Victoria and South Australia are crying foul after a Four Corners investigation claimed New South Wales cotton growers siphon billions of litres of water purchased by taxpayers for return to the environment under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
It further claimed to have evidence that top NSW government officials assisting irrigators in profiteering from undermining the plan, and last year proposed walking away from the plan altogether in conversations with irrigators.
Both Victoria and SA governments’ water ministers are now calling for a judicial inquiry, while the NSW water minister has directed his departmental secretary to investigate.
SA Water Minister Ian Hunter said he was “stunned” by the allegations that NSW public servants were “complicit in undermining their own water laws” but already had suspicions about the state’s commitment to the plan:
“If the allegations are correct, that at a very senior level in the public service in New South Wales that people have turned a blind eye to this, then that is very concerning,” Hunter said.
“There needs to be an independent judicial review – independent of government, independent of politics … a senior judicial figure, because this strikes at the very heart of the public service in NSW, if the allegations are correct.”
Acting Victorian Water Minister Martin Pakula told media that Victoria had done the “heavy lifting” in returning water to the environment:
“The Murray basin plan is about getting the best outcome for the environment, economy, farmers and communities — that can only happen if all jurisdictions work within the rules of the agreement,” Pakula said.
More than $3 billion in public funds spent on water buybacks since the plan was announced 10 years ago.
The statement from NSW Primary Industries and Regional Water Minister Niall Blair in full:
The NSW Government remains committed to the Murray Darling Basin Plan, while seeking the best deal for NSW communities within that framework.
It’s wrong to suggest that a change to the water rules in NSW in 2012, somehow undermines our determination to see the Plan through.
I have directed the Secretary of the NSW Department of Industry to provide an urgent overview of all the compliance matters raised in the program.
I have also asked for clarification around the circumstances of the Deputy Director General [Gavin Hanlon]’s briefing.
The Department established a new quality improvement process for regulation on July 1, 2016, with an independent advisory committee led by the NSW Land and Water Commissioner and the former head of the NSW Environment Protection Authority.
The Secretary will engage these advisers in preparing a suitably robust and independent process to complete the analysis of these issues.
Additionally, the Secretary will also seek advice from the Ombudsman to maximise the effectiveness of the investigation.
We acknowledge the importance of every drop of water in the basin, but the fate of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan won’t hinge on irrigators in the Barwon-Darling.
This Government is determined to address the economic, environmental and socio-economic concerns around the river system, with local communities front and centre in this balancing act.