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Tuesday, 26 May 2015
Page: 4502


Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (12:47): I rise today to join with my Labor colleagues in opposing the National Water Commission Abolition Bill that is before the House today. This bill abolishes what has been an independent, expert agency with important functions for both urban water services and indeed the Murray-Darling Basin. The bill continues this government's seemingly endless attack on independent, well-functioning bodies. It is a worrying trend of destruction of agencies and centralisation of assessment and power. Whether it be in the environment portfolio, the arts, infrastructure, health or others, this government seems determined to break down important specialised advice and assessment structures and, in their place, shift functions to underequipped bodies or simply claim ownership of the functions themselves. Labor did not support the abolition of the National Water Commission in the other place, where this bill originated, and we will not support it in this chamber either. We believe that the commission in fact has important roles left to play.

The National Water Commission was created back in 2004 under the National Water Commission Act—indeed, under the Howard government. The intention was for the commission to perform important functions in relation to the National Water Initiative intergovernmental agreement. Some of those functions included, importantly, providing independent assessment of the progress of governments on water reform and to promote the objectives and outcomes of the National Water Initiative; auditing the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, or the Basin Plan, as it is commonly known; assessing the performance of the basin states in implementing agreed milestones under the National Partnership on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin; playing a role in the assessment of Carbon Farming Initiative proposals; and publishing water market reports and national performance reports for metropolitan, regional and rural water agencies.

Two of these functions are indeed fundamental to the management of water resources in this country and which under this bill would be handed to the Productivity Commission. The first is around the triennial assessment of progress and implementation of the National Water Initiative, and the second is the five-yearly audits of implementation of the Basin Plan and associated water resource plans. Handing these functions to the Productivity Commission ignores the expertise and experience of the National Water Commission. As the shadow minister made very clear previously, the Productivity Commission has a really important role in Australia. Indeed, it functions especially well around its area of core business, which is to conduct assessments of the economic and social impacts of economic reforms. Unfortunately, that does not guarantee depth of experience or knowledge in the very niche area of water management, and that is one of the problems Labor has with this bill.

The Australian Conservation Foundation's assessment of the bill, which suggested giving responsibility for water management to the Productivity Commission, was indeed short-sighted and a backward step in the absence of substantial changes to the mandate and operation of the commission. The Productivity Commission is just not equipped to undertake the audit and assessment functions that the National Water Commission currently undertakes, in part because the Productivity Commission simply is not an auditing agency. There are other agencies that currently exist that are better equipped to undertake that kind of function—for example, the National Water Commission, which, regrettably, is the one this government is choosing to abolish. It is telling that neither of the key water services peak bodies—the Water Services Association of Australia, which includes my local water service provider, Hunter Water, from my area in Newcastle, or the Australian Water Association—support the abolition of the National Water Commission. In fact, during the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill, there was very little support for the abolition of the commission from any of the stakeholders providing evidence. The urban water industry wants the commission retained, environmental scientists want the commission retained, and traditional land owners want the commission retained.

I do acknowledge that there was some broad support for the abolition of the commission during the inquiry; however, the support was far from unconditional. I bring the House's attention to the National Farmers Federation. The shadow minister spoke of them earlier. Whilst giving some broad support to the abolition, the National Farmers Federation expressed serious concerns regarding water expertise within the Productivity Commission and its ability and willingness to engage stakeholders in a meaningful and ongoing basis. At least some of those concerns have been addressed in part by the government amendments which we see being incorporated into the bill before us today. Yet, despite the amendments that have been passed in the Senate, the expertise, experience and goodwill that the National Water Commission has built up over many years within the water industry and beyond will be lost if this bill is passed. We should make no mistake about that. That is what is at risk. It is very clear across the board that key organisations in the urban water industry and their members see a very high value attached to the National Water Commission and agree that their industry needs the kind of assessment and reporting functions that the National Water Commission currently provides.

It is not just the water services industry that will be the poorer if this bill is passed. Indeed, the Murray-Darling Basin and the plan that is giving life back to this vital environmental and agricultural jewel in Australia will also suffer. Handing the Basin Plan audit functions to the Productivity Commission will not only see the loss of important expertise but will also see a statutory body that is not known for its environmental credentials undertaking five-yearly audits of what is fundamentally a plan to enhance the environmental health of the basin. There should be no mistaking this move by the government. It is another attack on the environment and further erosion of Labor's plan to bring the Murray-Darling Basin back to good health. A recent report from the Australian Conservation Foundation on the Murray-Darling Basin shows that it is still not safe and that much more work has to be done.

The 2014 report, Restoring our lifeblood: progress on returning water to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin, shows that just two of 20 indicators are tracking well and, worryingly, seven indicators were given a red light, which represents imminent or serious risks that have the potential to erode the delivery of positive environmental outcomes within the basin. The red light was given to the following indicators, and these should flag a very serious warning to the government. The first red light was around subsidising water saving projects. The second was the 450 gigalitres of water for the Environment Trust Fund. Next were groundwater SDLs; the cost barriers to environmental water delivery; and connecting important areas, and this red light was directly attributed to the Abbott government's funding cuts to Landcare and to the National Reserve System and the abolition of the Biodiversity Fund. Next were Indigenous water rights. Despite significant discussion and research, there has been very limited progress towards establishing important cultural water entitlements within the Murray-Darling Basin. Another red light directly attributed to this government is the removal and erosion of institutions and responsibilities that drive water reform in Australia. The foundation said that this will have lasting negative impacts on the effective management of our water resources, particularly those in the Murray-Darling Basin.

I would also like to draw the House's attention to some incredible work that the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists have undertaken in Australia. I flag with the House some of the concerns that they have raised with regard to the future of Australia's water reform. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists noted that the National Water Initiative is 10 years old in Australia, but there are a lot of signs right now that indicate we are departing very quickly from the strong leadership of the last decade around this initiative. This is leadership that has, until now, been on a bipartisan basis. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists looked at the abolition of the National Water Commission in particular and lamented any attempts to abolish it. It highlighted that the commission was indeed central to guiding the reforms over the last decade. It had the core tasks, as I mentioned earlier, of auditing progress on the national reform agenda, auditing the outcomes of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and, importantly, advising the Council of Australian Governments on further opportunities for improvement. The National Water Commission also funded new knowledge on water management and assisted state governments to implement reforms. I would suggest to the House that these will be very difficult tasks for the Productivity Commission, which lacks expertise in this area and does not have a body of scientists working with it in this area to be able to give sage advice to state governments and also the Council of Australian Governments. We are going to run into some serious problems there.

I would also like to look at some insight provided by Environs Kimberley with regard to their experience of the National Water Commission. I note that in their submission they wanted to highlight the importance of the commission's role in providing that independent, expert advice on matters of national water reform and, indeed, in monitoring and assessing the value of the National Water Initiative. Given the location of the Kimberley in the top north-west part of Australia, they have a very particular interest in Indigenous rights and interests in water. From the outset, Environs Kimberley noted that the National Water Commission has been a very strong supporter and promoter of Indigenous rights and interests in water and, indeed, Indigenous participation in water planning and management. Across northern Australia, Indigenous people manage over 40 per cent of the land and waters and have an interest in well over 80 per cent. The National Water Commission has supported the establishment of bodies such as the Indigenous Water Policy Group and the Indigenous Community Water Facilitator Network, which have been utterly indispensable in engaging local people and their representative organisations in water reform processes.

Again, I would suggest the Productivity Commission is going to have great difficulty in being a leader in this area of Indigenous rights and interests, for no reason other than that it lacks the expertise and skills to do so. The National Water Commission has played a vital leadership role in national water reform by engaging important stakeholder groups like the Indigenous people in northern Australia who have some land and/or water ownership rights or who, through their traditional customs, have a clear interest in more than 80 per cent of those waters and lands. Abolishing the National Water Commission demonstrates the short-sighted nature of the government's thinking.

In conclusion, I again put on record that the National Water Commission does vital work and adds significant value to water management and reform in Australia. We can ill afford to lose this body of knowledge and expertise.