SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (20:57): I am pleased to speak on the National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012. The National Water Commission was established in 2005 by the coalition government led by Prime Minister Howard. At that stage Mr Anderson was the Deputy Prime Minister. Both were very cognisant of the importance and significance of drought across eastern Australia and the drought that was afflicting much of the country. It did lead to a water reform agenda that is still very much a work in progress today, especially for, as I have said many times in this place, the Murray-Darling Basin states and the Murray-Darling Basin territory. The National Water Commission has been tasked with a remit that is somewhat broader than just the Murray-Darling aspects, although it does have an important role to play in that regard. The NWC’s role is integral to getting water reform right in this country at a much broader level.

This legislation comes before us because the NWC upon its establishment by the Howard government had a sunset clause provision put in place. A review has been conducted by the government cognisant of that sunset clause, and as a result the government has brought forward this legislation to extend the remit of the NWC beyond 30 June 2012. This extension is welcome. On a personal level, I very much value significant parts of the work of the National Water Commission. They have brought an academic rigour, as well as a practical assessment, to the operation and consideration of water policy in Australia. In some ways, they are very much a Productivity Commission type sector or Productivity Commission type organisation, set up very specifically for water policy in Australia. It is important at the urban and regional levels that we get some of the fundamentals of water policy right, that we get the pricing issues right and that we recognise that water is a finite resource that needs to be treated at all levels with respect and priced in a way where users value the water they are using and where, if it is being used for commercial purposes, they get the highest value outcome from it.

That is not to take away from the fact, as we all appreciate, that water is a fundamental staple of human life and that obviously there is a basic human critical need to have access to water, regardless of price considerations. But especially when it comes to irrigation communities around the country it is fundamental that we get the pricing of and therefore the trading and market access to water right. The NWC has a very critical role in assessing the work of state and federal governments in proceeding to get water policy right in this pricing construct.

I have been in this place now for five years and, as I have travelled through irrigation communities and as I did in my previous roles beforehand, I have been very pleased to see a transformation of attitude that has occurred in those irrigation communities, a transformation where farmers no longer just talk to you about the dollar per hectare return they get off the land but now talk to you about the dollar per megalitre return they get off the land. That is a demonstration that the 2004 reforms of the National Water Initiative, which led to the establishment of the National Water Commission and its role, have permeated throughout the Australian water industry and that users of water are now putting a value on water and that, in so doing, they are recognising that it needs to be put to its highest value use.

I hope that, as we get to that end point of ultimately this very long and painful process of adaption to get the Murray-Darling Basin onto a sustainable footing, we will have fully functioning water markets where we can see water traded effectively, free of state barriers-and there are still, shall I say, some non-tariff type barriers that exist between the states that prevent that free and effective trade of water. We will see that free trade occurring that will allow every drop of water that is allocated for irrigation use to eventually flow to and be used by that highest value end point and, in so doing, provide Australians with the best opportunity they have to get the best bang for their buck from this finite amount of water available to us.

The National Water Commission have a very valuable role to play. As we look at this extension of the National Water Commission, they need to be very focused on what that role is. As we go forward, their role in holding the states and the Commonwealth to account for actually delivering on water reform is critical. Their role in providing expert analysis and advice is absolutely critical. But they need to ensure they are focused on those priorities and that will be very important moving into the future. It is not necessarily their role to operate like an academic institution that perhaps produces all sorts of thoughtful research briefs that are not necessarily focused on the core policy outcomes that Australia needs. Valuable though that work is, we must recognise that the finances of this country are, as I am sure Senator Joyce will say, tight, to say the least, and that the dollars allocated to the operation of the National Water Commission in future need to be the minimum amount required to do the job that they have been tasked with. That important job is to see through in the most efficient and effective way the National Water Initiative and the Murray-Darling Basin reforms.

I have particularly appreciated the work of the NWC when I have received copies of their biennial assessment on the Murray-Darling reforms. They are good documents, they are thorough documents and they have called to account governments of all political persuasions for their failure to deliver on promises-failure to deliver on key water infrastructure projects, failure to deliver on achieving the reforms to water market trading as effectively as possible and failure to deliver on the speed of the Murray-Darling Basin reforms. All of these failures have of course mounted at present and what we see right now in water reform in this country is, sadly, a real crisis in confidence, especially when it comes to the Murray-Darling debate-a crisis in confidence in that reform that exists both downstream and upstream. Nobody is happy with the way the debate has gone; nobody is happy with where it is at. To ensure that we have some hope and some chance of getting it back on track we need good, credible independent organisations such as the National Water Commission to call it as they see it, to call it based on the facts, to call it based on expert evidence and to hold governments to account for the key policy principles that they have set out.

I will conclude my remarks there but simply reiterate that, as we move forward with the NWC, they need and the government ministers who work with them need to be as focused as much as anything else on keeping them working to their core objectives. Their core objectives need to be seeing through the National Water Initiative, seeing through the Murray-Darling Basin reform and holding governments to account so that we get that sustainable management of our water resources in a way that is market driven and that ensures that finite water is used for the best possible purchase at the best possible value and causes, be they in our rural communities or in our urban infrastructure.