National Water Commission
CHAIR: Welcome. Would you like to make a short statement?
Ms Olsson : No, thank you.
CHAIR: Then we will go straight to questions.
Senator RHIANNON: Has the National Water Commission been consulted in relation to any of the government's initiatives to build dams and other water infrastructure projects in Australia?
Ms Olsson : Not over this recent period, no.
Senator RHIANNON: When you say 'recent period'-
Ms Olsson : I mean not under this government.
Senator RHIANNON: I noted in the media release, with today's date on it, that you say:
Given what we have already learnt, the Commission also recommends that governments invest in water infrastructure only after rigorous cost-benefit analysis.
Can you outline the key issues that you believe need to be addressed when looking at dam proposals? In particular, we have the environmental pressures, economic pressures. Could you summarise how one would approach what you set out as the need for cost-benefit analysis?
Ms Olsson : The commission is supportive of water development and water infrastructure, but they are keen that some of the overallocation issues or unviable infrastructure issues of the past are not repeated. So, the kinds of issues we would be looking at would be the hydrological capacity of the dam, the economic viability, the capacity of the users to pay the ongoing costs of the dam, the effects on downstream users or other water rights that are held, the environmental impacts-so, basically a robust water planning framework and a business case with a particular piece of infrastructure.
Senator RHIANNON: Are there any examples in Australia where you feel that that has been followed as thoroughly as you set out?
Ms Olsson : Yes. I am sure there would be. I would have trouble coming up with one off the top of my head, but I think some of the recent developments perhaps in Tasmania or elsewhere would meet those criteria. But we would need to-
Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice?
Ms Olsson : Yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Just an example of what you would see as good practice, consistent with what you are outlining there-
Ms Olsson : Yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for that. If the Water Commission is wound up, how will the sustainability aspects of such proposals be assessed?
Senator Birmingham : It is not the role of the commission at present to assess the sustainability aspects of a particular proposal, so there would be no change, in essence, in terms of the environmental assessments that a dam or major water infrastructure proposal would have to go through.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for clarifying that. Considering that factor, how would you see that the sustainability aspects of the proposals would be undertaken if you are successful in winding up the NWC?
Senator Birmingham : Noting, as I just said, the winding up of the NWC is irrelevant to the issue in particular that you are raising, proposals for major new storages, major new infrastructure proposals, go through assessment under the EPBC Act federally if they relate to matters of national environmental significance. The planning around water resource allocation would usually be undertaken at the state level. Officials may wish to add something in terms of the relativities of those state processes around the country, but that is where the constitution vests responsibility for water planning and water resource allocation. If-and this is straying into the hypothetical-as a result of some of the white paper processes you were talking about and that are in the media today the government were to decide to put in place some sort of incentive payments for infrastructure proposals to go ahead, then I would anticipate that we would be, of course, applying rigorous requirements around any applications for such money to ensure that they were compliant with the type of sustainability issues we would expect to be addressed, in particular the sustainability of the water resource plan in question. Certainly, there are some statements in the green papers for northern Australia and agricultural competitiveness. I think that both touch on the type of sustainability measures that you would expect to have to be applied but, ultimately, the assessment of those things is done at a state level, as has been the case in the past.
Senator RHIANNON: Ms Olsson, can you summarise the areas of expertise that your staff covered before the intention to wind up the NWC was announced.
Ms Olsson : We had a number of people who had worked in water management or water planning at the state level. We had a number of people who had worked in water matters in industry, and people with an experience in management of public sector programs. We have a number of people with doctorates in things such as freshwater ecology, or a number of people who were trained as environmental scientists or had expertise in hydrology-a range of scientific disciplines as well as administrative skills related to water management.
Senator RHIANNON: Is it a fair assumption that when the NWC was taken up there was consideration given to those areas of expertise, that they complemented each other and the work could be done thoroughly?
Ms Olsson : Yes.
Senator RHIANNON: I understood that the National Water Commission was due to report on the Murray Darling Basin Plan in 2015, but I think that there have been talks that it would now be 2018. Is that the case, and where is that suggestion coming from? I am really trying to understand the process that is going on here at the moment.
Ms Olsson : Under the Water Act, our original audit of the basin plan was due early in 2013. Because of the somewhat delayed making of the plan, which was not made until November 2012, we were unable to do an implementation audit; there simply had not been enough implementation, so instead we did an assessment of the state of preparedness for implementation. Our intention was to come back in two years, so in 2015, and look at the early implementation steps and undertake the full audit which had originally been proposed under the Water Act. I understand that the bill proposes that the Productivity Commission receive that reference by the end of 2018, so the 2018 date would be in the abolition bill for the commission.
Senator RHIANNON: Is that problematic in terms of what you are trying to achieve here, because we have gone now from 2013 to 2018, five years later? Are there any challenges or difficulties arising from that delay?
Senator Birmingham: The Water Act already prescribes that the assessments of implementation of the Basin Plan are undertaken at five yearly intervals. That is why the government, in putting forward the amendments related to the abolition of the NWC, has chosen 2018-five years after the 2013 date and maintaining that five yearly interval process. It is important to note there, of course, that the Basin Plan itself does not actually take effect until 2019. So this review would still be forecast to be undertaken in advance of the Basin Plan taking effect.
Senator RHIANNON: Ms Olsson, can you just comment on the 2018 date?
Ms Olsson : In their submission to the inquiry into the abolition bill, our chair, Karlene Maywald, expressed a concern that 2018 may be somewhat late, in that if there were some issues in the implementation processes up to that date, the assessment may come late in the process in terms of providing constructive input into those processes.