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Tuesday, 26 May 2015
Page: 4493

Mr BUTLER (Port Adelaide) (12:09): I rise to oppose this bill as we did in the Senate. We oppose the abolition of an independent expert body that has been at the centre of the National Water Initiative for a considerable period of time—the parliamentary secretary will remember that this was an initiative of the Howard government, not of Labor—and that, up until very recently, has been supported on a bipartisan basis. This bill continues the obsession that the Abbott government seems to have with abolishing all independent expert voices, particularly in these portfolios, established by this parliament to provide an arms-length independent voice on often very difficult, controversial and highly contested policy areas not just to the government but to this parliament and to the broader community. These are areas that are often the subject of significant contest in the community. The idea that the parliament will provide the community with a voice that the people could have faith was not affected by the politics of this chamber is something that this government seems utterly committed to tearing down.

The parliamentary secretary spoke a little bit about the water reform process that this country has been engaged in now for more than 20 years. This has often been after painful debate and, as far as possible, it has been a matter of bipartisan consensus between the two major parties. Although from time to time we differ on the detail of the water reform process, both major parties of government recognise that this is a central question for the future productivity of the nation and the health of some of our most important environmental assets—in particular, the Murray-Darling Basin. It is more than 20 years since the real beginning of national water reform was started with the 1994 COAG Water Reform Framework. Among other things, that framework separated water entitlements from land title, which set the foundation for the beginnings of the water market and also formalised the concept of environmental water.

Ten years later the Howard government, to their credit, put in place the National Water Initiative, which built on those very important reforms that flowed from the COAG agreement. The objectives of the National Water Initiative were to broaden and deepen the emerging water market; to provide much greater national consistency in entitlements to provide a spur to interstate training; to provide more detailed provision for environmental water; and to provide provision for dealing with over extraction. Those last two points are very important as the initiative came in the shadow of the millennium drought. The National Water Initiative also provided policy settings for urban water reform.

The establishment of the National Water Commission—which this bill proposes to abolish—was the first agreed action under the National Water Initiative. It was then funded by the Commonwealth, which would provide four members, with three members being nominated by state and territory parties to the initiative. These were to be specialist members—to take up the parliamentary secretary's point about the Productivity Commission, a body for which I have a very high regard—with particular qualifications and experience in general issues like auditing and evaluation and governance but in particular with respect to ecology and hydrology, among other things. The functions of the National Water Commission were to provide independent expert advice and guidance on the process of water reform. This would come in particular in the form of a two-yearly national assessment of the National Water Initiative, which the community and the parliament could have confidence would be conducted at arm's length from government and in an independent and objective expert way. From 2012 that biennial assessment of the National Water Initiative was shifted to be a three-yearly, or triennial, review but still with that same underpinning of objectivity, independence and expertise. Following the finalisation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan the commission added to its functions a five-yearly audit of the Basin Plan and, as I think the parliamentary secretary said, the associated water plans as well.

Legislation to establish the National Water Commission required that, under the COAG processes, a review of the commission's work be conducted by 2011. The legislation also provided that the commission would cease to exist in 2012 through the operation of a sunset provision. Pursuant to that legislation, the Labor government then in power initiated a review that was conducted by Dr David Rosalky which reported in 2011 consistent with the initiative, and that review recommended that the National Water Commission continue without a sunset for the duration of the National Water Initiative. Obviously, the National Water Initiative remains unconcluded.

The response of the Commonwealth at the time that that review was delivered was to accept the recommendations. We moved to remove the sunset clause to continue the operation of the Water Commission and, instead of a sunset clause, to provide for five-yearly reviews of the work of the commission, with some minor reframing of the role. The National Water Commission conducted its first audit of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in 2013, consistent with its legislative objectives. At that stage, the House will recall, the basin plan was still very new; it had only been finalised in November 2012, so it was a very new plan to be reviewed.

It is also important to note that, at the time of the delivery of the Rosalky review and the government's response to it, the major recommendations were very strongly supported by the then opposition, the coalition. The coalition voted for the amendments that flowed from the review's recommendations in the National Water Commission Amendment Act 2012. I can quote some supportive remarks that align much more with the Labor Party's position than the government's in relation to this bill. The then shadow parliamentary secretary in this area, Senator Birmingham, whom I know has been working in this policy area for many years, said at the time of the review being debated:

The NWC's role is integral to getting water reform right in this country at a much broader level.

…   …   …

… I very much value significant parts of the work of the National Water Commission. They have brought an academic rigour, as well as a practical assessment, to the operation and consideration of water policy in Australia.

…   …   …

The National Water Commission have a very valuable role to play.

…   …   …

As we go forward, their role in holding the states and the Commonwealth to account for actually delivering on water reform is critical. Their role in providing expert analysis and advice is absolutely critical.

…   …   …

… we need good, credible independent organisations such as the National Water Commission to call it as they see it, to call it based on the facts, to call it based on expert evidence and to hold governments to account for the key policy principles that they have set out.

With respect, I could not have said that better myself. This is utterly central to the community confidence, the confidence that stakeholders have in the national water reform process to have a body at the centre of it that can provide advice that everyone is confident is expert, independent and objective.

There was nothing from the coalition before 2013 to suggest that the views that Senator Birmingham as the parliamentary secretary in this area put to the Senate in 2012 had changed one iota. There was nothing whatsoever said before the election to suggest that the coalition had changed their views about the importance of the National Water Commission—remember, a creature of the Howard government's National Water Initiative, not a Labor body—one bit. The first that anyone—a member of the community, a stakeholder in the water reform process, anyone—heard that the government intended to abolish this highly reputable, independent expert body was, of course, after the delivery of the audit commission, a commission set up with a view to slashing an burning in the budget process rather than bringing a forensic expert eye to the very complex and highly contested area of water reform. The audit commission process is a familiar story in many different policy areas.

In addition to there being no warning about this sudden change of heart to jettison a creature of the Howard government's National Water Initiative and a body that was central to that water reform process, there was also no engagement with stakeholders. There was no engagement with the peak bodies in the water sector or the water reform process. There was no engagement with state and territory governments, particularly the other signatories to the basin plan. There was certainly no engagement with community and non-government organisations that have played such an active role in driving this parliament and governments at a state and Commonwealth level to pursue meaningful water reform. It was just dropped on everyone in the 2014 budget as so many different things were dropped on everyone with no warning.

Not only was it an ambush; but there was no detail as to what would happen to the various functions that either the Howard government had allocated to the National Water Commission during its creation or that had been added after the finalisation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. They just made it up as they went along. That is just so consistent with so many of the approaches of this government in different policy areas to the work of independent expert bodies designed not only to provide government with important policy advice or auditing and monitoring advice but also to provide that to the parliament, members of parliament who are not members of the government and community members who take an interest in often very complex, highly contested areas of policy in environmental policy, in climate change policy, in the highly contested area of water reform. It is a consistent theme of this government first of all to ambush those organisations and secondly to do everything they can to shut down those independent, objective voices and ensure that all of the advice, all of the information going to the community about these policy areas is channelled through a ministerial office or the Prime Minister's office itself. We on this side of the parliament have been consistent in standing up for the importance of that independent, objective and in many cases highly expert voice in these challenging policy areas.

The government finally did provide some detail as to what would happen to the different statutory functions of the National Water Commission, but only bit by bit—only by accretion. The key monitoring and audit functions around particularly the National Water Initiative and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which really were the whole reason for being for this National Water Commission, would be provided to the Productivity Commission. So the key monitoring work around the process of water reform, particularly the process of water reform as it applies in the Murray-Darling Basin but more broadly than that, including in urban water, would be provided to the Productivity Commission.

As I said earlier, I have a terribly high regard for the work of the Productivity Commission. Over the years that I have been lucky enough to be in this place, I have worked with them on a number of policy areas. I think their work is highly detailed. Their capacity to engage with the community is well demonstrated. But, at the end of the day, the Productivity Commission is not an expert body on water reform. The National Water Commission is the body with key expertise around water reform.

I note that the National Irrigators' Council has indicated support for this bill and support for the abolition of the National Water Commission on the basis that it would reduce the number of government agencies that are involved in the process of water reform. I also have a very high regard for the work of the National Irrigators' Council and enjoy and get great value from my engagement with that council on the, as I said, often very complex and highly contested issues associated with water reform. But, with respect, there is no reduction in the number of bodies that are now associated with water reform resulting from this bill and the abolition of one central commission designed to oversee this whole process. There is simply a disaggregation of the functions, spreading them between a whole bunch of different regulatory bodies. In this area of auditing and monitoring, there is simply the substitution of the Productivity Commission for the National Water Commission. There is no net reduction in the number of agencies with which the National Irrigators' Council and other bodies will need to engage; there is just the substitution of one generalist body, the Productivity Commission, for an expert body with specific expertise particularly in issues of ecology and hydrology.

The only other body to indicate support for this bill and for the abolition of the National Water Commission, in the Senate process at least, was the National Farmers' Federation. Again, this is a body for whom I have a terribly high regard. It is a body that has been a very constructive and deeply engaged player in the whole process of water reform for very obvious reasons: it goes to the utter heart of the health of the agricultural sector. But I have to say that its support ultimately for this bill and the abolition of the National Water Commission is tepid at best. The federation's initial response to the abolition of the commission was to reject the idea that this body be abolished. It was presumably only brought around by very furious lobbying by members of the government after the remit of the Productivity Commission was changed and made more specific. I congratulate the work of the federation in at least getting the government to provide some more specific expertise within the Productivity Commission to do the work previously done by the National Water Commission. But again, with respect, I disagree with the conclusion that the National Farmers' Federation has reached about this. I am convinced, and Labor is convinced, that the better approach to continuing the work of the National Water Initiative and the important work of water reform would be to keep that body of expertise in the National Water Commission.

Beyond the National Irrigators' Council and the National Farmers' Federation—two incredibly important players, I acknowledge that, in the process of water reform—every other stakeholder, as far as I can tell, is opposed to this bill. The two other significant peak bodies—the Australian Water Association and the Water Services Association of Australia—indicated quite strongly their opposition to the abolition of the National Water Commission. The Water Services Association of Australia in its evidence to the Senate inquiry around this bill said of the abolition that it:

… removes national water leadership and the fearless advice and independent custodianship of the National Water Initiative that the commission—

the Water Commission, not the Productivity Commission—

has been able to provide.

The other functions beyond the auditing and monitoring functions of the National Water Commission, as I said, have been scattered to the four winds. Some have been allocated to the government's department, so removing that idea of arms-length work being conducted by the National Water Commission. Some functions have been allocated to ABARES. Some other functions will simply disappear either immediately or in the relatively near future. For example, the reporting that the Water Commission used to undertake on the performance of water utilities will in relation to rural water utilities disappear immediately and in relation to urban water utilities be conducted by the Bureau of Meteorology for 12 months and then also disappear.

This lack of regard for the importance of urban water policy, which was a part of the National Water Initiative, reflects this longstanding blind spot that the Liberal Party and the coalition generally has had on the Commonwealth's important role in urban water. Particularly Peter Costello, the Treasurer in the Howard government, rejected any idea that the Commonwealth would be a substantial, active player in the process of urban water, particularly through funding a range of different projects that contribute so much to the process of water reform in our cities. Labor's record in relation to urban water stands in stark contrast to the approach that the coalition has been taking in this area, back to and including the Howard government.

The abolition of the National Water Commission is also for Labor a disturbing signal around the government's commitment to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The National Water Commission was a very, very important part of the architecture of the plan to ensure that all parties to it—state and territory governments in particular—were doing their part to ensure that we achieved its objectives. This is a plan that was ultimately only able to be brought together because, as I have said in this place before, of bipartisan support between the major parties in this parliament and the support of all of the basin states and territories. Only in that way do we have a plan that will be able to endure through the good times and the bad times—through some of the tough times that, unfortunately, we know will come again for the south-eastern part of Australia.

We know that there is still much work to do to achieve the objectives of the plan. I read in the paper that the Bureau of Meteorology only last week briefed the government that basin water storage, for example, is now down to 43 per cent from 55 per cent last year. We also know from bureau advice that, unfortunately, there is likely to be a significant El Nino event approaching in the very near future. So there is still much work to do. It is critically important that this government, the parliament, and the state and territory governments do not take their foot off the accelerator in terms of achieving the objectives that people, particularly the community stakeholders with skin in the game in this part of Australia, have worked so hard to pull together.

In summary, Labor continue to oppose this bill, as we did in the Senate. We opposed the abolition of the National Water Commission. As a review only a few years ago found—a review whose recommendations were supported by the coalition when in opposition—the commission has been very, very important body at the centre of national water reform. No case has been made out for abolishing yet another independent expert body. Yet another independent expert body bites the dust on the watch of this government. There was no indication from the government before the election that the commission was proposed to be abolished. There has been only limited support given to its abolition within the sector, and so Labor remains opposed to the government's plans.