MURRAY Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) Chief Executive Phillip Glyde has moved to calm troubled waters following last night’s controversial Four Corners broadcast that pointed the finger at cotton irrigators alleging misuse of Basin Plan environmental water.
Focussing on alleged water theft and pump meter tampering in the NSW Barwon–Darling region, the ABC’s current affairs program has ignited several calls for an inquiry into the allegations and the $13 billion Basin Plan which was signed into law in 2012 to try and protect the iconic food bowl from over-extraction.
Mr Glyde conceded the media allegations were “corrosive” for public and stakeholder trust in the Basin Plan’s roll-out but stressed it was on track.
He said it was beyond his “pay grade” and up to government water ministers to decide what type of inquiry was needed in response to the allegations, amid calls for a Royal commission and Senate inquiry, by the Greens.
“We think a review is a good thing and how that’s conducted will really be up to governments,” Mr Glyde said.
“It’s important to remember it’s not necessarily the MDBA’s plan.
“It’s a plan that’s been put together by first ministers, Prime Minister and premiers, administered by their water ministers and they’re the ones who set the rules and in that sense we’re operating within the rules they’ve set so they can make the choice about whether there needs to be a widespread review and whether or not it’s judicial inquiry, is really a matter for them.”
Mr Glyde said a review was already underway into the additional 450GLs of ‘up-water’ in the Basin Plan and how to use it more efficiently, without causing any economic dislocation or social hardship, while seeking to return more water to the environment.
“It’s a critical element of the plan but one but also it’s one many irrigators are concerned won’t be implemented,” he said with a report due later this year, potentially December.
“But what people are calling for in terms of the compliance review is to look at the regulatory regime, its monitoring and enforcement.”
Asked if the Basin Plan was in disarray following the ABC allegations, Mr Glyde said “definitely not” and stressed it was important to understand the context of how much water is being talked about “in the total scheme of things”, in the NSW Barwon–Darling.
“The total amount of water that’s being returned to the environment, in order for it to be sustainable, is 2750GLs and the commonwealth has already recovered over 2000GLs of that,” he said.
“The amount in the north that we’re talking about to add to the environment is 390GLs.
“Whilst these accusations are very corrosive of trust in the Basin Plan, the plan itself is going well.
“We’re starting to see very good environmental outcomes like Murray Cod breeding events, Golden Perch and Silver Perch breeding etc and water birds.”
Mr Glyde said implementation aspects of returning the water to the environment were also going “very well” along with the 650GLs adjustment mechanism for environmental off-sets that’s been endorsed by all Basin water ministers.
“In the broad sense it’s really important that we stay with the plan because it’s going well,” he said.
“We’re five years into a 12 year implementation path and we’re really quite happy with progress.
We can always do more and quite clearly we need to look carefully at some of these enforcement and compliance matters, because they’re critical to the plan’s delivery.
“But when someone breaks the speed limit it doesn’t necessarily mean the road rules are completely wrong.
“It just means the incentives are there and the penalties are there to make sure it doesn’t happen very often.”
Latest figures provided by the MDBA say the Barwon Darling has recovered 32.6GLs (1.02pc of the total 3200GLs target) - with 32GLs proposed in the Basin Plan - which means it has no more recovery.
Mr Glyde said he viewed the ABC program from two core perspectives last night - lack of compliance and the need to tighten-up rules to ensure water wasn’t being used illegally, as per the Basin Plan’s requirements.
He said the television broadcast showed “proper compliance action on particular activities” didn’t occur - but he wasn’t a “competent” judge of the allegations which was now a matter for NSW regulators.
“They’re the ones who have responsibility for ensuring compliance with their own water sharing plans and I think we should leave it to others more expert to judge the truth of those claims – we can’t do that, from the MDBA’s perspective,” he said.
But Mr Glyde said a concern expressed to the MDBA over the past three or four years during its Northern Basin Review process, was that environmental water could be pumped out legally, by irrigators, at the wrong time.
He said there was nothing illegal about that practice which meant environmental water wasn’t going towards its intended purpose.
“That’s why in November last year we made a recommendation as part of our northern basin review that governments - NSW, Queensland and commonwealth - act to do better to protect the environmental water,” he said.
“It didn’t get much publicity but in June of this year at the ministerial council meeting, ministers signed on in principle to do that.”
Better compliance and tighter water measuring needed in Basin Plan
Mr Glyde said he was “not sure” if the practices exposed in the Four Corners program were widespread.
But he said in the southern basin, a 100 year history of water use existed and a higher degree of compliance and tighter measuring of water use was in place, compared to the northern system.
The north’s practices are more recently developed which questions whether or not that system is “fit for purpose”, he said.
“On both sides of the border questions are being asked about whether or not the whole regime of monitoring and measuring is up to scratch and that’s something we’ve identified in our work as well - that you can always do more work on monitoring and compliance - and we need to see that happening,” he said.
“We’re indeed looking at our own practices, and the work we do, if it’s good enough for the north, and investigating that.
“In Queensland there are concerns about the metering practices there and in the south the irrigators point out there doesn’t seem to be the same degree of control in the north as there is in the south.
“We need to get to the bottom of that, but the point is, people are going to go with this plan which is a massive reform – 20 per cent of the water that irrigators were legally using, previously, has to be returned to the environment through purchase or through infrastructure investment.
“Those irrigators have to be confident that no other irrigators are benefitting unfairly from it and indeed everyone who is a stakeholder, the whole of the Australian community, needs to know the environmental water that’s being purchased with their tax dollars, is going towards an environmental outcome.”
Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said her party would support any investigation, following the ABC Four Corners program.
“These allegations are very serious and it is important that the NSW government and the federal government answer the allegations that have been made,” she said.
Shadow Climate Change Minister Mark Butler said all Australians who watched the Four Corners show last night “would be shocked by the allegations that emerged from it”.
“Not just about the conduct of some of the private individuals involved in that but particularly by some of the allegations around the NSW government’s conduct,” he said.
“The suggestion that the NSW government might be considering withdrawing from the plan needs to be ruled out by the NSW Premier immediately.
“This plan is incredibly important for the sustainability of the river system and for the food and fibre production and the communities that live along the river that must maintain the integrity of this plan, and last night’s allegations are quite shocking and must be discounted immediately by the NSW Premier.”
Independent SA Senator Nick Xenophon said a judicial inquiry with the powers of a Royal Commission was needed following “disturbing allegations” on ABC’s Four Corners of “widespread rorting of water entitlements and tampering of meters in NSW”.
Senator Xenophon says the inquiry should take place in addition to an NSW ICAC inquiry, and has written to ICAC requesting they urgently investigate the claims which include alleged inside information given to lobbyists by a NSW Government department and why water enforcement investigations appeared to have been curtailed.
“These allegations are incredibly serious,” he said.
“They go to the heart of the $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan, the environmental health of the river system and the economies of the communities which rely on it.
“This strikes at the very spirit and heart of the principles of Federation.
“If there is evidence of any one State trying to sabotage this inter-governmental agreement, then it is an attack on what Federation stands for.”