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$31 million water centre to go ahead

The proposed national independent water and catchment policy centre, presented to our members in April this year, will now proceed, with The Ian Potter Foundation and The Myer Foundation having built a coalition of 15 philanthropic funders who have committed in excess of $31 million to ensure the centre’s establishment. 

In Australia — the driest inhabited continent on Earth — water is a scarce and precious resource. Australia’s future prosperity depends on the sustainable management of our inland waters and catchments. The new centre will focus on helping improve the way decisions are made about water and catchments across the country.

Philanthropy rises to the challenge

In early 2018, The Ian Potter Foundation and The Myer Foundation commissioned an extensive 18 month study that found policy and governance remain fundamental challenges for water management in Australia and indicated that there was a role for philanthropy in helping inform improved policy design and decision making. As a result, the two foundations jointly committed $10 million and looked to philanthropic partners to secure an additional $25 million in funding commitments to support the centre’s operation for at least ten years. 

The Ian Potter Foundation and The Myer Foundation have been joined by Colonial Foundation, the Margaret Reid ‘Kingston’ Bequest, the Besen Family Foundation, The Miller Foundation, The Wright Burt Foundation, The Ross Trust, The William Buckland Foundation, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, The Letcombe Foundation, and five other co-funding partners. Many are existing AEGN members and annual commitments range from $5000 to $500,000, contributed over either five or ten-year funding periods.

Our complex water system

Australia’s inland waters and catchments and the communities and industries that depend on them face many risks. Finding enduring policy solutions has become more difficult over the last decade as policy debates have become increasingly partisan and toxic – climate change and other pressures like population growth only increase the potential for conflict over water policy. The coalition of funders recognises that long-term, evidence-informed, community-engaged public policy that rises above partisanship and engages deeply and transparently with all relevant stakeholders will be critical for meeting Australia’s water policy challenges. The breadth of philanthropic support for the centre will uniquely position it to provide the independence needed to approach current and future water and catchment policy conflicts as an ‘honest broker’. 

The Water Centre’s unique role

At the centre’s core will be the use of proven models of participatory and deliberative policy co-design bringing together all stakeholders with an interest in water, including policymakers, politicians, government agencies, academic experts, farmers, First Peoples, land and water managers, corporations, financiers and regional and urban communities. A 2020 OECD study of deliberative decision-making across member countries showed how deliberation is useful for ‘values-driven dilemmas; complex problems that require trade-offs; long-term issues that go beyond the short-term incentives of electoral cycles [and] issues around which there is political deadlock.’ 

The centre cannot make policy, that remains a role for governments. However, the centre will work closely with communities, stakeholders and Commonwealth and state governments to establish authorising environments for its work. The centre aims to help communities, industries, First Nations, and environmental interests find common ground in the development of enduring and sustainable water and catchment policy. Once appointed, the board and executive will determine the key priorities and establish a program of works. A panel of experts will be convened to advise on each stream of work.   

The Australian Academy of Science will host the centre for at least its first five years of operation. An international executive search firm has been engaged to help find a chair, board members and CEO with the aim to launch the centre in early to mid-2021.

Catalysing change

Meeting or exceeding the original $35 million fundraising target remains critical to secure the centre’s future and ensure it can remain truly independent. Likeminded funders – whether small, medium or large – are invited to join the coalition to play a part in ensuring the centre can catalyse change in the management of Australia’s freshwater resources.