Water commission urges governments to stay the course with reforms

by Catherine McAloon, ABCRural

The National Water Commission has used its final assessment of Australia’s water reform progress to urge governments not to drop the ball on water issues.

The commission, which was established by former Prime Minister John Howard over a decade ago to oversee national water reform, is set to be abolished by the end of the year, with other government departments taking on some of its responsibilities.

Gates of the Torrens weir

Commission chair Karlene Maywald says Australia can’t afford to lose the gains of work that’s been undertaken so far, and she’s urged governments to continue to implement the national water initiative in all decision making and to learn lessons from past mistakes.

“So we don’t have big costly fix-its, like the Murray Darling Basin, where decisions haven’t been made in accordance with the national water initiative principles and we’ve seen over-allocation and huge disruption within communities that’s had to be fixed,” Mrs Maywald said.

She says it’s critical that any new dams, or water infrastructure projects, are thoroughly assessed.

“It’s really, really important that in those studies, we actually look at a rigorous cost benefit analysis that actually assesses the value of the infrastructure and its benefits to the community and also to the development, and that it considers the sustainability, not only economically, but environmentally, of the project,” Mrs Maywald said.

Ongoing funding for the National Water Commission was not included in this year’s Federal Budget, and a bill to abolish the commission is currently before the Senate, with the government proposing some of its responsibilities be performed by the Productivity Commission.

Mrs Maywald says while the Productivity Commission will be capable of performing audit functions, she’s worried that while the commission currently reports to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), the Productivity Commission reports to the Federal Treasurer.

“What I’m concerned about, and what commissioners are concerned about, is the fact that water is no longer on the COAG agenda,” Mrs Maywald said.

“The states have no ownership of the Productivity Commission, whereas they did of the National Water Commission.

“I am concerned it may lead to the states not having ownership of the end result.

“There is a gap now between what COAG does, what the states do, and the Productivity Commission reporting.”

Jonathan La Nauze, the Healthy Eco-Systems program manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation, says Australia has made big improvements on management of water issues in the past decade under the guidance of the National Water Commission and is now far better prepared to face the next big drought.

“We’ve only got this far because premiers and Prime Ministers have sat down together and nutted out solutions to really tough problems,” Mr La Nauze said.

“Water doesn’t respect state boundaries and it needs that kind of high level government collaboration and leadership.

His organisation is concerned that the Productivity Commission doesn’t have the adequate resources, expertise, or mandate to provide independent advice to heads of Australian governments.

“Water is a social issue, it’s an environmental issue and it’s an economic issue. The Productivity Commission has a very strictly economic mandate, so it is not required to, nor is it really strictly speaking able to, investigate the full impact of how we manage water.

“Secondly, the Productivity Commission hasn’t been tasked with some of the more big picture thinking the water commission was charged with, providing advice on what’s around the corner, what are the threats that we are not dealing with properly yet? Those functions have simply been dropped.”

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