National Water Initiative established the composition of the National Water Commission to have seven members with four, including the chair, to be appointed by the Commonwealth and three by the state and territory governments. 

The commission has brought through significant institutional reforms which have in turn been approved by COAG and the federal government, including, in 2007, the establishment of the MDBA and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder as new statutory bodies; and in 2008 the establishment of the COAG Reform Council and the delegation by the council of certain water assessment functions to the National Water Commission. 

As one of its functions, the commission analyses, monitors and reports on the performance by agencies of the Commonwealth, states and territories. At times, this has involved criticism of these agencies which has not been welcomed. An example of this was the slowness of the development of interstate trade in water entitlements in the southern Murray-Darling Basin which led the commission to recommend the Commonwealth to withhold national competition payments to Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. This soon had the desired effect of focusing minds, and the reform required took place, allowing in turn the national competition payments to be released. However, some resentment from state water officials towards the commission lingered. 

In its early work, the commission was able to recommend the spending of infrastructure funded under the Water Smart Australia program, but to apply conditions that would force progress in implementing the National Water Initiative. This was a valuable form of leverage for the commission. But when the Labor government came to power in 2007, the responsibility for the program was transferred to the department. This was a disappointing decision. The other main spending program the commission had responsibility for was the Raising National Water Standards program, which was small in moneys and involved a more specified allocation of funds. It meant open requests for proposals and the commission itself identifying projects which were then tendered. Careful thought was put into determining priorities and as a result of this research it often came in the form of Waterlines publications accompanying the commission's position or policy statement, which highlighted the findings relative to the National Water Initiative. This program will conclude on 30 June with all funds having been allocated. 

When the commission began, it had a relatively small staff. It had systems and processes which were recognised in reviews by the Australian National Audit Office. The commission forged relations with state agencies and ministers, as well as industry and environmental stakeholders. The commission with Ken Matthews in charge rotated its meetings between head office and on the ground, with on-the-ground meetings facilitating interaction with relevant staff and enabling the commission to observe what was occurring and what needed to be done. The commission tried to be as open and communicative as possible. These themes continued under the second commission, 2008 to date, and current chief executive officer James Cameron. Unfortunately, the relationship between the commission and the department has often been strained. The other unfortunate change in recent times has been the drawn-out battle over water at both Commonwealth and state levels since the drought broke and water catchments replenished. Despite the fact that the government's chief climate commissioner, Professor Tim Flannery, declared in 2007 that our climate had changed irreversibly and that rain would not fall, rivers would not run and dams would not fill, Labor, beholden to the Greens, based much of its pollution pricing claptrap and other measures on what Professor Flannery spouted. These policies will make Australian business and farmers, that f-word the Acting Prime Minister refuses to use, less competitive. 

The National Water Commission has done some excellent work on water reform, but if it is to continue it needs to have a job and to justify its funding. The coalition will continue to monitor and ensure that the money appropriated to the National Water Commission helps to encourage water reform—good water reform. The National Water Commission was set up to oversee implementation of national water initiatives, objectives of which were equal consideration of social, economic and environmental outcomes. I see the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities opposite, and I am sure he would agree with that too. 

The 2 May 2011 report Of droughts and flooding rains: inquiry into the impact of the Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia had as its 21st and final recommendation: 
...Commonwealth Government charge the National Water Commission with responsibility for auditing and reporting on: 
the management and use of environmental water by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the manager of the proposed national water fund on an annual basis, including: 
the volume of water recovered for the environment; 
use of the proposed national water fund, including investment in irrigation efficiency and environmental works and measures; the use of environmental water including volume, location, timing and outcomes achieved; and entitlements and allocations strategically purchased or sold, including location, timing, products (security and reliability), average long term volume and average value per megalitre.
There are other things as well contained in this recommendation, yet, essentially, whilst a worthwhile proposal, as were the other 20 recommendations, it is difficult to equate this with the fact that the last federal budget—delivered little more than six weeks ago—resulted in money for buyback staying in and funding for valuable water savings measures through works and measures, nearly $1 billion worth, being deferred until 2015-16. Those who often comment about water issues should accept that when water was not available, allocation to irrigators were not processed and so areas planted to annual crops, particularly cotton and rice, were scaled back or no farming occurred at all by many of the fibre and food producers of the Coleambally, Murrumbidgee and Murray regions. I see that the member for Murray has joined me in the chamber—in her area as well. The controversy of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's guide and then draft also reflects the failure to grasp the difference between entitlement levels and allocations given the amount of water actually available. Prior to the end of 2011, under section 38 of the National Water Commission Act, a review was required to be conducted of the ongoing role and functions of the National Water Commission in management and regulation of Australia's water resources. 

On 11 July 2011 the federal government, on behalf of the Council of Australian Governments, commissioned an independent review by Dr David Rosalky. Dr Rosalky presented his final report to the government on 6 December 2011 and it was tabled in parliament on 14 March this year. Dr Rosalky's report was balanced. It was insightful and recommended the commission's continuation. The review identified a number of core functions it considered necessary to progress in future water reform and for which it believed the National Water Commission has provided key services, including monitoring and audit of reform activity, assessments of reform activity and knowledge leadership. The review went on to conclude that the National Water Commission should continue without sunset for the duration of the National Water Initiative agenda and within essentially the same governance arrangement that it has now with its legislation strengthening its independence as a COAG body. It was recommended there should be a comprehensive external review every five years of the commission. 

I agree that the commission should be continued. It has mandated legislative roles which could not adequately be performed by other Commonwealth agencies, such as the Productivity Commission, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Australian National Audit Office or the department. The independence the commission has is vital to the continuity of water expertise and the ability to criticise without fear or favour against the objectives of the National Water Initiative. It is also worth noting that it would be difficult for a Commonwealth agency to meet the state focused component of the commission's mandate. 

The commission plans to have 44 staff next financial year, down from 63 in 2011-12. The NWC's budget allocation is $34.3 million over the forward estimates. Its budget of $10.252 million for the 2012-13 financial year—a relatively small budget in the scheme of things—reflects its evolving role and the conclusion of the Raising National Water Standards Program. 

This bill will continue the National Water Commission as an independent body beyond its current sunset date of 30 June. It also refocuses the commission's role to oversee and assess national water reforms, primarily the National Water Initiative and Murray-Darling Basin reforms. The bill will amend the functions of the commission to the three core ongoing functions of monitoring, auditing and assessment. These functions capture the formal commitment in the National Water Initiative and other agreements. The commission will also assist with the implementation of the National Water Initiative by providing advice, information and guidance on these three core functions as well as promoting the objectives and outcomes of the initiative. 

As all programs funded from the Australian Water Fund have ended, the bill will also close the Australian Water Fund account and the commission's specific ability to administer any of these funds but will enable the commission to administer Australian government funding programs that may be allocated to it in the future. Furthermore, the bill will reduce the number of national water commissioners, including the chair, from seven to five due to the refocus functions. It also adopts the independent review recommendation of a statutory review to be undertaken every five years. 

The coalition is happy to support this bill to ensure that the work being undertaken by the National Water Commission continues, to ensure that they are able to continue their principal purpose of assisting and pursuing, through strategic guidance and information, implementation of water reforms by all jurisdictions, leading to the effective and timely achievement of the National Water Initiative objectives. 
Finally, the commission ought to continue, but it must play its role. To paraphrase shadow water minister Senator Barnaby Joyce in his speech on his Senate initiated bill on Monday, we have had discussions on the National Water Commission and we will concur on their role continuing, but they must be on their game, because every dollar we spend on the commission is a dollar we cannot spend on health, pensioners, dental care, children or AIDS research or in so many other places. We cannot spend the money twice. I hope those within the National Water Commission understand the tenuous nature of the financial predicament that this nation has been put in and how we have to do everything within our power to try to make every dollar count. 

Next Wednesday 27 June—and I am glad the minister is here—there is an important meeting taking place in Banna Avenue in Griffith, which will once again come to a standstill from 11.30 am, when the community will again rally. The state water minister from New South Wales, Katrina Hodgkinson, will be there to discuss the ongoing dilemma and concern about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I know the minister has stated this week that he is intending, if the states do not agree, to bulldoze the plan through anyway. It will be interesting to see the numbers of people attending this meeting. In the past we have had thousands of people rallying at Griffith. The minister has been there; he has seen the fear and the uncertainty in those people's eyes. He knows all too well that a bad basin plan will absolutely destroy—not decimate but destroy—the Murrumbidgee irrigation area, which is one of the great food bowls of this nation, if not the greatest. I hope he takes that onboard when he does decide his basin plan, and I hope he gets onboard with what the states say. We are not always going to get agreement on everything but certainly on water we need good policy. (Time expired)

Cristy Houghton