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Speech: National Water Commission Abolition Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 3 Dec 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:42): The Greens do not support the National Water Commission (Abolition) Bill 2014. The National Water Commission is a most important organisation that we really do need to retain. It provides crucial oversight of our water policies. It is worth remembering that it operates with a very small team, doing important work. I understand that that team recently went from about 41 down to eight.

The commission has provided government and industry with quality information needed to make good decisions about the effectiveness of our current water policies and directions for the future. What is being lost here is the integrated approach. The integrated approach is so important when it comes to water, and that is what the commission has provided for water policy in the 10 years of its existence. We really cannot afford to lose it. It is of grave concern to me that, given the current threats to our water supplies from climate change and the mining industry, in particular, and the ongoing struggles between water used for production and water used for the environment, we are looking at removing the only body that brings together oversight of our water policy.

It is true that there are other bodies that provide important information in this area, such as the government's Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. But the National Water Commission is the place where these groups actually come together to sort through these issues. The processes of the National Water Initiative and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan have been well shepherded by the commission. This work is still tenuous and needs ongoing support. Removing the National Water Commission sends the wrong message to those involved in these processes. It is of great concern to me, as the National Water Commission itself has pointed out, that the proposed reporting date for the first audit of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been moved to 2018 in this legislation. We have already had delays in the readiness of this plan, which is why the commission was able to offer only an interim report in 2013.

This is one of the crucial aspects of this legislation that underlines why this bill should not pass. We need oversight of the Murray-Darling Basin process from an independent body. That is what we have right now. And that is what we could lose. As many of the stakeholders in this debate have noted, the government cannot be marking its own homework. That was the message we heard time and again at the inquiry that was held into this legislation. Yet, under the government's plans, the marking does not even occur. The plan will be implemented before we are able to intervene. This is a very concerning aspect of this legislation.

This legislation proposes to move the National Water Commission's reporting requirements on the National Water Initiative and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan over to the Productivity Commission. This is not satisfactory. It will really degrade this work. It is a concern to the Greens and should be a concern to all who care about the future of our water planning. You will hear many people here say that, but if they are sincere they will keep the National Water Commission.

As a number of submissions to the inquiry on this legislation have pointed out, the commission does not yet have the expertise needed to advise on these matters. The Productivity Commission's expertise is in economic matters, not those of the environment. That is set out when you look at the objects of how the Productivity Commission works. It is very clear. It is quite narrow-we are not disputing that-but it does not have the expertise and background to take on the important work of the NWC.

The Productivity Commission was never established with the management of environmental matters in mind. It came about in 1998 out of the combination of the Industry Commission, the Bureau of Industry Economics and the Economic Planning Advisory Commission. Its legislation reflects these priorities very clearly. Part 2, section 6 of the act, 'Functions of commission' sets this out. It uses the phrase: 'industry, industry development and productivity', and it uses those terms five times. Nowhere is the environment mentioned. Not once. Protecting the environment is not a function of the Productivity Commission.

Part 2, section 8 of the act, the policy guidelines for the Productivity Commission, is about economic performance, reducing regulation, encouraging growth and economic adjustments, and other issues to do with the economy and industry. It is not until we get down to part 2, section 8(1)(i) that we see the term 'ecologically sustainable'. This still is only in the context of industry development. It is not set out in terms of an environmental judgement; the environment is not a key consideration of how this body undertakes its work.

The Productivity Commission has multiple competing priorities in its reporting requirements. It is not able to sufficiently capture-and nor does this legislation allow it to-the breadth of work carried out by the National Water Commission. That is a key point. I know that the government has been lobbying hard to get support for taking the work of the National Water Commission over to the Productivity Commission, and making out that the Productivity Commission can cover the important endeavours and work undertaken by the NWC. But right now, with how the Productivity Commission is actually structured, that is not possible.

The ongoing functions of the National Water Commission, in particular relating to stakeholder engagement on all water related issues, are nowhere to be found in this legislation. Imagine that! Stakeholder engagement is not found in this legislation; it is a key part of how the National Water Commission has operated and that is what we will lose if this bill goes through. Some minimal functions go to the Department of the Environment and others, but there is no central coordination of all these issues. That is another very worrying aspect; we need that central coordination and that is what we could lose. This I suggest is precisely what the government wants. There is an agenda here, pushed by the government, and this is part of it.

The government's approach is really quite fragmented. It removes the thorough leadership and the continuity offered by the commission. The government's plan to remove the National Water Commission is not leadership; it is not even the management we need when it comes to water policy across this country. Sustaining our water supply and protecting the environment should be our top priority. That is what we could lose if this bill goes through.

Hearings at the inquiry into this legislation have made it abundantly clear that contrary to government claims that the National Water Commission has done its job and that water is well covered by other government bodies, water reform at the state level is at risk of unravelling if we lose the National Water Commission.

In my state of New South Wales we have seen the consolidation of water bodies at the same time as water licenses are, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation, being handed out to farmers who have illegally diverted water. This is what we mean about 'unravelling'. Not only is there a lack of integration but some very dubious practices are being allowed to play out, and that threatens our water resources.

Following the abolition of Queensland's Water Commissioner that state is keeping up its reputation for really tearing apart anything to do with the environment by amending its water act to automatically grant licences to mine coal seam gas operations. That can be a direct threat to our water resources. Under no circumstances should it be allowed to happen automatically.

The picture is no better elsewhere. In Victoria, water protections are being weakened, and in Western Australia and the Northern Territory they are not compliant with the National Water Initiative. The National Water Commission itself has argued that water has fallen off the COAG agenda. This is actually not a surprise since it seems that the current policy of coalition governments at state and federal levels is a return to the laissez-faire days where we allow irresponsible use of water resources until there is another emergency. Governments may get away with letting anything happen to water resources and not have the plans and limits in place, but there will be another that drought. There will be another extreme weather event associated with climate change. There will be another weather emergency that we need to respond to and that is why we need to retain the National Water Commission-so we are well placed for that response, we are ready for it and we can take the measures to limit the impact of those very damaging extreme weather events

Crucial areas of water policy that were highlighted by the inquiry into this legislation, but were not covered at all by this legislation, demonstrate the need for real leadership on water policy. When you get rid of the National Water Commission, you are basically getting rid of leadership in this area. The commission's job to identify areas in need of reform and begin those discussions is the gap that will be left by the commission.

One of those crucial areas is Indigenous water rights. Working on Indigenous water rights with the First People's Water Engagement Council, the commission earned itself a most important and well-earned reputation for its consultative approach to these issues. This process involved extensive engagement culminating in a First People's National Water Summit, which gave advice to the commission in May 2012. It was outstanding and I would say it was historic-and, again, it underlines how much we stand to lose if this bill goes through.

The initiative has already wound back the Indigenous Water Advisory Committee formed by the Department of the Environment in June this year. This is a pattern we are seeing with this government. This legislation has not gone through yet but there has been so many steps that this government has taken, so many actions to actually gut the National Water Commission before the legislation gets here. I think it is a very immoral and undemocratic way that they operate.

The story of these organisations is a sad indictment on the way governments too often operate in their interactions with Indigenous people. For the first time, the Aboriginal community had been engaged on these issues. Such much would have been achieved at the meetings and roundtables of these organisations. There had been talk of even adding an Indigenous Commissioner to the National Water Commission. How impressive is that? Progress was being made but what we have seen is a government that makes out it has a commitment to Indigenous issues. It will even make out it has a commitment to decent water policies but, in that quite simple but very negative damaging act, it has set back the rights of Indigenous people with regard to water in this country. The closure of the National Water Commission will be the final step in undoing these important processes.

We have also seen initiatives from the commission highlighting the potential impact of coal seam gas on our water supplies. Across the nation, I am sure many of us have witnessed in the last three or four years in particular an explosion of local communities coming together opposing coal seam gas and mining projects. Often they are farmers whose livelihood depends on the safety and health of their water. Whenever I visit these communities, the issue that is raised is: how do we protect our water now and into the future? The National Water Commission raised this issue in 2010 and continued to voice concerns that this is an area which needs more work.

Staying in New South Wales and looking to our northwest, there is an ongoing drought there. This is a real reminder that what will happen in this country is there will be another drought. There will be massive droughts and droughts located in certain areas. We need to be prepared. We have much more knowledge these days. But we need the National Water Commission to provide that integrated leadership. We may have recovered from the millennium drought, and we may have negotiated-and I emphasise 'negotiated'-a plan to recover the Murray-Darling, but the work of water reform is far from over. The negotiations are not really finished despite what we are hearing from the minister. I would have hoped that we would learn from this process. It is very expensive to retrospectively fix a problem with water and sometimes it is not possible. And I would point out to Minister Joyce, who seems to think that if we just build massive dams everywhere we will be fine, you have to have the water to start with. Dams do not create water, as the minister seems to allude to in some of his ridiculous statements. Not only do we need to preserve our water but we need to ensure we do it in a way that is clean.

We also need to make sure we will not be diverting water from places where it is desperately needed-and that is another great failing of Minister Joyce's approach to water conservation in this country. It is a not only a grave mistake to destroy our only body, the National Water Commission, that is independent and has the relevant expertise to guide our governments on water policy but it is really utterly irresponsible.

As was pointed out to the committee investigating this legislation, keeping the National Water Commission would push the government's budget out by one-ten thousandth of a percent. This is not a budget measure in this case. We often can identify what is a budget measure-obviously the higher education bill this week has been a standout. This bill, however, is not a budget measure. You really feel it is ideologically driven because the government wants to strip down the quite simple but not extensive leadership and at times control the National Water Commission has in this area because it wants to be able to favour its big constituents-those who need big water operations for their activities in rural Australia. Again, that is very short-term thinking, even short-term thinking for those who will benefit in the short run. Because right now we need to be doing everything to bring our water policy to a point where it is responsible, not just for certain users but for the whole nation, not just for this generation but for future generations and not just for those of us in the city but for those of us across the whole country. And environmental protection needs to be a part of that.

As was pointed out to the committee investigating this legislation, keeping the National Water Commission would push the government budget, as I said, out by just a fraction. That is a bargain. I would urge my colleagues in the Senate to vote against abolishing the National Water Commission and to support the reinstatement of funding that is about to go to the Productivity Commission if this bill is passed. The National Water Commission still has its leadership in place. All its fine work is still there: the need to address issues across the nation-integration between the states and to take forward the National Water Initiative-is work that remains to be done. This bill should not pass.

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