The National Water Initiative has set the water policy reform agenda for the past decade, following on from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Water Reform Framework of 1994. In recent years, National Water Initiative activities such as a National Water Market System and various national frameworks have either ceased or have less momentum because of changes in focus and competing priorities. A review of the policy and legal framework for collaborative water planning in Australia (Tan et al. 2012) found some key gaps relating to community engagement, including:
- tools for engagement
- procedural fairness, such as using independent experts
- clear documentation and language
- the development of comprehensive policy
- a legislative framework that allows a systems approach to consensus building
- information on how much water is needed and where.
Some of these themes were picked up in 2014 in the 4th assessment of the National Water Initiative—the last assessment completed by the former National Water Commission. In summary, the assessment concluded that:
Water reform in Australia is now at a crossroads. Solid progress on managing the nation’s water resources during the past two decades has delivered tangible benefits to governments, communities and industries. The millennium drought tested the reform principles enshrined in the National Water Initiative (NWI) but the principles have proven to be of enduring value, even when confounded by crisis, shorter-term priorities and declining resourcing.
In implementing the NWI, the [National Water] Commission and its partner governments have adopted an adaptive and cooperative approach, recognising the need to learn and adjust when implementing change in complex and dynamic environments. This will become even more important as future reform proceeds during a time when other issues occupy centre stage on the national agenda. The absence of COAG leadership will require progress to be led by state and territory governments and industry.
Given the substantial government investments and hard-won progress so far, and the valuable but challenging gains yet to be realised, it is critical that there is no backsliding from reform principles. The commission urges all governments to sustain their commitment to enduring water reform, so that Australia continues to optimise water’s elemental contribution to our economy, environment and communities. (NWC 2014)
For water quality, Australian governments are revising the 2000 Australian and New Zealand guidelines for fresh and marine water quality. Work has been progressing steadily, with publication of the revised guidelines scheduled for 2017. Although no formal national assessment of performance of the guidelines has been done recently, the state and territory governments cite their constant use in planning, management and regulatory applications.