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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7559

Mr BUCHHOLZ (Wright) (11:09): I rise to speak on the National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012. This amendment seeks to continue the National Water Commission as an independent body which by legislation was to sunset on 30 June 2012. The National Water Commission was established by the Australian government under the National Water Commission Act 2004, known as the national water act. The National Water Commission Act came into force on 17 December 2004 and provides the statutory basis for the National Water Commission to carry out a range of functions to assist with the implementation of the national water initiative. The independent review of the National Water Council was commissioned by the Commonwealth government on behalf of the Council of Australian Governments, in accordance with the National Water Review and section 38 of the National Water Commission Act. The review concluded that the National Water Commission should continue without sunset for the duration of the National Water Initiative. I am not too sure what the coalition's position is on that, but I do not support that. I do not necessarily agree that an organisation that was necessarily set up with a sunset clause should then have a perpetual ongoingness without that sunset clause.

The review found that the implementation of the National Water Initiative is occurring within highly complex and evolving environments. These complex environments require an independent and specialist institution to credibly engage with and report on the progress of water reform. Water reform is such an important thing to the nation at the moment. I cannot stress how intense some of those negotiations may be as we move into the future. It has the capacity to divide communities and in some cases has the capacity to create rifts within families, especially if one family is on one side of a river and one is one the other in the agricultural sector. The bill will amend the functions of the National Water Commission by refocusing its operations to deliver three core ongoing functions: monitoring, auditing and assessments. The National Water 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 performing activities to promote the objectives and outcomes of the National Water Initiative.

These functions are designed to enable the National Water Commission to meet its principal purpose: to assist and pursue through strategic guidance and information implementation of water reforms by all jurisdictions, leading to the effective and timely achievement of the National Water Initiative objective. That is a mouthful. With that being said, the coalition does have some concerns about the National Water Commission, which has been stripped of its responsibilities by the government and as such, the question is whether that there is now value in maintaining to ongoing body. Within the overhead costs that we have seen in the forward estimates, we are looking at about $34.3 million. The National Water Commission plans to have 44 staff over the next financial year, admittedly a reduction from 63 from 2011-12. The National Water Commission's budget allocation is again $34.3 million over the forward estimates.

The National Water Commission is left with just two legislative roles: the assessment of progress under the National Water Initiative every three years and a review of the Water Act every five years. However, these reviews perhaps could have directed to the Productivity Commission on the premise of cost savings, if that was ever a thought by the government.

The government has also missed the opportunity to give the National Water Commission more responsibility recently. The government recently agreed to allocate $150 million to improving underground water research related to the mining sector, in particular the coal seam gas sector. This is a responsibility that could have gone to the National Water Commission, giving perceived levels of independent assessment to all stakeholders. I do support the extra $150 million that has gone towards underground research. It is a responsibility at a state level that has been predominantly the responsibility of the mining companies as part of their charter and assessment. I think shifting that to an independent body gives some type of certainty.

The other important thing with underground water research is that it gives the farmers or the graziers a bit of an idea of what is under the ground before the mining companies get there. They will go through and, hopefully, do some modelling. Of course, there are concerns that, because we have had additional rainfalls over and above normal or short-term averages in recent times, the water tables will be at an upper end of their catchment and then as we go back into El Nino cycles, those water levels will recede, with mining activity happening at the same time. It is imperative that we do have research that monitors that so we are not unjustly accusing one party or another of having an impact on those watertables.

Before I move on, I also want to make a point with reference to the $150 million for underground water. In Queensland there are some ads on television in which gas companies are saying how unintrusive their work is in the agricultural sector. To a degree that is true. There are very unintrusive relationships that have existed between Australian well-founded companies and the agricultural sector for over 20 years. But there are two types of extraction. There is the extraction that you see on television where it takes up less than half of a netball court with a couple of panels around the head of the well. There is the other process to do with fracking and discharge water with high salinity. Even though that water might not have any agricultural reference or value as to it, the effect of pulling that water out of the aquifers might have an imbalance somewhere that does affect better quality water. So I would encourage anyone researching that underground water component to be diligent in their findings.

Instead the task was given to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. One of the issues that I believe they should look at is streamlining the process for the allocation of water licences. Currently farmers and agriculturalists apply to departments different from ones for mining leases in seeking water licences. I believe the water resource should be an asset for use under the same conditions.

The National Water Commission has support from most of the water industry to continue and is generally viewed as a body that has produced excellent research in its charter. The Australian Water Association has pointedly indicated that the National Water Commission helped balance the barometer as to federal and state governments to maintain a commitment to water reforms under the National Water Initiative, and I dare say that those challenges will still lie with the commission as they continue the deliberations in regional parts of Australia. The Water Services Association of Australia believes that funding for water research should continue, otherwise more of the costs of producing it will be imposed on the water industry. The CSIRO also believes that the National Water Commission should continue because an important body such as this can provide leadership and research to the water sector. The coalition will not oppose this bill as the coalition has been a long-term supporter of water reform. The coalition kicked off the water reform process with the establishment of the National Water Initiative back in 2004.

I would like to take this opportunity to reflect now on how successful the National Water Initiative was and how it remains a model for water reform today. Under the National Water Initiative it was implicitly recognised that there is a trade-off between economic, social and environmental factors. Some recent deliberations have omitted the social impact on those communities and have had a stronger focus on the environmental impacts of water flows and courses. I encourage those communities to make sure that the utmost consideration is given to those social impacts, because, as we all know, in regional Australia water is such a valuable commodity and without water there is no life. We can never achieve all of these goals at the same time. We must weigh up one against the other and come to a balanced outcome. This bill goes forward as a non-controversial bill, but I think it only right that the coalition watch the work of the National Water Commission closely with their expectations that absolute diligence will be shown in the expenditure of the Australian taxpayers' money in the pursuit of water reforms.

In conclusion I will finish where I started. I personally will be monitoring the progress of this body. I would have thought that the Productivity Commission could have more diligently handled the process for the next couple of years but at a much reduced rate at a time where money is scarce and waste is a challenge for the government. However, in saying that, I understand the good work that is being done by the body. I understand that they have pared back some staff. I understand that there is a position of goodwill from partners that trade with the commission or have contact with it. On this occasion, the coalition's position is to support it; I would not like to see it back in this House again. Thank you.