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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 36

Senator MURPHY (12:09 PM) —The amendment that Senator Allison has just moved as a replacement for the initial amendment proposed by the Democrats is somewhat weaker. The initial amendment went to the question of the intergovernmental agreement on both the National Water Initiative and the National Water Commission. The amendment says that `the NWC will make its assessments under subsections 7(2) and (3) available to the public'. It goes on:

(2) The Minister may direct the NWC not to make an assessment public in accordance with subsection (1).

(3) Where the Minister makes a direction in accordance with subsection (2), the direction, together with a statement of reasons for the direction, must be tabled in both Houses of the Parliament by the Minister within 15 sitting days of the direction being made.

The new amendment says:

(1) The NWC must make its assessments under subsections 7(2) and (3) available to the public unless the Minister does not agree.

(2) The NWC must not make any other advice or recommendations available to the public without the agreement of the Minister.

(3) If agreement is not given under subsection (1), the Minister must advise the NWC of the reasons why agreement has not been given. The NWC must make these reasons available to the public.

There are no time frames. It says that it must make the assessments under subsections 7(2) and (3) available. I understand that there was some concern about setting a time frame for the assessments to be made publicly available because of the states and/or territories receiving the advice—I would like some explanation, probably from the minister, to confirm whether my view is correct—but in clause 7(4A), which is `Giving advice and making recommendations', it says:

The NWC is to give advice and make recommendations to COAG under this section by giving the advice and making the recommendations to the parties—

which I assume are the states and territories—

to the NWI at the same time as the advice is given, and the recommendations are made, to the Minister.

I just want to confirm whether my understanding is correct that when all of the assessments and/or recommendations are given to the minister they are at the same time to be given to the states and territories, or to the parties to the NWI. Is my assumption correct?

Senator Ian Campbell —It's given to the states.

Senator MURPHY —At the same time as it is given to the Commonwealth minister it is also given to the states, or to the parties to the NWI. I do not know if there is a concern about time frames. One of the things I did in proposing my amendment was to look at a time frame for the commission to make publicly available these assessments. I think that is very important, because if there are no time frames then things may be able to be put off for an indefinite period of time. Even in paragraph (3) of the Democrat amendment, which says that if agreement is not given under subsection (1) the minister must advise the NWC of the reasons why and then the NWC must make these reasons available to the public, there are no time frames.

In other circumstances, this relates to other government business operations, and I think that is why the initial amendment of the Democrats—which sets down a time frame, as is the case in many other instances, such as where a direction is given or, in this case, agreement is not given—is stronger than the new one. There has to be a time frame for making these things available to the public. I would still argue that there ought be a time frame in what has been proposed here because I think that is an important aspect to it.

Can I then go to the issue of the recommendations. I would like the minister to explain why the government is opposed to making publicly available the recommendations that the commission is likely to make. The explanatory memorandum states that part of the role of the commission will be to:

... promote debate; enhance communication with (and between) communities, stakeholders and decision makers; and otherwise promote national water reform through initiatives and actions to advance the objectives and outcomes of the NWI.

Why can the public not be informed of what this commission might recommend to the Commonwealth government and the states and territories in respect of the National Water Initiative and its views about what needs to be done? I cannot understand why the public cannot be made aware of that. I would be interested to hear any reasons from the minister. In light of the fact that Senator Lees advised she will be withdrawing her amendment and that we are now debating the Democrat amendment, I suggest that Senator Lees withdraws her amendment, but I am not withdrawing my amendment at the moment.