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Tuesday, 26 May 2015
Page: 4491


Mr BALDWIN (PatersonParliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment) (12:01): I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Since the Australian government and all state and territory governments agreed to the National Water Initiative in 2004, there has been considerable progress in national water reform, through enhancing the security of irrigation water entitlements, enabling water markets and trade, strengthening Australia's water resource information base and improving urban water security.

These achievements by all jurisdictions represents real progress in the management and sustainability of our water resources.

The Abbott government is committed to continuing to progress national water reform and to supporting and promoting the principles of the National Water Initiative.

However, it is important to review ongoing arrangements and our government is also aware of the need to find appropriate savings measures and of returning the budget to surplus, and as such have determined it is no longer necessary to retain a separate body to undertake the auditing and monitoring functions of the National Water Commission.

In line with the government's ongoing commitment to the National Water Initiative principles, key National Water Commission functions will be retained and transferred to existing Commonwealth agencies.

The abolition of the National Water Commission is expected to result in a saving of approximately $20 million over the forward estimates.

The findings of the Commission of Audit were taken into account in making this decision, which recommended abolishing the National Water Commission as a stand-alone agency.

The National Water Commission has played an important role in encouraging water resource policy and management nationally, following the development and agreement of the National Water Initiative a decade ago.

The National Water Commission has worked closely with the states and territories, to monitor the implementation of these water reform commitments on a wide range of fronts.

I would like to convey to the commissioners and the staff of the National Water Commission, both past and present, the government's appreciation for their work, which has served Australia well and has played a part in helping to place our nation at the forefront of water reform.

The key task going forward is to ensure that the principles of the National Water Initiative continue to be upheld across the water sector, for example:

urban pricing principles

management of rural and environmental water

effective implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The government will ensure that the important audit and review functions required under the National Water Initiative and Water Act 2007 are continued.

To give effect to this, the Productivity Commission will have responsibility for:

the triennial assessments of progress toward achieving National Water Initiative objectives and outcomes by state and territory governments; and

the independent audit of implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and associated water resource plans will continue as statutory functions which will be undertaken by the Productivity Commission.

the Productivity Commission will also be responsible for the biennial National Water Planning Report Card which is produced under the triennial assessment.

The government is confident in the ability of the Productivity Commission and its expertise in water policy.

By allocating the assessment and audit functions to the Productivity Commission, state and territory governments and stakeholders will benefit from the Productivity Commission's reputation for independence, the confidence in which it is held by the Australian public and governments, and its performance and benchmarking expertise.

The Department of the Environment will be responsible for:

assessing the performance of the Murray-Darling Basin states against the performance milestones specified in the National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Murray-Darling Basin reform; and

providing ongoing advice on the status of relevant state and territory water resource plans to the Clean Energy Regulator, as required under the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Regulations 2011.

the Department of the Environment will also be responsible for monitoring water markets and producing an annual water markets report, which will be undertaken for the department by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, in the Department of Agriculture.

I will now turn to the details of the bill.

The purpose of this bill is to repeal the National Water Commission Act 2004 in order to abolish the National Water Commission with effect from royal assent, while also providing that key assessment and audit functions of the National Water Commission that are considered essential in the future, will continue, but be undertaken by different agencies.

The bill amends the Water Act 2007 to provide that the triennial assessments of National Water Initiative implementation by state and territory governments and the independent audit of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan implementation will be undertaken as statutory functions by the Productivity Commission.

The bill makes consequential changes to the Water Act 2007 to reflect the fact that the National Water Commission will cease to exist. To this end, references to the National Water Commission in the Water Act 2007 will be removed, including references which allow for the sharing of information with the National Water Commission or concerning its administration.

Lastly, the bill provides for transitional arrangements for the winding up of the National Water Commission's activities.

The government also made amendments to the bill whilst it was in the Senate following further discussions with key stakeholders that will ensure greater confidence in the Productivity Commission in undertaking these functions and for increased stakeholder engagement. Specifically, a stakeholder working group is to be established for each matter referred to the Productivity Commission for inquiry and, for each matter referred to the Productivity Commission, an associate commissioner must be appointed who is required to have extensive skills and experience in water resource management.

The government is confident that these arrangements will ensure the successful continuation of the key National Water Commission functions.

I would like to thank those responsible in the Department of Environment for their work in bringing this bill forward and for their diligent work over the past 12 months—Ms Catherine Kelly, Mr Tim Fisher and Ms Fleur Downard. I would also like to thank Mr Richard McLoughlin for his work as the acting CEO of the commission over the past six months.

I commend the bill to the House.