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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7548


Mr IAN MACFARLANE (Groom) (10:21): The coalition will not oppose the National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012, as we have been a long-term supporter of water reform. In fact, the coalition kick-started the water reform process with the establishment of the National Water Initiative in 2004. This bill will continue the National Water Commission as an independent statutory body beyond the sunset date of 30 June 2012. The coalition sees that as a good thing. The NWC was established by the previous coalition government as part of the National Water Initiative agreement in 2004. There are a number of outstanding reforms under the NWI, including urban water, access of mining to water, water quality, and environment and river health. The review of the NWC by Dr David Rosalky recommended that the NWC continue in its role so that it can carry out these functions, because water reform is occurring within a highly complex and evolving environment and requires an independent and specialist institution. The coalition would certainly agree with that, and water reform will continue. The government has accepted the review's recommendations.

Under this bill, the NWC will have the responsibility of assessing progress against the NWI every three years. In addition, under the Water Act 2007 the NWC may review the Murray-Darling Basin Plan every five years. The NWC also advises on whether plantations can apply for carbon farming credits, which they can only do if the state or territory government manages water interceptions in a way which is consistent with the National Water Initiative. Since its inception, the main work of the NWC has been to review state and federal government progress against the NWI.

The bill makes other less substantial changes. As the minister just mentioned, it closes the Australian Water Fund and reduces the number of commissioners from seven to five, including the chair, due to the NWC's reduced functions. Other tasks have included administering the Australian Water Fund, which has three main components: Water Smart Australia, Raising National Water Standards and the Community Water Grants program. As well as that, it will be involved in promoting national water standards across the industry and developing a national water sector training strategy, and general research into water policy issues such as the trading of water rights, groundwater and coal seam gas issues. The NWC will have a staff of 44 next financial year, which is a reduction from 63 in 2011-12.

Whilst we support this amendment, the coalition have some concerns about the fact the NWC has been stripped of responsibilities by this government to such an extent that it questions whether there is value in maintaining an ongoing body with the overhead costs that this entails. The National Water Commission has been left with just two legislative roles as a result of this government's actions—the assessment of progress under the NWI every three years and the review of the Water Act every five years. Notwithstanding its excellent record, these are reviews that could be performed by the COAG Reform Council or the Productivity Commission.

The government has also missed opportunities to give the NWC more responsibilities recently. For example, it has recently agreed to allocate $150 million to improving groundwater research as it relates to the mining sector, in particular the coal seam sector. That is a job that could have been done by the National Water Commission, but instead was given to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. That is one alternative; of course that job could have been done by the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism, who have exceptional expertise in that area, particularly in geoscience and know more about what goes on under Australia than anyone else. Either way, the coalition still support the initiative by the government to set up the expert panel to monitor development in the coal seam gas and the coal industry. I think you, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, would agree that the confidence that that is adding to the process between stakeholders in the coal seam industry in particular has been valuable, and we look forward to the continuation of that process. That said, the National Water Commission has done some excellent work on water reform, but if it is to continue it needs to have a job that is justification of its funding. The coalition will continue to monitor and ensure that the money that is appropriated to the NWC helps to encourage water reform.

In conclusion, having started this process the coalition are supportive of the issue of water reform. There are a huge number of issues out there to be fully explored and managed. There are difficulties. Communities are having difficulty in accepting some of the changes that are being put in place. We know, of course, of the controversy over the buy-back schemes and the new allocations. We have seen this government pay an extraordinary amount of money in a number of instances for water, only to see the sellers of that water then buy back allocations at a much cheaper price. I think there have been some flaws in the way that this government has administered this process, but that said, we commend the amendment to the House.