The National Water Commission: A eulogy
According to the Federal Government’s water spokesman, much of the Commission’s reform work has already been done. But what was the purpose of the National Water Commission and does everyone agree with the Federal Government’s water spokesman? Is it time for the Commission to pass on to the next world and live on only in our memories?
The National Water Commission was established by the Howard Government in 2004 under the National Water Commission Act 2004 and is (was) an independent agency responsible for implementing national water reform under the National Water Initiative (NWI). A Chair and Four Commissioners make up the Commission, two of whom are nominated by the Australian Government and two by the states and territories for terms of up to three years. The Commission’s CEO reports directly to the Minister for the Environment and is not representative of any jurisdiction or industry.
The National Water Initiative is an intergovernmental water policy agreement established by the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) as a national blueprint for water reform. It was signed in June 2004 with the purpose of achieving a national water market, regulatory and planning based system. The NWI focuses on the management of both surface and groundwater resources for rural and urban use to optimise economic, social and environmental outcomes. The NWI has a timetable of key actions with regular assessments and the Commission was created partly to conduct these assessments. The Commission’s first task was developing baseline levels for Australia’s water resources from which the progress of the NWI could be determined.
Following a 2011 COAG review of the Commission it was stated that the agency had “built skills and methodologies and has become a credible, specialist organisation in water reform”, resulting in the passing of an amendment to the National Water Commission Act in 2012 to remove the sunset clause which gave it a finite existence and mandated five yearly reviews, the first of which was to be in 2017. The core functions of the Commission were also expanded to assess any “matters of national significance relating to water” through: monitoring, audit, and assessment, with a focus on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in particular.
Some of the major functions of the Commission have been to:
- publish regular assessments of progress on the implementation of the NWI;
- advise the Prime Minister on expenditure of the Australian Government Water Fund (from 2004 to 2010), including the Water Smart Australia, Raising National Water Standards Program and Australian Water Fund Communities programs;
- undertake assessments of National Partnership Payments (under delegation from the COAG Reform Council);
- assess whether water management arrangements associated with Carbon Farming Initiative plantations are consistent with the provisions of the NWI; and
- audit the effectiveness of implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and associated water resource plans (as set out in the Water Act 2007).
Through these functions the Commission has managed over 170 projects under the Raising National Water Standards Program to facilitate investment in Australia’s capacity to measure, monitor and manage its water resources. Example projects in WA include the development of: the State Water Information System; an eco-toxicity toolbox to evaluate water quality for recycling; a framework to assess river and wetland health; and an assessment of groundwater-dependent ecosystem vulnerability in the Mid West of WA. The Commission has also:
- recommended how Australia can best secure its future water supplies, identifying desalination technologies as playing a key role in the future;
- examined the integration of surface water and groundwater management across the country and opportunities to optimise integrated management to achieve multiple water management objectives;
- examined extraction limits at multiple levels of development and how to improve sustainable water management;
- documented the trends and drivers across Australia’s water market;
- launched the National Water Planning Report Card – an online web application to help people access information on the status of water planning across Australia; and
- undertaken a review of and made recommendations towards indigenous involvement in water planning.
So with all this in mind has the National Water Commission done all it was charged with achieving? Given the increasingly critical issues surrounding water security, droughts, floods and population growth, some bodies such as the Australian Water Association would disagree, stating that “Abolishing the National Water Commission will weaken our ability to engage Australians on water management challenges……..” and that “Both the National Water Commission and Murray-Darling Basin Authority were established to provide independent advice and management. Abolishing the NWC and flagging future cuts to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, in a nation where water scarcity needs to be well managed will reduce Australia’s ability to maximise the productive use of water.”
With the loss of the National Water Commission, the responsibilities for auditing and monitoring water policy reform will be transferred to other existing Commonwealth agencies, including the Department of the Environment and the Murray Darling Basin Authority, however, they will have a significantly smaller budget to do so and do not have the same independence. This suggests that the ability to seriously coordinate and further develop a national water reform agenda will be seriously diminished. So after an active 10 year life , some of us will mourn the loss of a National Water Commission which was brought into being after Prime Minister Howard called “Australia’s number one environmental issue, the preservation of our scarce water resources” and its vital role in driving water reform. We must hope that its legacy will continue on in existing government agencies and in the hearts and minds of industry, agriculturalists, government bureaucrats and politicians everywhere.