The governments of Australia should develop, and commit to, a new decadal strategy for national water reform that will ensure secure, sustainable, and equitable
water supplies for Australian communities, industries and the environment.
Australia has a history of world-leading water reform. The 1994 Council of Australian Governments
Water Reform Framework and the 2004 National Water Initiative (NWI) were seminal
intergovernmental agreements that drove valuable reform for two decades. However, with the
exception of very recent developments on groundwater, climate change, and engagement with
Indigenous peoples, water reform has been mostly absent from the national agenda in recent years.
In 2013, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Standing Council on Environment and Water
was disbanded, and in 2015 the National Water Commission was abolished. ATSE believes that these
decisions were short sighted, as they diffused responsibility for implementing the NWI and reduced the
national impetus for water reform. The 2016 State of the Environment report found that “progress has
slowed in areas such as development of comprehensive water plans, improvements in sustainable
water use, standardisation and nationalisation of water markets, and broader adoption of water
This reform fatigue has placed Australian water policy and governance at serious risk of failing to meet
the challenges of increasing competition for water and the associated water stress in a changing
climate. Australia lacks a clear leadership framework to drive the next generation of reform. It is
important that Australian governments work proactively and collaboratively to develop and implement
water policy that drives investment, innovation, equity, sustainability and water resilience for the
benefit of Australian communities.
Australia needs a new generation of evidence-based water reform goals, not just a progress report on
the current NWI. Whilst the NWI drove significant progress, a number of reform areas were
underdone. Recent research on the issues arising from water reform to date, has identified a number
of economic, social, and legal issues which need urgent attention in the next phase of water policy
reform. Balancing the multiple tensions of the water-energy-industry-climate nexus is a key challenge
for Australia’s governments. Without a framework that addresses these interactions, Australia risks
isolated policy decisions that create significant impacts and challenges for third parties.
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