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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7547

Mr BURKE (WatsonMinister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (10:16): I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill provides for the continuation of the National Water Commission on an ongoing basis beyond the current expiry date of the National Water Commission Act 2004 on 30 June 2012. It provides for the robust and transparent oversight of all governments' national water reform commitments, and in particular the National Water Initiative (NWI).

This bill makes changes to the functions and operation of the commission. These changes focus the National Water Commission on its primary purpose of providing independent assurance of governments' progress on water reform. The changes continue the commission as an independent statutory body with the functions of monitoring, audit and assessment. These functions have been drafted generally so as to grant the commission discretion to focus on the issues most pertinent to the successful implementation of the National Water Initiative.

The initiative continues to be regarded by governments as a sound policy platform for addressing water reform. However, implementation of the initiative is occurring within a highly complex and evolving policy environment. For example, since the initiative was agreed in 2004 there have been significant new reforms in the Murray-Darling Basin. The most appropriate institution to conduct oversight of national water reform continues to be the National Water Commission. This was the view of the independent review commissioned by the Australian government on behalf of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

The review observed that the role of the commission will become more important into the future as increasingly difficult water reform issues are addressed. The commission has a crucial community transparency role as the auditor of outcomes in the Murray-Darling Basin.

I note that this bill has the support of all governments. At its meeting on 13 April 2012, the COAG agreed to retain the commission, focusing it on the functions of audit, monitoring and assessment of water reform.

As proposed under the National Water Initiative, the commission will continue to assess the progress of implementation of the initiative. The function is critical to ensuring strong evidence based transparent reporting and guidance on progress and challenges in implementing national water reform. The bill specifically provides for the commission to continue to undertake every three years major assessments of the progress of parties to the National Water Initiative in implementing their commitments. This bill also provides for the commission to undertake additional assessment activities on a discretionary basis.

The commission will continue to audit progress of all governments against agreed national water reform commitments. In particular, it will audit the effectiveness of the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin plan as required under the Commonwealth Water Act 2007.

Under this bill, the commission will continue to conduct monitoring of trends and actions by all stakeholders in implementing the initiative. Through monitoring the commission will continue to ensure a flow of information and comprehensive knowledge of the state of reform implementation to both governments and stakeholders. The responsiveness of the commission will be given greater emphasis through engagement with all jurisdictions. It is envisaged that the commission will formally engage closely with state and territory governments through the COAG water subcommittees such as the Standing Council on Environment and Water, including reporting on its work plan on at least an annual basis. A closer understanding of the activities of the jurisdictions and the circumstances in which their priorities are decided will assist in increasing its effectiveness in supporting the implementation of NWI reforms.

Commission reports and significant information will remain publicly available.

Given the refined functions for the commission this bill reduces the number of commissioners to five, including the chair.

With the scheduled closure of all programs funded from the Australian Water Fund, the bill closes the Australian Water Fund Account but will enable the NWC to administer Australian government funding programs that may be allocated to it in the future.

These amendments to the functions and operation of the National Water Commission will ensure high-quality advice to COAG as water reforms continue to be even more complex. The commission's transparent oversight of national water reforms is crucial to Australia's work towards effective and efficient water management and use. The importance of water in securing Australia's economic and environmental future demands no less.