Dec 1, 2004

National Water Commission Bill 2004: Second Reading


1 December 2004

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (6.24 p.m.) —I am pleased to speak on the National Water Commission Bill 2004. This bill establishes the National Water Commission as an independent statutory body, with two key functions: firstly, assessing the implementation and promoting the objectives and outcomes of the National Water Initiative intergovernmental agreement and, secondly, advising on financial assistance to be provided by the Commonwealth under the Australian water fund. As my colleague the member for Wills has noted, Labor are supporting the bill, but we do have an important second reading amendment, as well as a specific amendment to provisions of the bill.

The development of a framework to address the efficient and sustainable management of Australia’s water resources has been on the agenda of federal governments since 1994. Once again, it was a Labor government that put a big issue on the Australian political agenda. In 1994, the Council of Australian Governments agreed upon a strategic framework for necessary water reforms covering water pricing, institutional arrangements, sustainable water resource management and community consultation. In my view, the government has failed to deal with water issues with an appropriate sense of urgency, allowing the COAG water reform process of 1994 to stall and failing to provide any environmental flows for the Murray in the more than eight years it has been in office. This is on top of the government’s failure to take seriously the threat of climate change to ongoing water supplies for our farmers and our rivers.

It is well accepted that the issues of climate change and water use are closely connected. The failure of the government to engage in the international debate over climate change is a disgrace. It is simply not good enough for an advanced industrial country such as Australia to bury its head and behave selfishly in relation to what is clearly the world’s greatest environmental challenge. I note that the Howard government Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, has described himself for many years as a sceptic on global warming and climate change. I note that this has changed somewhat recently. In an interview on the Insiders program on 25 July this year, Senator Campbell stated that he was not a sceptic any more. He now describes climate change as `the biggest environmental challenge’. Well, hallelujah! Welcome to the sane world of environmental policy debate, Minister. Once the minister was provided with a bit of factual information and a bit of science, he stated in that interview that Australia was `well placed to play an important role’ in addressing climate change. Like many Australians, I therefore look forward to the government joining the overwhelming majority of the advanced industrial world and ratifying the Kyoto protocol. Such a step would be playing an important role, but I will not hold my breath.

As with most things this government does on the environment, its words are vastly different to its actions. The debate is taking place on 1 December. This was the day when the government, according to its own deadline, in its policy and in the Prime Minister’s statement in Tasmania on 6 October, was going to release the detailed maps outlining precisely what areas of the great Tasmanian forests would be saved. This was the day when we would get the details of the 170,000 hectares. That day is today, and yet again there is no response. That was the government’s self-imposed deadline, and the environment minister says that that timetable was ambitious. It was the minister and the Prime Minister who set that deadline, but, once again, it was all about politics, not about substance, just like the government’s approach to the critical issue of water.

Nevertheless, the bill before us today is a small step forward. Adopting strategies for managing our water use is clearly worth while, albeit overdue. Setting up the National Water Commission is a good idea. However, in isolation and without a proper policy connection to the phenomena of climate change and other issues such as deforestation, land use, sustainable energy and pollution, the government’s broader water policy is not comprehensive and risks not meeting its own targets as a result of in-built flaws. It is now well accepted by governments, scientists, the community and now even the Howard government’s new Minister for the Environment and Heritage that the emission of greenhouse gases associated with industrialisation and strong economic growth from a world population that has increased sixfold in 200 years is causing climate change and global warming at an alarming rate.

The rate of global warming is simply unsustainable in the long term. I agree with the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that, by `long term’, we do not mean centuries ahead. The impact will be felt within coming decades unless steps are taken to arrest global warming. Indeed, we are witnessing at present the significant impact of climate change. When I say `unsustainable’, I am agreeing that global warming is not a phenomenon which will merely cause problems of adjustment. Global warming is a challenge so big and irreversible in its destructive power that it could radically change our planet. The impact of climate change on water supplies for our farmers and our rivers is a very real threat. It should never be understated. Issues such as evaporation rates are very real issues for water users. For example, a rise of less than one degree Celsius significantly impacts on water volume.

Climate change and its impact on fundamental issues such as water supply is a real problem that requires courage and vision if it is to be dealt with. Unfortunately, both of these precious political commodities are in short supply in the Howard government. The Howard government prefers to play short-term politics with such issues. As British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, stated in a major speech on climate change on 15 September this year:

… the challenge is complicated politically by two factors. First, its likely effect will not be felt to its full extent until after the time for the political decisions that need to be taken, has passed. In other words, there is a mismatch in timing between the environmental and electoral impact. Secondly, no one nation alone can resolve it. It has no definable boundaries. Short of international action commonly agreed and commonly followed through, it is hard even for a large country to make a difference on its own.

The words of Prime Minister Tony Blair have resonance not only on the important issue of climate change; they also underscore my earlier point that government policy on all major environmental matters, be it water policy or climate change, must take a holistic and systematic approach to the issue and the proposed solutions.

Historically the development of Australia’s water resources has brought benefits to all Australians. However, past policies and investments have not always recognised our variable climate and river flows or the natural limits of our rivers and landscape systems. It has been accepted for many years that Australia needs a national water policy framework that articulates a long-term vision for the management of rivers and water resources across the nation. This policy must meet the needs of our rivers, industries, rural people and urban communities for generations to come. It is only with such a long-term approach that we can sensibly and sustainably manage the use of water in Australia. Our approach must not only address resource security and river health but it must also embody sound science and respect the interests of water users.

This approach to water use was set out in a landmark joint statement issued by the National Farmers Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation on 23 July this year. These two groups are not ones who put out that many joint statements. The only other one I can think of was in relation to Landcare and that was more than a decade ago. So, when these two respected organisations put out a joint statement on a matter of critical national importance, it is worth taking a close look at it. Their statement has a direct bearing on the bill before us today. The joint NFF-ACF statement calls on the government to commit to implementing a robust national framework providing guaranteed and tradable water entitlements with strong safeguards for river and landscape health into the future; establish a Commonwealth-state fund and plan to achieve ecosystem health and sustainable water use with defined structural adjustment, particularly within the Murray-Darling river system, over the next 10 to 15 years; establish an audit and assessment of our northern rivers to inform future decision-making, planning and the sustainable development of new opportunities; implement a national heritage rivers reserve system to protect rivers of agreed high conservation values over a 10-year period; and ensure a secure new source of funds to help address these and other environmental and natural resource management needs.

In general terms, I agree with this approach. In the same way that our response to climate change would throw up opportunities for the development of alternative energy sources, so should a positive response to the challenges of water use and management create new opportunities. For example, to draw on some of the good research done by the NFF and the ACF, reforming our water entitlement and trading systems would unleash dramatic improvements in water efficiency and productivity, facilitate investment and help to achieve our environmental objectives. Securing river health, through improved flows and science based management, would benefit not only the environment but also agricultural industries and recreational users. Strategic investment in a long-term water policy would build confidence, catalyse better use of our resources, enhance the opportunities and resilience of rural communities and provide significant benefits to the nation as a whole.

Unfortunately, the government’s policy on water did not rise to the challenge. As I noted earlier, in 1994 COAG agreed upon a strategic framework for necessary water reforms covering water pricing, institutional arrangements, sustainable water resource management and community consultation. Most states and territories signed the National Water Initiative agreement in June 2004.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 6.36 p.m. to 6.49 p.m.

Mr ALBANESE —The aim of the government’s belated National Water Initiative is to develop a nationally compatible market, regulatory and planning based system of managing surface and ground water resources for rural and urban use that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes. In September 2004, during the election campaign, the Prime Minister finally released the Liberal Party’s long-awaited water policy, Securing Australia’s Water Future. The policy revealed that, of the total money pledged for the fund, the government expected the states to contribute $1.6 billion from funds allocated to them under the National Competition Principles Agreement. Not surprisingly, the state premiers reacted to this. This decision was quite clearly in breach of national competition policy agreements. Such is the Howard government’s weak commitment to this critical area of national policy that, after dilly-dallying for eight years, it now wants to play chicken with the states over the money.

The policy is the government’s primary water program, targeting water use efficiency, recycling and reuse. This policy is a basis for delivering the Australian water fund a $2 billion program over five years. The Commonwealth is now establishing the National Water Commission to drive the national water reform agenda. The National Water Commission will be an independent statutory body responsible for providing advice to COAG and the Commonwealth on national water issues and to assist with the implementation of the National Water Initiative.

This bill assigns the commission the dual role of assessing the progress of Australian governments in water reform and advising on and administering Commonwealth financial assistance under the Australian water fund. While Labor will ultimately be supporting the bill, the government’s water policy has a number of specific flaws which I would like to touch on briefly. Firstly, the smart water fund has been committed to the series of projects listed in the election policy paper. Surely this undermines the policy commitments that projects will be assessed on a competitive basis. Secondly, the government has made it clear that its water wise communities program will support projects up to a value of $50,000. The water wise communities program has a total value of $200 million over five years. This will mean that more than 4,000 projects will be administered by the department. To put it mildly, it is very unlikely that there will be much project quality control and accountability for this expenditure. Thirdly, there is limited focus on securing and returning environmental flows to stressed systems. As a result, project funding is skewed to private benefit. Fourthly, a major criticism of the Natural Heritage Trust has been that catchment and bioregional investments have been made in the absence of clear, measurable environmental quality targets.

This $2 billion Australian water fund potentially cuts across the targets based approach of regional delivery, ignoring the important lessons that have arisen from the Natural Heritage Trust. Unless spending under the Australian water fund is linked to time lines and targets for river health, the fund could well be wasted—like water down the drain, if you excuse the analogy. I sincerely hope it is not, but the structure of the fund gives serious concern it might be wasted. As we have seen with the government’s rorting of federal funding for regional projects during the election campaign, its attitude to the basic principles of financial management and accountability is one of arrogance. There are many issues and questions that should have been addressed by the government in the development of its water policy and management of the Australian water fund. These issues go to the heart of how good public policy should be developed and how public money should be managed. I am sorry to say that, on both counts, the government has let Australia down.

I would like to finish my comments on the National Water Commission Bill and national water policy in general with some comments about the urgent plight of the Murray River. It is of utmost importance that federal and state governments sort out their differences and come together again on water and place restoring the Murray to health as an urgent priority. The ACF and numerous other environmental and community groups are calling for the government’s national water policy to ensure the Murray and other river systems are restored to health while supporting efficient and productive water use for farmers.

A leaked Murray-Darling Basin Commission report on the decline of the Murray River red gums highlighted the consequences of a failure to act on river health. This leaked Murray-Darling Basin Commission report shows the number of river red gums counted as stressed, dying or dead has risen from 51 per cent to 75 per cent just over the last 18 months. I agree with the ACF that these findings are alarming. The federal government must take urgent action to save the Murray’s red gums and floodplains.

The stand-off over funding for the National Water Initiative must be resolved and the desperate plight of the Murray must be dealt with urgently. The Murray is Australia’s most important river and it is on its last legs. In November 2003, the federal government committed to giving the Murray 500 billion litres within five years. So far, no water has returned to the Murray—not a drop. Earlier in 2004, Labor made an election commitment to allocating $500 million over four years to secure increased flows for the Murray. Labor’s commitment included adding 1,500 gigalitres in annual environmental flows into the Murray. That is the equivalent of adding three times the volume of Sydney Harbour. We remain committed to taking leadership and direct action on saving the Murray River.

The desperate plight of the Murray River has been on the national agenda for many years. However, it has taken the Howard government more than eight years to bring together a policy framework for addressing its plight and the broader issue of water management. As I said earlier, these issues go to the heart of how good public policy should be developed and how public money should be managed. I am sorry to say that on both counts the government has let Australia down. It would be a good start if the Howard government stopped dilly-dallying and playing chicken with the states over the funding. The federal government has to take responsibility for the delays. Its lack of leadership and accountability on these issues is telling. These issues are ones of national importance and they are for the national government to show leadership on and to resolve. The fact that there is not a single National Party member participating in this debate—it was moved by the Deputy Prime Minister but there is not one National Party member on the speakers list—shows the contempt that the National Party have for regional and rural Australia. I urge members to support Labor’s amendments to this bill.