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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 3512

Senator SINODINOS (New South Wales) (21:26): The National Water Commission Amendment Bill is a non-controversial bill and the coalition is supporting it. I am happy to support it. I was present at the creation of this body. I was not responsible for it, but I was around at the time and it reflected a determination of the then government that we had to progress water reform. Water reform had been around a long time. There had been some impetus given to it by the Hilmer reforms of the mid-1990s but the truth is that by 2004, when this particular body was set up, there was a view that we needed to go further. This was also at a time when drought was really starting to have an impact on parts of Australia, particularly in eastern and southern Australia.

It is good that there is a sunset clause on the commission. It is important with these bodies that we go back every so often and evaluate their performance to see whether they are performing appropriately; whether their functions are still pertinent, appropriate and relevant. I note in this particular case that Dr Rosalky, a respected former public servant, recommended in his review that the commission 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'. Of course, the government has accepted the Rosalky review's recommendations. I think the view of the people who created the commission in 2004 was that that sort of specialist expertise was required at some remove from government. I am advised that over the years there has been some tension between having a body like this and also having a department with a particular water policy responsibility, but I think through the quality of its work the commission has justified its existence.

Under this bill the commission will have responsibility for assessing progress against the National Water Initiative every three years and in addition under the Water Act of 2007 the commission may review the Murray-Darling Basin Plan every five years. That will be quite a challenge, I imagine. The commission also advises on whether plantations can apply for carbon farming credits, which they can only do if a state or territory government manages water exemptions in a way consistent with the initiative. Since its inception the main work of the commission has been to review state and federal governments' progress against the National Water Initiative. It is true to say in that regard that there are a number of areas of outstanding reform which remain under the National Water Initiative, including urban water, access of mining to water, water quality in the environment and river health. To read out that list of areas for reform that remain is to remind ourselves of how difficult water reform can be. The idea of water pricing was controversial at the beginning, because people saw water as an essential item of life and therefore asked how you can price an essential like that. But pricing is in fact the way we deal with a scarce commodity and make sure that it is diverted to its most highly valued users. Some challenges remain in that regard but, on the whole, we are making progress. However, there is more we can do and the commission can play a role in that regard.

I note that in the time the commission has been operating it has administered the Australian Water Fund, which includes Water Smart Australia, the Raising National Water Standards and Community Water Grants programs, promoted national water standards across industry, developed a national water sector training strategy and undertaken general research into water policy issues such as trading of water rights, groundwater and coal seam gas. It is important that we get appropriate information on issues such as trading of water rights, disseminate that information and reject, if you like, through the provision of information some of the myths that sometimes attach to trading of water rights.

The commission has the support of a number of bodies, including within the water industry, to continue and it is generally seen as a body that has produced excellent research. The Australian Water Association argues that the commission helps put moral suasion on federal and state governments to maintain their commitment to water reforms under the National Water Initiative. I think that is right, because it is such a visible body in this particular space. The Water Services Association of Australia believes that funding for research should continue, otherwise more of the costs of producing it would be imposed on the water industry. Importantly, the CSIRO believes that the National Water Commission should continue, because it is important for a body to provide thought leadership to the sector and because helping to set the agenda and educate stakeholders and the community remain very important in this particular light.

I note what Senator Joyce and other colleagues have said about the National Water Commission having been stripped of a number of responsibilities by this government, which led to a bit of a debate within the coalition about the costs and benefits of maintaining the body. In the end we came to the view that in the interests of transparency it was good to maintain the body, but it is a watching brief—we have to make sure that the Commonwealth and the taxpayer get value for money from their investment in this body, even though the amount of money going to the body has been reduced over the forward estimates.

We should think about what further responsibilities we give his body. Having these commissions which are at some arm's length from government, particularly from government departments, is an important part of the process of getting the community to feel more confident about the outcomes of the work of these sorts of bodies. Therefore, it was a bit disappointing that, for example, there was the recent agreement to allocate $150 million to improve groundwater research as it relates to the mining sector, particularly the coal seam gas sector. Rather than being sent to the commission, it was sent to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. If we are serious about evidence based policy making we need to make the best use of these sorts of commissions. Water is an essential of life and having a body that is dedicated to promoting thought leadership in this sector remains crucial in the period ahead.

I will draw here on the contribution of Senator Birmingham: we need to face up to the issues around the Murray-Darling. It is a very difficult issue but it is one to which we have ultimately to find a solution that is in the national interest. Having just spent some time in South Australia with my good friend and colleague Senator Fawcett, who is in the chamber, I was reminded how dependent South Australia is on the Murray and, as you move down the Murray, of the different emotions that the attachment to the Murray-Darling system evoke. We need a solution that is in the national interest. We also need, as Senator Joyce mentioned, an outcome that balances economic, social and environmental outcomes. Having looked at the 2007 legislation, which governs some of these processes, I think it did perhaps lead to some conundrums about balancing the economic, social and environmental. This is a very difficult call, because there are other environmental issues on which we are asked to put the science above the economic and social impacts. As we are seeing in Europe in an entirely different context to do with economic policy, the reality is that you cannot have a set of policies that put one objective above others, because in a complex polity such as ours there are all sorts of interests that have to be balanced.

That said, I look forward to the work I can do with my colleagues, particularly on the Murray-Darling. It is a difficult problem, but it is in the interest of the coalition, which has so much at stake in the health of the Murray-Darling system—the truth of it is that most if not all of the seats that abut the Murray-Darling are coalition seats—to find an approach which balances all stakeholders. I look forward to working with my coalition colleagues on that. That said, this is a non-controversial bill, and I want to put on record my appreciation of the work of the commission. I believe that it has justified its continued existence and hopefully will continue to provide thought leadership.