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Who watches the waters? The end of the National Water Commission


The National Water Commission (NWC) is to be dissolved, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann confirmed on Monday. Established during the millennium drought, the NWC is an independent statutory authority designed to monitor the progress of national water reform, but its role changed and expanded over the years. What has the NWC been doing?

Origins and functions of the NWC

The NWC was launched in 2004 by the Howard Government as a component of the National Water Initiative (NWI) and legislated by the National Water Commission Act 2004. The NWI is a plan for sustainable water use in Australia to ensure that residents and industries have a reliable supply of water in times of drought, while protecting the health of Australia’s rivers and groundwater. It was developed by consultation between the federal, state and territory governments via the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The NWI has a timetable of key actions with regular assessments and the NWC was created partly to conduct these assessments. The NWC’s first task was developing baseline levels for Australia’s water resources from which the the progress of the NWI could be determined.

The NWC published the third NWI assessment in 2011 and determined that “the NWI has delivered significant, tangible benefits for Australia” but “there has been disappointingly slow progress in the explicit identification of over allocated and overused systems and in restoring those systems to sustainable levels of extraction”. The next assessment is due this year.

The National Water Commission Act 2004 was originally written with a sunset clause of 30 June 2012, designed to give the NWC a finite existence. In 2011 COAG conducted a review of the NWC and stated that the NWC “has built skills and methodologies and has become a credible, specialist organisation in water reform” and concluded “that the NWC should continue, without sunset”.

In March 2012 the National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012 was passed, which removed the sunset clause and instead mandated five yearly reviews of the NWC, starting in 2017. The amendment also gave the Commission the power, if directed by COAG, to assess any “matters of national significance relating to water”, not just those relating to the NWI.

Expanded functions of the NWC

The amendments also required the NWC to monitor and audit the progress of the much-debated Murray–Darling Basin Plan. The NWC published its first report in March 2013, only five months after the Plan was tabled in Parliament. The NWC advised that the Basin Plan was slow to progress and that “there is a real risk to realising all the benefits of efforts and investment to date. …The next two years will be critical in establishing momentum and direction for Basin Plan implementation.” The Commission’s concern was not unwarranted; it took 15 months from the release of the Plan to get all basin states to commit to its implementation, a “slow and shaky start according to some water researchers. The next report, and the first true audit, of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is scheduled for 2015.

The NWC is also required to assess whether water management arrangements associated with Carbon Farming Initiative plantations are consistent with the provisions of the National Water Initiative.

The NWC also plays an import role in educating policy makers and the public and stimulating discussion in the industry, with an aim to “improve the quality of debate about water in Australia”. The NWC’s position statement on coal seam gas and water issues not only sparked media debate, but was cited in the Senate debate of the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2013 and is cited in the supporting documentation of NSW’s Aquifer Interference Policy.

Decommissioning the NWC

To remove the NWC the National Water Commission Act 2004 will need to be repealed and the Water Act 2007 amended, actions which will rely on parliament. Given the results of the Senate debates on the carbon price mechanism repeal legislation, it is unclear if or when such a bill would pass.

The Carbon Farming Initiative, which allows farmers and land managers to earn carbon credits by storing carbon on the land or reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is a key component of the Government’s Direct Action Plan. Currently, tree plantings are excluded from receiving carbon credits if the planting is likely to impact on the water availability in an area. This determination of impact is made by the NWC through its assessment of NWI plans.

It is difficult to determine who could take over the audit and assessment functions of the NWC; no government agency has the independence and the scope. With 40 staff and operating costs of less than $9 million for all forward estimates, the NWC is small but has significant responsibilities and stimulates debate on what Prime Minister Howard called “Australia’s number one environmental issue, the preservation of our scarce water resources.”

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