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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7556


Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (10:54): I speak in support of this National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012 and I do so because I believe it is good legislation, and it is appropriate legislation for the time. The National Water Commission was established under the National Water Act 2004 in the midst of the decade of drought that ended a couple of years ago. All of us in this room can well remember the drought and the effects of it. In fact I will come back to that in moment because, as a result of the establishment of the Water Commission, I had some personal dealings with the commission at the time. When the National Water Commission was established there was a sunset clause whereby the term of the commission would end at 30 June. The effect of this legislation is to extend the term of the commission. I think that that is quite appropriate given the work of the commission as it was seen at the time has simply not ended.

The focus of the commission will be on four key areas: audit, monitoring, assessment, knowledge and leadership. I also note that the bill closes the Australian Water Fund Account, thereby ending the National Water Commission's specific ability to administer Australian water funds but permits it to administer Australian government funding programs that may be allocated to it in the future. Effectively, it changes its role from managing a fund that was established by the government at the time to one of overseeing water reform throughout the country. I also note that the number of commissioners will be reduced from seven to five, which in turn reflects the changing nature of the role of the commission. These changes arise from an independent review commissioned by the Australian government on behalf of COAG and carried out by Dr David Rosalky, though I note that the change relating to the number of commissioners was not one of his recommendations.

The recommendations from Dr Rosalky's review have largely been adopted by this legislation. As part of his review, I also understand that he consulted very, very widely effectively with all of the stakeholders in Australia's water supplies around the company, including governments, non-government organisations, industry groups and the like. My understanding is that there was pretty much unanimous support for the changes that are now being implemented through this legislation. I also understand that because of the timing—that is the timing that puts the 30 June deadline on the current role of the commission—this matter has to be dealt with fairly quickly. In fact, my understanding is that the states have not signed off on this legislation, but I would expect that they will. My understanding also is, if they do not, or if they have some minor amendments that they wish to make, that that could be managed or taken care of at a later time. I well understand the need for us deal with this legislation given the 30 June deadline.

The objectives of the National Water Initiative are to achieve a nationally compatible market regulatory and planning based system of managing surface and groundwater resource for rural and urban use that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes. I make that point just to demonstrate the broad nature of the role of the commission and its responsibility. The National Water Commission, whilst primarily established by COAG to assess and advise on progress in the implementation of the National Water Initiative, the 1994 COAG Water Reform Framework and the National Competition Policy has since that time broadened its role and its purpose. In particular, given that since the establishment of the commission we have also seen the establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in 2007, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the COAG Reform Council, which in turn has committed to other responsibilities, I can now see that the role of the commission not only needs to be ongoing but has in fact somewhat changed to what its original functions were. I particularly note that one of the roles of the commission includes auditing and monitoring the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the associated water resource plans. The National Water Commission's oversight of the Murray-Darling plan will be particularly important given the sensitivities associated with the plan coming from so many different sectors. I have watched with interest all of the submissions that have been made to the authority in the course of the public consultation over the last couple of years. Whilst I might have missed some of the submissions made, I am broadly aware of the types of submissions coming from so many different quarters. and it is clear to me that almost everybody has a different perspective on what should or should not be done. It is interesting to note that when the authority finally put together its draft plan that there is almost universal disagreement about what is in the plan. In fact, I cannot ever recall any other public consultation process where so much disagreement exists. We have seen that disagreement coming from the states, environmental groups, irrigators and from urban communities right throughout the basin. Even with the states, whilst there is disagreement to the plan, the disagreement is not for the same reasons—they are all disagreeing for their own particular reasons. Having the National Water Commission overseeing the rollout of the plan should provide a degree of comfort to all parties concerned, knowing that the commission to date not only has established a fair degree of credibility but would be seen as a relatively independent group—independent of any political influences and independent of the influence of any of the states—and can comment on how the plan is being rolled out. I think that that is going to be an incredibly important function of the commission in the future.

One of the things that I also noted was that the South Australian government referred to its concerns about the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and how that water was going to be used. Given that one of the strategies to return water to the system has been to purchase water from willing sellers that water then remains in the hands of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder; therefore, how that water is then used is understandably a matter that would be of concern particularly to South Australia being at the end of the system. It is a matter that was raised by some of the people making representations in the course of this inquiry as well, because ultimately the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder will be holding substantial amounts of water, and whoever holds that water obviously will have a responsibility to ensure that that water is also used responsibly. Whilst I understand the concerns being raised by the South Australian government with respect to the specifics of how that water is going to be managed and who is going to oversee how it is managed, I can also understand that this is a role for the National Water Commission in making its comments about how that water is used.

We have also seen in recent times concerns being raised, and the member for Maranoa raised them just a moment ago, with respect to the use of underground water throughout the country. Those are emerging concerns and I know that they are concerns not only on the east coast but on the west coast in Western Australia as well. They are genuine concerns arising from water becoming a very precious resource in whatever part of Australia that you live. Again, the role that the commission has in managing all of Australia's water resources or in overseeing how those water resources are used with respect to carrying out roles that COAG in turn would have the commission carry out is going to continue to be even more important.

The third aspect I want to talk about are the recent comments about turning the northern parts of Australia into a major agricultural area. Again, we will see, as we have seen in the Murray-Darling Basin, if that was ever to arise that the issue of water will become a very sensitive one and there will be a role for an authority on some sort to oversee how that water is used as well. I want to respond to something the member for Maranoa said in his remarks. He made the point—and I believe he is quite right—that the Darling and Murray systems are somewhat separate, and I think there is some truth in that. However, for South Australians the Darling and Murray systems converge at Wentworth and form one system. As far as South Australians are concerned, we are at the end of one system. South Australians for decades have relied on water from the Murray not only for drinking water but also for irrigators in the Riverland area and towards the Lower Lakes and Coorong area.

We have seen the impacts of reduced water flow into South Australia, particularly in the last decade. For us in South Australia, whether they are separate systems in New South Wales and Victoria makes little difference, because it is one system when it reaches the South Australians border. I point out that Menindee Lakes in New South Wales are vital to the security of water in South Australia, although they are in New South Wales. These lakes are reliant on the Darling River system. Only a few weeks ago I was visiting the Lower Lakes in South Australia with the House Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts. We had a look the Coorong and Lower Lakes areas and found that after two years of what would be called abundant water flows through the system, salinity levels in parts of those lakes are still too high. I raise that because if after two years of flood waters salinity levels are still not down to the levels they should be, imagine what the lakes would be like if there had been normal flows. I went to the Lower Lakes at the height of the drought and recall what they looked like then. I can draw a comparison having visited them then and again just a few weeks ago.

Our water resources, particularly the Murray-Darling system, have to be very well managed if we are going to ensure that we never again go through what we went through during the last decade of drought. At the height of that drought the Lower Lakes were in crisis. Only recently we heard from people who had been monitoring the situation throughout the drought that we almost reached a tipping point. It is all right for members to say nature looks after itself when they look at the Lower Lakes and see everything looking well, but we almost reached a tipping point. Had we reached that tipping point, the Lower Lakes would not today be looking good. It is important to have that overview and have a process in place to ensure our water resources are properly managed and used.

As I said at the outset, I support this legislation for good reason. I believe that not only will the commission continue to do the good work it has done to date but its role will be just as important in the future as in the past. I have had some personal experience with the commission. In 2005 in the midst of the drought, the commission came to the northern parts of Adelaide to assess a project that we had submitted to the federal government for funding to try to extend the water-harvesting work being done in the region. We met with the commissioners of the day and they ultimately endorsed and supported our application. It is projects like that that gave me the faith in the commissioners because they looked carefully at what we were doing and ultimately endorsed the project for funding. I commend the legislation to the House.