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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7550

Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (10:28): I am very pleased today to support the National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012 that seeks to provide the continuation of the National Water Commission beyond its expiry date of the current National Water Commission Act 2004. It is interesting to hear the member for Groom talk about the ongoing functions. The coalition government had planned to close this commission down. It has taken this Labor government—

Mr Ian Macfarlane interjecting

Ms RISHWORTH: Well, there was a sunset clause in the previous legislation that had the Water Commission closing down. This government have taken water reform incredibly seriously. That is why we are pushing ahead to get a good Basin Plan. It is interesting that the member for Groom said that he is in favour of water reform. I think he needs to go and speak to the Leader of the Opposition because he has not been so forthcoming—when he is in Griffith he tells the constituents there that he would not like to see any water reform, that no-one should take their water. Of course when he is in Adelaide it is a completely different message. This government are very committed to water reform and continuing that process. We think having a transparent oversight of all the Australian government's national water reform commitments is particularly important—especially looking at the National Water Initiative, its core functions of audit and assessment, and monitoring of water reforms, including the Murray-Darling Basin. That is what the National Water Commission will continue to do.

The National Water Commission was created by the Commonwealth following COAG agreement under the National Water Commission Act 2004 to provide advice on national water issues and in particular to assist the effective implementation of the National Water Initiative. For too long—for almost a century now—states have assumed that water stopped at the borders, whether it be groundwater, whether it be the Murray-Darling system. But of course water does not stop at state borders. It does not respect state borders. It is incredibly important that we do take a national approach to these issues. Under the National Water Initiative, COAG did agree that the Commonwealth would establish the National Water Commission as an independent statutory body. Its role was to advise the minister, COAG and the Commonwealth on matters relating to water, to assist with the implementation of that National Water Initiative for the purposes of assessing progress in implementing the National Water Initiative and to advise on actions required to better realise the objectives of the National Water Initiative. The role of the National Water Commission also included monitoring and advising on the transition from the existing policy framework, shaping water reform—namely, the 1994 COAG Water Reform Framework.

Underpinning the establishment of the National Water Commission in the National Water Commission Act was a sunset clause, whereby the organisation would cease to continue from 30 June 2012. Before the cessation of the National Water Commission an independent review was prescribed to be conducted at the end of 2011 into the ongoing role and functions of the National Water Commission in the management and regulations of Australia's water resources. In accordance with those requirements on behalf of COAG, on 11 July 2011 the federal government commissioned an independent review with the terms of reference agreed to by COAG, and the final report was presented to the government on 6 December 2011.

The review did recommend that the National Water Commission continue for the life of the National Water Initiative. It was deemed that while significant achievements had been made through this initiative further complementary work was still needed to be carried out as part of the National Water Initiative and extend beyond this prescriptive time frame. The report deemed that the completion of some of the initiative's key objectives had been delayed due to the complexity, both technically and politically, of some of the reforms. Due to some of intrinsic elements yet to be implemented, the report deemed that a specialist independent body like the National Water Commission is likely to be even more important in the future, especially as we go down the path of implementing a Basin Plan. The independent review identified a number of core functions which it considered necessary for progressing future water reform. It has considered that the National Water Commission provide key services into the future such as monitoring and audit of reform activity, assessment of reform activity and acknowledge leadership. It acknowledges the valuable role that the National Water Commission plays as a credible specialist and independent agency supporting national water reforms.

We have seen a lot of tick-tacking between the states on the issues of water. It is a highly emotive issue and states do like to stake out their territory when it comes to water. As a South Australian, I think we have been dudded a little in the past. So that is why we are looking at an independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority and that is why independent agencies supporting national reforms are really, really important. Following the release of the independent review in March 2012, the Gillard government announced its intention to accept the recommendations of the review and to continue with the National Water Commission to oversee the COAG national water reform agenda in keeping with the recommendations provided by the review. The bill was then referred to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. The committee released its report in May 2012. The committee recommended unanimously that the bill be passed before 30 June 2012. In making this recommendation, the committee took note of the seven submissions received from a number of different agencies. There was a fixed time frame but, in accordance with the review, it is important that we extend the National Water Commission, and I am very pleased that we are doing that today.

The legislation before the House removes the sunset clause allowing for the National Water Commission to continue on an ongoing basis for the life of the National Water Initiative, with future five-yearly reviews and the evaluation of its role. The legislation enables the National Water Commission to carry out its core functions of auditing, assessing and monitoring water reforms into the future. It will continue to undertake assessments of the progress of jurisdictions in implementing the National Water Initiative but on a triennial basis rather than a biennial basis.

The legislation also reduces the number of commissioners from seven to five due to the National Water Commission's refocused functions and operations. In undertaking its functions, the National Water Commission will discuss its work plan annually with the relevant Commonwealth, state and territory ministers and agencies through the Standing Council on Environment and Water and relevant official bodies. Reporting and consulting will be handled through the normal COAG processes.

This is one of the important planks in water reform. It is one of the many important things that we need to ensure that water reform continues to move forward. For many years now we have continued to ignore these important areas of water reform. There has been a sense that water will always come. Coming from South Australia, I know that that is not the case. Water does not just appear. It is a very precious resource that we need to make sure we use in the most efficient and effective way.

I have regularly said that I believe we need a strong Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I hope that it will be supported, because, as I said previously, while the states can argue about this, rivers and water do not stop at borders. We need to have a national plan that ensures that our river systems and water systems do actually exist in years to come and that we are not leaving a dead river system and water system to our children.

In this debate there is often discussion about farmers versus the environment. Well, if you come down to South Australia you will see that farmers have lost their livelihood due to a dead river system. That salinity will only continue up the Murray-Darling system and ensure that farmers are not able to operate. As that destruction starts at the bottom and moves up the system, the death of the Murray-Darling system will be a death not just for the environment but also for the farmers. They will not be able to pass their farms on to future generations if there is a dead river system.

I feel very strongly that we need to push ahead with water reform. I believe the National Water Commission is an important step in that. I am pleased to hear that the coalition will be supporting this bill, although they seem to be umming and ahing about whether there is a role for it. I believe there is a role for it—a very important role—along with the many other changes we are putting in place to ensure that our water is considered to be a precious resource and is used effectively and efficiently throughout this country.

I commend the parliamentary secretary for getting the bill through the Senate. We in the House of Representatives now have a duty to pass it. I commend the bill to the House.