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Tuesday, 26 May 2015
Page: 4505


Mr PASIN (Barker) (13:02): Before I begin my contribution on this legislation, I just make the point that it is incredibly difficult to stand in this place and listen to members opposite belittle the professionalism and capability of the Productivity Commission and the Department of the Environment. But I will move on.

I rise to speak in support of the National Water Commission (Abolition) Bill 2015. As a proud South Australian representative for virtually all of my state's basin communities, few others appreciate the value of Australia's natural water resources more than I. But, as the federal representative for practically all of the communities in South Australia who live on and depend on the River Murray for their livelihoods, I also know firsthand the crucial importance of ensuring that these natural resources are managed properly for all Australians, not just the states who get first dibs on the water upstream or who have the largest voting blocs in this place or who are acting in a narrow, parochial manner. This is a national asset and it must be managed in the national interest. This country, particularly my electorate, is highly dependent on the fair, efficient and productive allocation of water to ensure our ongoing national prosperity and the living standards of not just those in the agricultural sectors, although those sectors are crucially important, but also those in the tourism sectors, which also depend upon the health of the river to be able to attract visitors.

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. The Abbott government is committed to continuing to progress national water reform and to supporting and promoting the implementation of the National Water Initiative. However, it is our firm belief that this should be done as efficiently as possible. As such, the government has determined that it is no longer necessary to retain a separate body to undertake the functions of the National Water Commission. Instead, and 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.

I pause my remarks to make the point that I listened briefly to the shadow environment minister—it was all I could bear, with respect. As I heard him speak, I identified an immediate error. He spoke of the effective cessation of national performance reporting for urban water. That is in fact an error. The reality is that the national performance reporting for urban water will continue to be undertaken. Indeed, it was undertaken in the 2013-14 year by the Bureau of Meteorology and funded by the states. It is my understanding that the states have agreed to continue that funding for two more years and into the future. One wonders whether, if this was an issue of such importance to the shadow environment minister that he raised it in this place, he might have inquired with the government as to what is occurring with the national performance reporting for urban water, and he perhaps would have been set straight.

I note that, in the original legislation that created the National Water Commission, it was always intended that the commission cease operations by 2012. Whilst this was extended, I think it worth noting that clearly this legislative infrastructure was designed to achieve certain specific time-limited, performance-oriented objectives that, once completed, would remove need for that infrastructure to continue. So, in effect, by legislating for the commission's abolition, we are merely enacting the original intent of the legislation from 2004 and intuitively acknowledging that it has completed the purpose for which it was designed, with future challenges met with an equally appropriate and considered policy response.

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 1 January 2015. The bill delivers on the Commonwealth's commitment announced in the 2014-15 budget to cease the operations of the NWC by the end of 2014, while transferring key functions to existing Commonwealth agencies. The abolition of the NWC is expected to result in a saving of close to $21 million over the forward estimates, thus further improving the budget bottom line. The findings of the Commission of Audit were taken into account in making this decision, which recommended the abolition of the NWC as a stand-alone agency.

The National Water Commission's roles are of a monitoring and reporting nature; it does not deliver programs or have any approval or regulatory functions. The National Water Commission has reported to the Commonwealth and state and territory jurisdictions on the national benefits that resulted from the implementation by governments of the National Water Initiative, such as the creation of water entitlements as a tradeable asset, the development of water markets, improved environmental protection for our rivers and wetlands and improved urban water security for our towns and cities.

The National Water Commission has made a significant contribution to water reform over the last decade. Its role in reporting on the rate of reform has been also significant and all its staff should be extremely proud of their work. Given both the substantial progress already made in water reform and the current fiscal environment, there is no longer adequate justification for a stand-alone agency to monitor Australia's progress on water reform. In line with reform priorities to improve efficiencies across the Australian government and to improve the budgetary outlook, the NWC will cease its functions following the release of its assessment of national water reform in October this year. The budget does not provide funding beyond December, and the winding up of the NWC is well advanced.

The government reaffirms its commitment to the National Water Initiative and will ensure that the key audit and review functions required under the initiative and the Water Act 2007 are continued in a rigorous manner and with appropriate independent oversight. The triennial assessments of progress toward achieving the National Water Initiative objectives and outcomes by state and territory governments and the independent audit of implementation of the Basin Plan, and associated water-resource plans, will continue as statutory functions, but will now 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 Productivity Commission will also undertake independent audits on implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, as required by the Water Act. Retention of this function is necessary to ensure continuing public confidence in the implementation of the Basin Plan.

As the Productivity Commission collates performance data for other national agreements and national partnership agreements, it is well placed to take on the audit of progress in implementing the Basin Plan from 2018. The triennial assessments of the National Water Initiative implementation and producing a biennial National Water Planning Report Card. By allocating the assessment and audit functions to the Productivity Commission, stakeholders will benefit from the Productivity Commission's reputation for independence, the confidence in which it is held by the Australian public and governments, as well as its performance and benchmarking expertise. The government is confident that the Productivity Commission will strengthen and improve the reporting and analysis of the progress of water reform across Australia.

In addition to the statutory functions that will be transferred to the Productivity Commission, the Department of the Environment will take on responsibility for assessing milestone payments to Murray-Darling Basin states against the performance milestones specified in the National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Murray Darling Basin Reform and for 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 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. The retention of these key functions by existing agencies was flagged in the 2014-15 budget papers, including the transfer of appropriate funding to support these functions, and will ensure the commitment by all governments to deliver on agreed reforms is realised.

I will now turn to the details of the bill. The bill provides that certain key assessment and audit functions of the National Water Commission, which 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 the 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 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 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 closure of the National Water Commission's activities. The bill and other measures put in place by the government will ensure continuation of all important functions of the commission in a more efficient and effective manner.

I would like to conclude my remarks by highlighting some of the commentary around this legislation. I appreciate the support outlined by the National Irrigators Council, who state that the transfer of National Water Commission's functions to other agencies would 'rationalise arrangements which are currently sub-optimal'. The council goes on to note that 'the Productivity Commission has a proven track record in providing sound, independent advice to government on all aspects in the economy, including environmental issues'. I think this last comment is particularly important because, predictably, the Greens are opposed to the government's changes—as is Labor—specifically on the grounds that, in the Greens' opinion, these changes will undermine the integrity of the advice that is provided from the public service.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I seem to be ending where I started. It is ultimately a matter for those opposite, the Labor-Greens alliance and others, to belittle the hard work of public servants at the Productivity Commission and to question their ability to act professionally and in accordance with their responsibilities. It is not a view I share; in fact I believe that if we are seriously trying to evaluate what is the most rational, productive, forward-looking approach to the allocation of a scarce and valuable resource, as water is, then surely it is the body of experts, which has been designed with precisely those principles in mind and which has a proven record in providing high-quality, independent advice to government without fear or favour, we should turn to. I commend this bill to the House.