Water Journal : Water Journal June 2014
JUNE 2014 WATER 7 My Point of View If anything, we should be driving further and faster momentum on COAG's 2004 National Water Initiative (NWI) -- a shared commitment by governments to increase the ef ciency of Australia's water use, leading to greater certainty for investment and productivity both for rural and urban communities, and for the environment. The historic 2004 agreement came alive through signi cant backing from the then Coalition Government, originally under Prime Minister John Howard and later with Malcolm Turnbull as Water Minister. While this bipartisan agreement is rightly recognised as one of the most globally signi cant water reforms, its aspirations warrant continued vigilance and action if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. This will be vital to maximise our future productivity and ef ciency, especially now as we confront new issues and pursue new opportunities. The NWI reaches its 10th anniversary on 25 June 2014. We should be celebrating this occasion by vowing to build on the landmark agreement's achievements. Instead, the current Federal Government appears intent on trashing the Howard heritage and retreating from its leadership legacy on national land and water policy. The decision to close the National Water Commission -- the custodian of the NWI -- reaps a meagre saving of $20.9 million over the next four years. Let's hope that the cost of this 'ef ciency' does not compromise and leave unresolved a national leadership framework to maintain progress on water reform. All those with an interest in water will eagerly await the Commission's nal assessment of water reform progress due to be delivered to COAG later this year. In particular, we will watch what it has to say about un nished business, about new issues and the need to apply the NWI's tried and tested principles in the context of future development decisions. But how, given the abolition of the Commission and the COAG Standing Council on Environment and Water, will governments respond to the report's recommendations? In an era when we appear to be moving from cooperative federalism to competitive federalism, should we fear a return to the days when state borders matter more than the rivers that run through them? CALLING GOVERNMENTS TO ACCOUNT The National Water Commission's core responsibility is to assess progress by State and Federal Governments under their NWI commitments. While substantial progress in water reform has been made through the Initiative and COAG mechanisms, there is still un nished business as outlined by the Commission's comprehensive review of water reform progress undertaken in 2011: • Returning overused and over-allocated surface water and groundwater systems to sustainable levels of extraction. • Unful lled commitments to manage water interception effectively. All parties to the NWI need to incorporate signi cant interception into water plans, otherwise the reform framework is compromised and the security of water rights is eroded. • The lack of clarity regarding the responsibility and accountability for environmental water management decisions; a function of multiple institutions involved in decision making, and the limited scienti cally credible monitoring and evaluation of environmental outcomes. • Emerging issues were also agged by the last assessment. How should we manage competing demands for water from our resources sector? How can we map future directions for water in our cities? But without a commitment to assess the NWI every three years and report on the performance of governments (both State and Federal), will there be suf cient incentive to meet outstanding water reform commitments, let alone tackle the new issues? With the closure of the Commission, this task must now be assigned to another agency to ensure that the un nished and important aspects of the agreement are completed by all governments. And it needs adequate resourcing. As other stakeholders have argued, it is important that whichever agency inherits the Commission's functions is at 'arm's length' from administering any water programs. An independent umpire -- without vested interests -- is essential to give con dence to all interests that future assessments remain fair and impartial. Whether or not other agencies have suf cient in-house expertise and knowledge to perform specialised water management assessments is also cause for concern. Wartook Lake in Halls Gap, Victoria, during a drought period.
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