What is the Department of Agriculture’s role in the Murray-Darling? Not even Mick Keelty knows

By Stephen Easton

Friday December 6, 2019

Businessman with questions, businessperson with digital tablet holding question mark, retro toned image, selective focus

The Inspector-General of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources, Mick Keelty, has delivered a withering assessment of the Department of Agriculture’s role in the water-sharing agreement, suggesting it worries too much about how taxpayer’s money is spent and gets in the way of projects.

He says stakeholders in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan generally don’t see the point of the federal department’s water policy division, which hosts his office and was officially transferred to the Infrastructure portfolio from Thursday — until the Prime Minister suddenly decided to stop the move, just weeks after the Governor-General signed and sealed the Administrative Arrangements Order.

The massive machinery-of-government overhaul will see the department instead retain water and take over the environment portfolio.

In contrast, the former Federal Police commissioner praised the New South Wales government and its freshly reformed water regulation authorities, in his first report as the Northern Basin Commissioner, which was tabled in parliament on Thursday. At the political level, however, NSW is playing hardball, accusing the South Australian government of “holding every other state to ransom” in the same breath as listing its own four-point demands.

Keelty notes he was backed up by very little statutory power to undertake his investigations, which followed the ABC exposing water theft and collusion between NSW public servants and powerful irrigated agriculture interests in mid-2017. As the NBC, he reports he “relied solely upon the cooperation of everyone concerned” but says this approach “may not be sustainable” over the longer term.

After being bumped up to his current role overseeing the whole Basin in October, Keelty is now awaiting legislation that will imbue him with strong investigative powers so he can force public servants to answer questions and produce documents.

Given he believes there is too much bureaucracy involved already, Keelty is conscious of not adding to that, and reports he wasn’t welcomed with open arms by the bureaucrats.

“The first months of the NBC were treated cautiously by some, if not all agencies, many of whom saw the role as an imposition by the Commonwealth,” he writes.

Mick Keelty

Keelty reports the Department of Agriculture “struggled to understand how [his] position would operate” while other stakeholders don’t see the point of the federal department, which houses and provides administrative support to his office.

“The Commonwealth does not own dams or rivers and yet imposes its will through agencies and officials upon those charged with delivering and managing water resources appropriately at the state and territory level.

“The Commonwealth Environmental Water Office (CEWO), of course does own and manage water, making the coordination of activities between jurisdictions vitally important.”

Read more: Murray-Darling Basin integrity cop criticises violent threats against public servants

Keelty says there is an “atmosphere of consultation fatigue” and that people dealing with the reality of rural life in an increasingly dry continent feel that public servants fly in, make promises, then return to “the relative luxury of their city life” and fail to follow through.

He notes approvingly that after the shocking ABC Four Corners program, the NSW government showed “speed and agility” in establishing its new Natural Resources Access Regulator.

Keelty reports that since he took on the NBC role, NRAR and the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (and the previous Industry department) have been “fully engaged, which is a credit to their leadership and change management culture”.

But the federal department does not have a good reputation among water stakeholders he interviewed, and many are confused about its purpose. They see it as too risk-averse, and Keelty supposes this “may derive from many years of failed or incomplete project delivery where it has had no control over implementation”.

“It appears that over time, the DA has become process driven and not action oriented. Stakeholders consider the department not dynamic enough to ‘enable’ projects to obtain approvals and compete with any degree of haste.”

The inspector-general thinks the department spends too much time worrying about where federal funds go.

“Within the DA there is a strong sense of control over taxpayer funds, which is understandable, but the level of control, ultimately risks timely delivery of projects.

“The large investment by the Australian government of $13b of taxpayer’s money (of which about $4.5b remains) has to be managed diligently and with integrity; however, delivery and implementation should not be impeded through overly bureaucratic processes.”

Keelty says lots of federal public servants with responsibilities for water policy don’t seem to full appreciate that it is the role of state governments to deliver water infrastructure projects.

“This is not new for Commonwealth departments, it is similar to roles in other portfolios such as Health, Education and Transport,” he comments.

The federal department’s reputation in the area of water policy is in some ways unfair, the report suggests — it is “populated by people with expertise and passion” — and could perhaps be repaired through better communication such as a clearer mission statement, and “a more dynamic posture with an enabling culture that delivers on government and community expectations”.

“For example is it the department’s role in water to protect the public purse or is it to manage the water resources of the MDB (Murray-Darling Basin)? Is its role to protect water resources for the First Nations, environment and legally entitled water licence holder of the MDB or is it the department’s role to deliver outcomes of the Ministerial Council on the MDB that was established by COAG?”

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