It is critical that Basin Plan implementation is robustly monitored and evaluated to ensure it remains on schedule and fit for purpose. This chapter focuses on the reporting and evaluation frameworks in place to monitor the overall implementation of the plan. Evaluation, monitoring and reporting on specific elements of the plan, including environmental watering, WRPs and water take compliance are discussed in their respective chapters.
Division of reporting responsibilities
Clearly divisible reporting and evaluation roles and responsibilities are essential to achieving efficiency, transparency, and accountability throughout the Basin Plan's extended implementation. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH), the Department of Agriculture and Basin states (the parties) have various reporting and evaluation requirements related to Basin plan implementation. These requirements are set out in:
Chapter 13 and Schedule 12 of Basin Plan 2012;
the intergovernmental agreements between Basin States and the Commonwealth, in particular through the National Partnership Agreements; and
The reporting framework places both annual and five-yearly obligations on the parties. Annual reporting requirements predominantly relate to the implementation of, and compliance with, different elements of the Basin Plan, while the five-yearly reporting examines whether the objectives of the Plan have been met. The Productivity Commission's five-year review of the plan provides a summary of the reporting requirements under Schedule 12 of the Plan.
MDBA reporting and evaluation requirements
In addition to the reporting requirements set out in Schedule 12 of the Plan above reporting requirements, the MDBA has produced a series of twice-yearly report cards on the progress on plan implementation. These report cards are not required by the Plan; however, the MDBA commenced this series after feedback from stakeholders requested 'short, timely and accurate updates on progress.' The report cards assess six key areas of Basin Plan implementation—water resource plans (WRPs), sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism (SDLAM), compliance, northern basin initiatives, water recovery and environmental water delivery.
The MDBA is also required to annually evaluate and report on the effectiveness of the Plan; advise on the impacts of the Plan after the first 5 years; conduct 10 yearly reviews of the Plan in order to understand its impact and effectiveness; and conduct other reviews of the long-term average sustainable diversion limits as required (for instance, through a request under section 50(2) of the Water Act).
The Plan sets out key questions the MDBA must ask when making an annual, five yearly, and 10 yearly evaluation:
to what extent has the intended purpose of the Basin Plan set out in section 20 of the Act been achieved?
to what extent have the objectives, targets and outcomes set out in the Basin Plan been achieved?
how has the Basin Plan contributed to changes to the environmental, social and economic conditions in the Murray‑Darling Basin?
what, if any, unanticipated outcomes have resulted from the implementation of the Basin Plan?
how could the effectiveness of the Basin Plan be improved?
to what extent were the actions required by the Basin Plan suited to meeting the objectives of the Basin Plan? and
to what extent has the program for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of the Basin Plan contributed to adaptive management and improving the available scientific knowledge of the Murray‑Darling Basin?
Basin Plan Evaluation Framework
The Basin Plan Evaluation Framework is used by the MDBA to assess whether the Basin Plan is on track. It guides the five yearly reviews, ensuring they meet the requirements of the Water Act and Basin Plan. The evaluation framework sets out the key steps for defining, designing, doing and using the evaluation of the Basin Plan, including the key evaluation questions. It also identifies the role partner agencies will play throughout the evaluation, sets principles for collaboration and identifies where State reporting may feed in to the MDBA’s evaluation.
The MDBA completed an interim evaluation in 2017 (this evaluation was not required in the Plan) and is set to complete their next five yearly evaluation in 2020.
The Basin Plan Evaluation Framework was revised in March 2019 to incorporate recommendations from the 2017 Basin Plan Evaluation, an independent review of the 2017 Basin Plan Evaluation and the Productivity Commission's report on National Water Reform.
The 2018 Productivity Commission five-year review included a number of further recommendations on how the Evaluation Framework could be improved. Recommendations included that:
the framework should define the specific questions that are to be used to evaluate the outcomes and effectiveness of the Basin Plan, and the scales and times at which these questions will be answered; and
the framework should be accompanied by a monitoring strategy that describes the process by which the information needed to answer the evaluation questions set out in the framework will be collected.
The Joint Basin Government response to the Productivity Commission review agreed to these recommendations and noted that the MDBA is currently working with all Basin governments to prepare a broader monitoring, evaluation, reporting and improvement framework. This includes an Evaluation Plan for each evaluation theme. As at 4 October 2019, this monitoring framework is not published online.
Basin states reporting and evaluation requirements
In addition to the annual and five-yearly reporting requirements under Schedule 12 of the Basin Plan, Basin states have reporting obligations under the National Partnership Agreements (NPA) and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan Implementation Agreement (BPIA).
The MDBA has created a template that brings together all of the different reporting requirements for Basin states. Each year, Basin Governments populate this template with the information needed to meet their reporting requirements and submit these to the MDBA, which subsequently publishes them on its website.
National Partnership Agreements
The National Partnership Agreements (NPAs) are intergovernmental agreements between Basin states and the Commonwealth. The NPAs set out the outputs, outcomes and milestones that Basin states are required to achieve to meet their Basin Plan commitments. It also specifies Commonwealth payments to be made to the states in return for meeting these requirements. Basin states are required to submit an annual Statement of Assurance that reports on their progress against their respective milestones.
Following the submission of Statements of Assurance, the Department of Agriculture conducts an annual assessment of progress against NPA milestones, and the Australian Minister for Water decides whether milestone payments are made to the Basin state.
The Productivity Commission's five-year review found several deficiencies in the design of the NPA 'that detract from the effectiveness of current reporting arrangements in holding governments to account for meeting their commitments under the Plan'. Findings included that:
milestones are inadequately defined and have been assessed as met when there is evidence to the contrary;
there is no option to recommend a partial payment to a Basin state – instead, payments must be made in full or not at all;
key information that informs assessments of progress against NPA milestones is not publicly released; and
the release of assessments of progress against NPA milestones has not been timely in some years.
The Productivity Commission made a recommendation that in any future funding agreements relating to the implementation of the Basin Plan, the Australian Government should ensure that:
the roles of the Australian Government and Basin States are clearly identified;
specific performance milestones are identified and clear responsibility is assigned;
where milestones are linked to payments, these payments provide a genuine incentive for implementation;
independent assessment of the progress of Basin Governments is undertaken; and
advice provided by relevant agencies (such as the MDBA or the CEWH) is used to inform assessments of progress and is published in full.
The Joint Basin Government response to the Productivity Commission report agreed with these recommendations, and noted that the Australian Government, in partnership with Basin states have commenced a review into the National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray–Darling Basin. This review is being undertaken in consultation with Basin state governments and will be completed by September 2019. As at 4October 2019 this report was not available online.
Productivity Commission reporting and evaluation requirements
As discussed previously in this report, under the Water Act, the Productivity Commission has responsibility for assessing the effectiveness of the implementation of the Basin Plan and associated WRPs every five years. The first five-year assessment was completed by the Productivity Commission in December 2018.
Limitations of cross-jurisdictional oversight
The Murray-Darling Basin spans multiple jurisdictions and is being managed simultaneously by six governments; it is critical that there is adequate cross-jurisdictional transparency and oversight of the resource. States, territories, and the Commonwealth have considerable powers to investigate Basin issues through parliamentary inquiries and Royal Commissions; however, these oversight bodies can be constrained by cross-jurisdictional limitations.
For example, on 23 January 2018, the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission was established by the Governor of South Australia to inquire into Commonwealth regulation of the Basin following concerns raised in the media. The Commission intended to compel Commonwealth witnesses and documents as part of its work; however, the Commonwealth and the MDBA sought an injunction from the High Court which would prevent current and former federal staff from being compelled to testify on the basis that state Royal Commissions do not have jurisdiction to compel federal authorities. Due to the time needed for litigation, Commissioner Walker sought additional time to hand down the Royal Commission's findings in the event of success in the High Court but the request was declined by the South Australian Government. As a result, the Commission's summonses to the Commonwealth entities were withdrawn and court proceedings discontinued.
Parliamentary committees are also limited in their ability to require information from other jurisdictions and the same may apply to Commonwealth-initiated inquiries and reviews.
The committee is interested in understanding the cross-jurisdictional complications and limitations of investigative processes and structures such as Royal Commissions, parliamentary inquiries, and potentially the courts, in achieving robust oversight and transparency of the management of the Basin and welcomes responses that address these issues.