LEGISLATION has been introduced into federal parliament to axe the National Water Commission (NWC) and transfer its oversight functions to other commonwealth agencies.
Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment Senator Simon Birmingham says the Productivity Commission (PC), Bureau of Meteorology, ABARES and the Department of Environment will now assume the NWC’s tasks of scrutinising water reforms.
Five-yearly audits on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s implementation will be undertaken by the PC along with triennial assessments of the National Water Initiative (NWI) implementation by State and territory governments.
ABARES will be responsible for annual reporting on water markets and the Department of the Environment will assess milestone payments to Murray-Darling Basin states against performance milestones specified in the National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Murray-Darling Basin reform.
The Department will also take on the role of advising the clean energy regulator on effectiveness of water resource plans under the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) regulations 2011.
The bill underpinning the NWC’s removal was also referred to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for an inquiry that’s due to report by November 24.
The inquiry will consider the bill’s impact on the continuation of robust, independent and transparent monitoring and assessment of matters of national water reform and the management of Australia's water resources.
During the bill’s second reading speech, manager of government business in the Senate Mitch Fifield said the legislation met the government’s commitment, announced in the 2014-15 budget, to cease the NWC’s operations by the end of 2014, while transferring key functions to existing commonwealth agencies.
He said the NWC’s abolition was expected to result in a saving of $20.9 million over the forward estimates, “further improving the budget bottom line”.
“The findings of the Commission of Audit were taken into account in making this decision, which recommended abolishing the NWC as a stand-alone agency,” he said.
“The NWC’s roles are of a monitoring and reporting nature.
“It does not deliver programs or have any approval or regulatory functions.
“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.”
The bill aims to repeal the National Water Commission Act 2004 in order to abolish the NWC with effect from January 1 next year.
Senator Birmingham said the focus was now on ensuring the NWI’s principles continued to be upheld and built upon across the water sector, from urban pricing principles to the management of rural and environmental water.
Stakeholders delivered mixed reactions with National Irrigators' Council CEO Tom Chesson saying there was “no doubt taxpayers must get value for dollars”.
But he said there are limited funds for monitoring, metering and auditing water policies which must be used in a co-ordinated and coherent manner.
“Simply having another agency in Canberra is no guarantee that this would occur,” he said.
“We already have at least seven government agencies in Canberra involved with metering, monitoring, reporting and compliance and this doesn’t include the Australian National Audit Office whose sole remit is to ensure taxpayers are getting value for money.
“These agencies are only the federal bodies and don’t include the State government agencies who actually have the constitutional responsibility for natural resource management.
“Despite the States having constitutional responsibility for water there are now more staff and agencies in Canberra dreaming up reviews, policies and audits than there are in NSW actually delivering the water.
“It is important that we don’t end up spending more funds on auditing outcomes than we do on delivering those outcomes.”
Les Gordon of the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) Water Taskforce urged the federal government to continue conversations with stakeholders about how the NWC’s key functions would transition to new agencies.
Mr Gordon said the NFF was disappointed to see the NWC abolished but welcomed the government’s commitment to continue many of its key roles.
“The PC is respected for its independence and willingness to provide governments with frank and fearless advice - however, with new responsibility comes new obligation,” he said.
“One of the key strengths of the NWC was its collaborative approach, consulting with organisations with a range of interests - including agriculture, mining, gas, business, conservation, indigenous water use, and urban water - on the water reform policy agenda.
“We hope to see that same collaborative approach adopted by the PC.”
The Australian Conservation Foundation said introducing legislation to abolish the NWC was “a backward step for water reform in Australia”.
ACF environmental campaigns director Dr Paul Sinclair said the scattering of the NWC’s responsibilities “disperses and dilutes” institutional capacity and expertise built up over the years since the launch of the NWI, a landmark Howard Government policy.
“The strength of the NWC is in the independence and expertise of its commissioners and the long term nature of their appointments,” he said.
“They have specific water policy expertise that are not readily replicated by other bodies, such as the PC.”