CALLS for various inquiries into the Murray Darling Basin Plan have emerged following a controversial episode of ABC Four Corners “Pumped” last night.
The program raised allegations that water intended for environmental purposes and paid for by taxpayers in the multi-billion dollar Basin Plan, specifically in the NSW Barwon–Darling region, was being illegally pumped into storages to grow cotton.
Four Corners presenter Sarah Ferguson set the tone in introducing the program’s latest investigation, saying more than 100 years of “greed mismanagement and plundering of one of Australia’s most valuable resources was supposed to end five years ago with the introduction of the federal government’s Murray Darling Basin Plan”.
“Billions of dollars of tax payers’ money was committed in a hard won deal to save the inland river system from the ravages of heavy agricultural use – particularly the thirsty work of irrigating the vast cotton plantations of northern NSW and southern Queensland,” she said.
But Ms Ferguson said the program raised “serious allegations” on how the plan was working now and accusations of illegal water use pumping water from “fragile rivers” and tampering with meters.”
Regional Australia Institute Chair and former NSWFarmers Association President Mal Peters - also a beef producer in northern NSW - featured in the program raising his concerns about the Basin Plan’s overall implementation.
“There is no question in my mind that the majority of Australians supported the expenditure of a huge amount of money, $13 billion, to fix the river,” he said.
“If the outcome of it is that we have a very few number of irrigators that have got a huge windfall out of this, I think everybody will be disgusted.”
The report by ABC journalist Linton Besser featured heavily on criticism raised by environmentalists about the use of water for agricultural irrigation and its impact on the Basin Plan.
Australian Greens SA Senator and the party’s Murray Darling Basin spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young said she would refer the Murray Darling Basin Plan to a Senate inquiry as soon as parliament resumed next month with the Greens concerned about corruption allegations revealed by Four Corners.
“Allegations of misuse and abuse of taxpayer money in the Murray Darling Basin Plan have put the spotlight on serious failures that need to be subjected to a full investigation,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“South Australia, the environment and taxpayers are all being screwed while a misuse of water caps is being used to line the pockets of big irrigators upstream.
“This abuse of money and water should alarm all taxpayers.
“A senate inquiry to investigate what exactly is going on here, including these revelations of the misuse and abuse of the cap system and allegations of taxpayer’s money being wasted, needs to take place as soon as possible, leaving no stone unturned.”
Senator Hanson-Young said “This plan has always been about lining the pockets of big irrigators”.
“It’s been haemorrhaging money while the sustainability and the health of the river has fallen by the wayside,” she said.
“Our communities and environment should not have to suffer in the face of wealthy irrigators who were given carte blanche over water coming into the system.”
ACF call for ICAC inquiry
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) said it would be requesting that NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) commence an investigation into the allegations raised by Four Corners.
ACF said the program had “exposed allegations that the NSW Government has failed to prosecute rogue irrigators and may have shut-down active investigations into this water theft”.
“These are serious allegations of extraordinary abuse of the Murray-Darling Plan - there must be an ICAC investigation,” said ACF Campaign Director Dr Paul Sinclair.
“Instead of saving the river, it looks like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has made a fortune for a lucky few.
“The government has to step in to fix abuses now if we are going to save our most precious water system.
“ACF is also calling for a Federal Senate Inquiry into the dealings taking place in the Barwon-Darling to investigate the undermining of the Basin Plan.
“The Four Corners program suggests that sections of the NSW government are deeply influenced by a powerful group of irrigators and is sabotaging reforms designed to restore flows and life to the Murray-Darling Rivers.”
South Australia want urgent COAG meeting
South Australian Water Minister Ian Hunter also supported calls for another examination of the allegations raised in the program and the NSW government’s role; in particular claims against high level public servants.
He called for an urgent meeting of COAG, to commission a judicial inquiry with terms of reference to make recommendations about a new national regime of compliance and enforcement for the Basin Plan.
“Tonight’s Four Corners program confirms our deep suspicions about the level of commitment of NSW to comply with the Basin Plan, he said in a statement.
“What did the NSW government know about this and when did they know it?
“That government has questions to answer.
“Clearly we can’t trust the NSW Department of Primary Industries or the NSW government to investigate themselves.”
NSW Water Minister Niall Blair said his government remained committed to the Murray Basin Plan, while seeking the best deal for NSW communities within that framework.
Mr Blair said it was wrong to suggest that a change to the water rules in NSW in 2012, “somehow undermines our determination to see the Plan through”.
He said he’d directed the Secretary of the NSW Department of Industry to provide an urgent overview of all the compliance matters raised in the program.
Mr Blair said he’d also asked for clarification around the circumstances of the Deputy Director General’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,” he said.
“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.”
Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce – who chairs the COAG council of state water ministers - has been contacted for a response to calls for various inquiries and action, following the ABC broadcast, but is yet to respond.
But speaking notes issued by his office ahead of the ABC broadcast last night said rules for water pumping were governed by the NSW government and a Water Resource Plan for the Barwon-Darling must be accredited by the Minister as being compliant with the Basin Plan by June 30, 2019.
The notes said the Basin Plan 2012 set a local recovery target for the Barwon-Darling water resource plan area of 6 gigalitres and to day 32.6GLs had been recovered, “so the area has contributed an additional 26.6GL in environmental water to meet shared recovery targets in the northern Basin”.
“I am confident that all jurisdictions are keen to see a healthy and productive river system that supports the communities in the Basin and the Basin Plan is on track,” the notes said.
MDBA says we must keep going with Basin Plan
Murray Darling Basin Authority Chief Executive Phillip Glyde also issued a statement last night, backing the Basin Plan’s progress.
“Five years into the 12 year implementation of the Basin Plan, we are already seeing improvements to the health of the Basin - there is no doubt that the Basin Plan is needed,” he said.
Mr Glyde said the ABC program focused on an area of the Basin known as the Barwon–Darling where the NSW government was responsible for managing water issues at the local level, including setting the rules and enforcing them.
He said the MDBA had known about issues in the Barwon–Darling for some time.
“Through the review of the Northern Basin, we heard from communities who were unhappy with the current application of water rules and regulations,” he said.
“And that is why in November 2016 we recommended a change to the Basin Plan, including a number of additional projects to improve water management - referred to as toolkit measures.
“One of these toolkit measures is a project to protect environmental flows in the Barwon–Darling.
“We maintain this toolkit measure is one important step towards improved water protection in the Barwon–Darling.
“We were pleased to see that the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council endorsed these projects in-principle on 16 June 2017.”
Mr Glyde said “We know there is more to be done” but “this is a serious matter”.
“The water extraction rules must protect environmental water and low flows, while ensuring industry and production continue,” he said.
“The MDBA encourages all Basin governments to treat these matters seriously and urges them to respond to community concerns.
“It is important that all water users trust and have faith in the compliance system.
“Delivering the Basin Plan is a complex and difficult task.
“COAG reaffirmed its commitment and recently endorsed an implementation plan to deliver the Basin Plan on time and in full.
“We continue to work with all government agencies involved.”
NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm said there was no need for another Senate inquiry into the Basin Plan.
Senator Leyonhjelm said he chaired an inquiry 18 months ago which explored the issue of the plan’s implementation “so another inquiry wouldn’t serve any purpose”.
“In any case, the issue of whether water is being diverted to production use in NSW from Barwon and Darling rivers, is not a matter for South Australia,” he said.
“Very little water from the Darling and Barwon ever reaches South Australia and when it does it evaporates in the lower lakes anyhow.
“So the SA environment doesn’t lose at all.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said COAG was the way to discuss the issues raised in the ABC broadcast in relating to the Basin Plan’s roll-out but Minister Hunter “doesn’t understand that in his own state the water that comes from the other Basin states is evaporating and it’s not benefitting the environment”.
“I don’t see it as a tragedy that water is being used to produce wealth in NSW instead of being sent to South Australia to evaporate,” he said.
Opposition speak out
Labor Shadow Water Minister Tony Burke who oversaw the Basin Plan’s implementation and signing into law in late 2012 said the ABC program “puts the entire Murray Darling Basin Plan at risk”.
Mr Burke said the purpose of the reform was to restore the system to health, but the plan becomes “meaningless if there is no integrity to the system for measuring water”.
He said last night's program raised the prospect of environmental water, paid for by every Australian, being pumped back into irrigation channels and dams.
“Environmental water must be protected to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin,” he said.
“If any states are allowing the theft of environmental water then there is no Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“Barnaby Joyce and the NSW Government must respond in the strongest possible terms.
“Any attempt to make excuses or explain away the issues raised in last night's program will simply expose an intention from the Liberals and Nationals to destroy the Murray Darling Basin Plan.”
SA Labor Senator Penny Wong said “the Federal government with Barnaby Joyce having the influence he has, simply don't support the sort of implementation of the plan that South Australians want”.