The National Water Commission (NWC) is to be dissolved, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann confirmed on Monday. Established during the millennium drought, the NWC is an independent statutory authority designed to monitor the progress of national water reform, but its role changed and expanded over the years. What has the NWC been doing?
Origins and functions of the NWC
The NWC was launched in 2004 by the Howard Government as a component of the National Water Initiative (44) (NWI) and legislated by the National Water Commission Act 2004. The NWI is a plan for sustainable water use in Australia to ensure that residents and industries have a reliable supply of water in times of drought, while protecting the health of Australia’s rivers and groundwater. It was developed by consultation between the federal, state and territory governments via the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The NWI has a timetable of key actions with regular assessments and the NWC was created partly to conduct these assessments. The NWC’s first task was developing baseline levels for Australia’s water resources from which the the progress of the NWI could be determined.
The NWC published the third NWI assessment in 2011 and determined that “the NWI has delivered significant, tangible benefits for Australia” but “there has been disappointingly slow progress in the explicit identification of over allocated and overused systems and in restoring those systems to sustainable levels of extraction”. The next assessment is due this year.
The National Water Commission Act 2004 was originally written with a sunset clause of 30 June 2012, designed to give the NWC a finite existence. In 2011 COAG conducted a review of the NWC and stated that the NWC “has built skills and methodologies and has become a credible, specialist organisation in water reform” and concluded “that the NWC should continue, without sunset”.
In March 2012 the National Water Commission Amendment Bill 2012 was passed, which removed the sunset clause and instead mandated five yearly reviews of the NWC, starting in 2017. The amendment also gave the Commission the power, if directed by COAG, to assess any “matters of national significance relating to water”, not just those relating to the NWI.
Expanded functions of the NWC
The amendments also required the NWC to monitor and audit the progress of the much-debated Murray–Darling Basin Plan.