Murray-Darling Basin review to examine water rules and compliance

By David Donaldson

Monday July 31, 2017

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority will conduct an independent review into the appropriateness of, and compliance with, state regulations on water use — if the affected states agree to it.

This follows allegations aired by ABC’s Four Corners that water earmarked for the environment was actually being used by NSW cotton irrigators, and that top water bureaucrat Gavin Hanlon had offered to secretly share internal government information with irrigation lobbyists. Hanlon and former water minister Kevin Humphries have been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The NSW government is accused of having ignored evidence presented by its own former water investigator that water was being misused. Labor’s water spokesman Tony Burke said it raised questions about whether NSW “has been strategically getting rid of their compliance capacity and undermining any enforcement capacity in the Murray-Darling Basin.”

SA Water Minister Ian Hunter has said he was “stunned” by allegations NSW public servants were “complicit in undermining their own water laws” but already had suspicions about the state’s commitment to the plan.

The review, due to report to the Council of Australian Governments in December, “will identify the highest areas of risk of non-compliance and undertake a strategic analysis focused on these areas”. The terms of reference will cover:

  • The appropriateness of and compliance with state laws, statutory instruments (including water resource plans), the terms and conditions of water licences and entitlements and any other relevant powers or approvals;
  • The adequacy of water measurement and monitoring arrangements, including metering and investigating irregular activity;
  • The adequacy of governance and institutional arrangements necessary to ensure legally compliant water use.

“We expect that, as part of their agreement to the review, basin water ministers will commit to providing the MDBA with ready access to all relevant information and the full support and cooperation of relevant state officials,” said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in a statement that carefully avoided mentioning the scandal that sparked the review.

“Strong compliance regimes are just as important for irrigators as they are for the environment and basin communities.

“The vast majority of the irrigation sector follow the rules attached to their water licenses, and the Coalition government remains strongly committed to supporting this innovative and productive industry.”

Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce has been reluctant to have the Commonwealth involved in what he sees as a NSW issue. The states have constitutional responsibility for water, which presents perennial coordination issues in managing what is very much a cross-border issue.

Joyce, who will write to state water ministers this week seeking agreement to the terms of reference, played down the significance of the accusations.

“If you think that what they showed on that report is going to have a dramatic effect on what happens in the lower lakes or the southern end of the basin, it just can’t,” he said.

“The total Barwon-Darling take is 160 gigalitres, and what they were referring to in the Four Corners report was class-A licenses, that’s 10,” Joyce argued.

“These are allegations that they are stealing a portion of that 10, so how does a portion of 10 affect the 7000 that flows over the barges?”

Joyce has been playing to both sides, telling reporters in Canberra last week that it raises serious concerns about water theft, before heading down to Shepparton and telling a pub audience he was proud of the Nationals’ efforts to return water to farmers and “make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show.”

The MDBA will present its findings to COAG by 15 December, following a report to the scheduled meeting of the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council in November 2017.

The review will complement a number of other actions underway in response to recent allegations, including the independent review led by former mandarin Ken Matthews, the investigation by ICAC, and the audit being undertaken by the Australian National Audit Office.

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