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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 59

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (3:47 PM) —I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the National Water Commission Bill 2004 and move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

National Water Commission Bill 2004

It is my great pleasure to speak to this Bill to establish a new national institution dedicated to advancing the sustainable use of water in Australia.

The Bill establishes the National Water Commission as an independent statutory body, with two key functions:

assessing the implementation and promoting the objectives and outcomes of the National Water Initiative Intergovernmental Agreement; and

advising on financial assistance to be provided by the Commonwealth under the Australian Water Fund.

I want to provide some further context for each of these inter-related roles for the new Commission. First, let me place them in the wider context of water in Australia.

Water in Australia

It's well known that we are the driest inhabited continent on earth, with the second highest per capita water usage of any country in the world.

The basic fact is that our water resources do not match the patterns of either our production, or our urban settlements. Just over a quarter of the continent accounts for around 80 per cent of Australia's total run-off—predominantly Tasmania and in the northern parts of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The most intensively irrigated river basin—the Murray Darling Basin—comprises nearly 14 per cent of Australia's area, but accounts for only 6 per cent run-off.

Add to this picture the diverse nature of our water resources. As the preamble to the National Water Initiative puts it:

“Australia's water resources are highly variable, reflecting the range of climatic conditions and terrain nationally. In addition, the level of development in Australia's water resources ranges from heavily regulated working rivers and groundwater resources, through to rivers and aquifers in almost pristine condition.”

A further layer can be seen in the pattern of Australia's water use. Agriculture uses around 70 per cent of total water used in Australia. Domestic consumption and industrial activity make up the remainder. And of course, water provides important amenity value to many Australians for recreation and tourism. Water also has inherent ecological value, and cultural value to some indigenous communities.

Against this background, there are several factors converging in Australia now to place enormous pressure on some of our major water resources. These factors include: drought, our fast-growing cities, dryland salinity, continued growth in irrigated agriculture, and climate change. Moreover, we have an obligation to future generations of Australians to be wise stewards of those water resources which are not yet showing signs of stress or overuse (for example in northern Australia).

Taken as a whole, this picture of Australia's water resources simply underscores the need to improve our national effort in managing these resources. This is why water reform remains so critical.

National Water Initiative

At the outset, let me say that the Australian Government supports an effective National Water Commission because it is critical to driving continued reform of water management and water use in Australia.

Truly national water reform commenced with the original COAG Water Reform Framework agreed by Commonwealth and State governments in 1994. Governments have extended these commitments, and raised them significantly by signing the National Water Initiative in June 2004. In particular, the establishment of investment certainty for water users was identified as being a fundamental requirement for the realisation of National Water Initiative objectives.

It's worth noting that for over a decade now, the cause of national water reform has enjoyed strong bipartisan support at the federal and state political levels. This reflects too a coalescing of the views of almost all stakeholders—irrigators, scientists, environmental groups—around the need to refresh the original COAG agenda through the National Water Initiative.

The introduction of the National Water Commission Bill today indicates the Government's commitment to getting on with the job. I know that the recently appointed CEO of the interim Commission, Mr Ken Matthews, is already meeting with State officials to update them on establishment of the Commission and to indicate the partnership approach which he intends to bring to the Commission's operation. And the Government stands ready to receive from State and Territory governments their nominations to fill the three Commissioner positions, as agreed in the National Water Initiative.

The Government's intention is that the National Water Commission will be a key driver for national water reform. To achieve this, the Bill assigns several key functions to the Commission, including to:

evaluate governments' progress in implementing the outcomes, objectives and actions under the National Water Initiative, and report to COAG on their progress;

conduct the scheduled 2005 assessment of commitments under the National Competition Policy water reforms, which was to have been undertaken by the National Competition Council; and

undertake an initial stocktake of Australia's water resources and water management arrangements.

Australian Water Fund

The National Water Commission's role in advancing water reform is not restricted to these functions. Importantly, the Bill also assigns to the Commission a central role in relation to the Australian Water Fund.

The Government has pledged $2 billion over five years to establish the Australian Water Fund. This is in addition to the $200m provided to recover water for the Living Murray Initiative, and significant resourcing for the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality. The significance of this decision is that there are now major, additional, national resources available to help advance the objectives and outcomes of the National Water Initiative.

In developing the Fund, the Government has recognised that progress needs to be made at several different levels; hence there are three quite distinct funding programmes all aimed at achieving practical on-the ground outcomes.

Firstly, $1.6 billion will be invested over five years in the Water Smart Australia Programme to accelerate the uptake of smart technologies and practices in water use across Australia.

The Government has identified a number of projects that would be funded, subject to a number of conditions such as contributions from State governments and the private sector; and provision of appropriate due diligence (in other words evidence that projects are viable). These projects include:

securing the long-term future of South Australia's water supply;

assisting NSW and Victoria with structural adjustment for over-allocated groundwater systems; and

developing a viable Wimmera-Mallee pipeline project to replace the world's largest open channel water supply system with a network of pipelines; and

investing in water savings and efficiency measures in the Macalister Irrigation District to recover water for stressed rivers.

Investment under the Australian Water Fund will be made on the basis that it is consistent with, and helps to achieve, the principles, outcomes and actions of the National Water Initiative and the Living Murray Initiative. State and Territory governments which have signed up to, and are implementing, the NWI will be eligible to make bids, as well as local authorities and private proponents.

The second programme to be funded from the Australian Water Fund will see investment of $200 million in the Raising National Water Standards Programme. The programme will lift Australia's national capacity to measure, monitor and manage water resources over the long term. Investment under this programme will assist in achieving the outcomes of the NWI and will support projects such as a nationally consistent water accounting system, and working with communities to conserve rivers with high environmental values.

The Commission will make recommendations on projects put forward under these programmes of the Fund for the Government's final decision. The Commission will also administer these programmes of the Fund.

The third programme is the Water Wise Communities Programme, which will invest $200 million over five years to promote a culture of wise water use. Community organisations will be provided with grants of up to $50,000 allocated on a competitive basis to deliver on-the-ground results that increase water use efficiency, improve river or groundwater health or improve community education on water saving.

The Department of Environment and Heritage will administer the Water Wise Communities Programme in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

The Australian Government's intention is that by combining the reform evaluation role and the programme delivery role, the National Water Commission will play a key and constructive part in improving water use and management in Australia.

National Water Commission

Lastly, let me say something about the way in which the Government expects the Commission itself to operate.

As mentioned earlier, the Bill allows for Commissioners to be nominated by the Commonwealth, and by the States and Territories. The Bill also requires the Commissioners to act in the best interests of the Commission—it certainly does not envisage a disparate set of Commissioners each representing and advocating different sectoral or government interests. The cause of water reform needs to rise above that, and so does the Commission.

The Bill also provides that the Commission meet at least 8 times per year, and with a full and ambitious work programme.

By placing this body in the Prime Minister's portfolio, the Commission will be able to bring to water issues the profile and significance which that entails. The Prime Minister has identified water as one of his top personal priorities for this term of Government.

The National Water Commission will be instrumental in ensuring that water issues in Australia continue to capture the public's imagination and energy in working towards practical water solutions. The importance of water to securing Australia's economic and environmental future demands no less.


Tax Laws Amendment (Superannuation Reporting) Bill 2004

This Bill makes amendments to the Superannuation Guarantee (Administration) Act 1992.

The Howard Government has demonstrated our commitment to a superannuation system offering choice of fund, incentives to save and flexibility to assist people to retire when they are ready. For instance, under the co-contribution scheme—which the Labor party promised to abolish at the last election—the Government contributes $1.50 for every $1 of voluntary personal contributions, to a maximum $1500 for employees on incomes up to $28,000.

This Bill demonstrates this Government's commitment to reducing compliance costs for employers. As announced in the Prime Minister's statement titled Committed to Small Business on 6 July this year, we are removing the superannuation guarantee reporting requirement from the superannuation guarantee arrangements for all employers, not just small business employers. It is proposed that these amendments should take effect from 1 January 2005. Employees will still be provided with information on at least an annual basis from their superannuation fund and many will receive information more frequently on payslips as required by various Australian workplace legislation provisions and awards.

Full details of the amendments in this Bill are contained in the explanatory memorandum.

I commend this Bill.

Debate (on motion by Senator George Campbell) adjourned.