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Tuesday, 26 May 2015
Page: 4508


Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (13:14): In beginning my remarks today on the National Water Commission (Abolition) Bill 2015, I want to reflect on the contribution made by the previous speaker. I disagree that the job is done and there is little work left for the National Water Commission to do. Spend five minutes in Murray country and you learn very quickly that there is still a great body of work that needs to be done when it comes to managing water.

There is a need to make sure that we take on board all views in regard to the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It is vital that there be an independent assessment, critique and engagement of these ideas and plans. This bill seeks to abolish the independent expert agency that has the important functions not just of urban water services but also of the Murray-Darling Basin. As we have heard, people on this side of the House will not support the abolition of the National Water Commission, and we did not support it in the other place. That is because we believe that the commission still has an important role left to play and that the work has not been finished in terms of water reform.

The National Water Commission was created in 2004 under the National Water Commission Act and has since then been working to implement needed water reform. The functions that are performed include providing independent assessment on the progress of government on water reforms and promoting the objectives and outcomes of the National Water Initiative. Again, we have not yet finished the job, so we still need the relevant agency to provide the independent assessment on how we are going with implementing the plan. I do not think that it is any surprise to many in this House that water will always be a very tough issue to find middle ground on. We do have competing interests. We need to ensure that we have independent expert advice that helps us to navigate our way through this complex policy area.

One of the other functions of the National Water Commission is the auditing and implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It also has the important role of assessing the performance of the basin states in implementing the agreed milestones under the National Partnership agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. These are the areas that I wish to highlight in my contribution today.

I did have the opportunity recently of heading up to the Murray area, where I got the chance to meet with farmers, producers and local environmentalists to talk through some of the concerns that they have about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It reminded me how much work we still have to do to ensure that we get the balance right and that we are balancing the environmental, social and economic issues associated with water in the region. This bill seeks to hand to the Productivity Commission two of the functions that are fundamental in managing water resources in this country. I am very concerned about what impact that will have on the rollout of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the state of Victoria. The Productivity Commission is not equipped to undertake the audits and assessment functions of the National Water Commission. Further, it does not have the expertise, knowledge or relationships that have been built up over time within the National Water Commission.

During the time that I spent visiting and meeting with farmers in the Murray, I met with rice farmers. I know that rice farmers can sometimes get a bit of a bad rap, but when you meet with rice farmers they know all too well the importance of having water and having a water plan that supports their crop. When I was there, they said that they have had a good crop this year. That means that the future cropping that they can have on their land is secure.

In my visit, I also caught up with Kagome Australia. For those who do not know Kagome Australia, they are the largest single grower of processing tomatoes and Australia's largest tomato processing company. In fact, they supply almost 45 per cent of Australia's domestic consumption of processing tomatoes and assist many of our large Australian manufacturers with the supply of tomatoes. You just pop in there, and they have shelves and shelves and shelves of Masterfoods and other tomato based products where they provide some of the local content. They have an annual revenue of A$50 million, and they are increasing the proportion generated in exports to Asia—and in particular to Japan, Thailand and Indonesia. So they are one of those regional success stories that we want to see grow.

They have been proactive in engaging the Commonwealth and in engaging the state. As part of their top five recommendations in their submission to the agricultural competitiveness white paper of this government, they listed water and the management of water resources as their No. 1 issue. They state in their submission the need for there to be transparency and the need for there to be better communication, particularly in relation to decisions that the government makes to trade in temporary water. They talk about the impact that temporary water trading prices has not just on their particular enterprise but on the entire region when it comes to growing. The Kagome example highlights the need for more work to be done in terms of managing our water. The Kagome example highlights the issues that that they have raised and the need for there to be an ongoing independent body to monitor of the rollout of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The Murray Darling Association has many more examples. In the association's briefing notes that they provided to parliamentarians as recently as last sitting fortnight, they referred several times to the need for impacts to be transparent and measured via agreed monitoring, evaluation and reporting when it comes to the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Some of the issues that the association raised conflict with other issues that have been raised by other organisations, and that is why we still need the independence of this organisation to remain. Some of the concerns that they have raised, and these are the concerns that they have raised with parliamentarians, include the current price of temporary water and the effect that it has on agriculture in the region. They talk about the commodification of water and the impact water prices are having on farming, particularly in the Murray region. They talk about the need for water to be valued and managed in the basin as a national resource and not as a commodity.

The Murray Darling Association talks about the need, with regard to the Water Act of 2007, for independent, evidence based monitoring, evaluation and review which is required to assess the effectiveness of achieving social, economic and environmental objectives of the Basin Plan. What better way to do that independent monitoring, to ensure that it is evidence based, to work with the local partners we have in these regions and to consult broadly than through what we currently have—which this bill seeks to abolish—and that is the National Water Commission. The National Water Commission, as I have outlined, is the appropriate body to provide that independent assessment of how our states are going with regard to water reform. It is not that long ago that we had the big campaigns in Victoria, where we saw the National Water Plan—one of the versions—being torn up and burnt. It is not that long ago that we had the Plug the Pipe campaign. But what we saw in the last government, and what we saw through national partnerships and through the states coming together, was the implementation of a plan that was agreed. We need to ensure that that plan is bedded down and has every chance of succeeding, that it consults broadly and not just with the environmental groups, and not just with the Murray Darling Association or the farmers, and that it brings people together and provides the independent assessment of how we are going as a country, as states and as a Commonwealth, in implementing important national water reform.

The National Water Commission does important work and it adds significant value to water management in this country. Since the very first implementation of the National Water Commission, it has really sought to bring together all of the key stakeholders. The transferring of these functions to the Productivity Commission ignores the expertise and the experience of the National Water Commission. The Productivity Commission, as I said, is not equipped to undertake the audits and the functions of the National Water Commission. Nobody, for a moment, is criticising the public servants that work for the Productivity Commission. They do good work and they are doing a lot of work for this government. We are saying that we need to continue to have an independent body that has the experience and the expertise in water. This particular National Water Commission have built the relationships. They are working hard and their job of bedding down water reform is not yet done. Environmental scientists agree and want the National Water Commission to be retained. Traditional owners agree and want the National Water Commission to be retained. The urban water industry agrees and wants the National Water Commission to be retained. Even groups such as the Farmers' Federation have expressed concerns with regard to water expertise within the Productivity Commission and its ability and willingness to engage stakeholders on an ongoing basis. All these groups involved in water want to ensure that they continue to be engaged in national water reform. Yes, the government has addressed some of these issues and they have incorporated some of these amendments. However, they do not go far enough. We still need to have the independence of the National Water Commission to ensure that the job actually gets finished. Handing the Basin Plan audits function to the Productivity Commission will not only see the loss of important expertise; it will also see a statutory body that is not known for its environmental credentials undertake five-year audits of what is fundamentally a plan to enhance the environmental health of the basin. It is another attack on our environment, and a further erosion of the plan to bring the Murray-Darling Basin back to health.

For as long as I can remember being involved in politics, Labor has been committed to seeing health restored to the Murray—whether it be Peter Beattie in the early years talking about Cubbie Station or whether it be Simon Crean in his budget reply speech back in 2003, Labor has been talking about the need for water reform and the need for us to work with the states to ensure the health of the Murray. In my time up in Murray country, I really learnt a lot by being out on the ground and talking directly with farmers and environmentalists. I learnt one thing: without water we do not have strong, resilient communities in these parts of Victoria. We need to have a strong, robust water reform and we need to ensure that we continue to consult with the agencies, the organisations, the people and the communities that rely on water. We can reach a good balance, and we saw that in the reforms that had been adopted and agreed to at the national level. But we need to continue to work with these communities to ensure that we have good outcomes, and to ensure the continued importance of the original objectives to (1) restore health to the Murray, (2) ensure that we have good environmental outcomes, and (3) balance that against our agricultural plans.

I call on this government to consider the contributions that have made on this issue, and I ask that they not proceed with abolishing the National Water Commission, because, as I have outlined, we still need to do a lot of work to ensure that the national approach and reforms to water do proceed, we need to continue to have independent assessment and advice on the progress of governments on water reform, and we need the commission to continue to promote the objectives and the outcomes of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Debate interrupted.