AGRICULTURE and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce has faced media today in Canberra to confront critical issues and allegations raised by the ABC Four Corners episode “Pumped” on Monday night.
Mr Joyce said the program raised “serious concerns about water-theft”.
“And just like there are cattle thieves and just like there are sheep thieves, there are car thieves, there are people who break into your house and there are people who steal water,” he said.
“And if you break the law - and that is an allegation, not a fact, it's an allegation - then you are going to be dealt with in the same process as any other criminal who steals things.”
In outlining the government’s course of action and processes for initiating potential investigations that would rely on talks with the other Basin water ministers, he was critical of over-reactions to the issues exposed in the Barwon-Darling region of NSW, and impacts on the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
He took direct aim at federal Shadow Water Minister Tony Burke who held a joint media conference yesterday with South Australian Water Minister Ian Hunter.
But Mr Joyce said “excessive statements” were made around a press conference in South Australia.
“Statements that are made about this having a massive effect on the Coorong just belies the facts,” he said.
“Anything else, I don't think, really assists the process and it's really for a political effect rather than dealing with the issues.”
Mr Burke and Mr Hunter were quick to hit back at Mr Joyce after his media conference, accusing him of minimising the issues raised by Four Corners and not moving forward with a federal inquiry into allegations.
But when appearing before the Canberra press galley, Mr Joyce said there was 32,500 gigalitres in the Murray-Darling Basin catchment, compared to 10GLs in the Barwon-Darling area, linked to the issues raised by Four Corners.
He said 32,000GLs was the equivalent of about 13 million swimming pools and about 11,000GLs was extracted throughout the Basin, or 4.4m swimming pools, while 7000GLs of water flows over the barrages in South Australia that equated to about 2.8m swimming pools.
The Darling-Barwon catchment area that Four Corners referred had total extraction of 160GLs, he said.
“The licence that they refer to, which they believe there may have been a portion of water stolen from, is 10GLs,” he said.
“So of the 32,500 gigalitres, we're talking about 10.
“Of the 7000 that flows over the barrages, we're talking about 10Gls, about 1000kms away.
“So when you say that is going to have a massive effect on the Coorong, a portion of 10GLs, and it’s going to upset the lower lakes and it’s a massive issue for South Australia that just belies the reality of the hydrology and the arithmetic.”
Mr Joyce said it was “certainly an issue and we're not dismissing that” but it was an issue for the people who lived around the area, where that water may have been taken.
“And the people who live around where that water may have been taken, all live in NSW,” he said.
“I'm just going to state the bleating obvious.
“When someone stands up and says, ‘This is going to have a huge effect on the Coorong and the lower lakes’ well, they're the numbers and if nothing else the numbers stand for themselves and it's just an erroneous statement, and an emotive statement and an incorrect statement.”
Following the program, a NSW bureaucrat had referred himself to ICAC, Mr Joyce said, and “that issue has been dealt with and ICAC can take on any issue they want”.
“They don’t need any politician to tell them,” he said.
“And in fact they are specifically there so any person who has an issue gets themselves referred to ICAC, and ICAC will deal with it.
“What I can also say is I've spoken to the NSW minister (Niall Blair) and he has (appointed) a person from outside government to do an independent inquiry on it and that would make abundant sense, because it's an issue for NSW.
“Now, we're not going to let it rest there because it will come back to all the ministers of the Murray-Darling Basin and we'll see how this report presents.
“We'll see what their actions are.
“We'll see if there's an authentic and ardent process to deal with this issue and then we'll make our decision about whether further actions are required.”
Mr Joyce said the ABC report talked about rule changes that allowed people to take water, that other people thought was inappropriate, which was something that happened in 2012, under Mr Burke’s watch.
“Who was the federal minister in 2012? Tony Burke, not me - Tony Burke was the minister in 2012 when those rule changes happened,” he said.
“We'll review what's happened in NSW with all the Murray-Darling ministers at the next ministerial meeting and I genuinely believe at that point in time, that is following a diligent resolve of that process.
“One person has already referred themselves to ICAC so if we're talking about any malfeasance there, then ICAC will be dealing with that, as we speak.
“I don't think anybody is denying the potency of ICAC in NSW to call other people who they think need to be investigated.
“I'm not going to start sort of pre-supposing who they may and who they may not (call).
“The issue is, as I've stated before, an issue overwhelmingly for NSW and the process is now being investigated by a person outside government, who is independent of government.
“And even after that, I'll make sure that comes back to our ministerial meeting and if all the ministers there, if they're not happy with the process, then we can have the discussion there.”
Burke and Hunter respond
But Mr Burke said Mr Joyce’s response “could not have been more disappointing” and he’d “brushed off” responsibility for the allegations, claiming they were a state issue.
“To claim this is solely a state issue is outrageous and irresponsible - Barnaby Joyce can’t shrug this off and leave it to the NSW government to sort out,” he said.
“The allegations aired on Monday night all go to the integrity of how NSW has behaved, whether or not the NSW government has been strategically reducing its compliance capacity and undermining any enforcement capacity in the Murray Darling Basin.
“This reason alone illustrates the need for something more than a state response.”
Mr Burke said the problem for 100 years was that the Murray Darling Basin was treated as a state issue rather than as a complete river system.
“What Barnaby Joyce has said today effectively unwinds the entire reason for Murray-Darling reform in the first place,” he said.
Mr Burke said Labor was calling on the Prime Minister to show his commitments to the Murray Darling Basin agreement and call an independent judicial review into the allegations shown on ABC television.
He said Mr Turnbull needed to reassure all of Australia, and the 3.4 million Australians that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin, either directly or indirectly, for critical human water needs or for their livelihoods, that the federal government will back them in implementing the Basin Plan.
“The plan itself is still intact,” he said.
Mr Hunter said Mr Joyce’s “evasive response to the scathing Four Corners allegations is starting to make it look like there is a National Party cover-up”.
“After more than 24 hours of silence as outrage grew over the allegations of water theft and maladministration in NSW, Barnaby Joyce has finally spoken: to say that the Commonwealth will not step in,” he said.
“He might as well have not said anything.
“Why is our country’s Water Minister so dismissive of the shocking claims that billions of litres of water have been illegally extracted from the river by New South Wales cotton farmers?”
Niall Blair statement
NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair announced former commonwealth department head Ken Matthews had been appointed to conduct an independent investigation into the issues raised by Four Corners.
Mr Matthews has served as the foundation Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the National Water Commission and was responsible for working with the State and Territory governments to implement the National Water Initiative - an inter-governmental agreement to improve national water management.
“I acknowledge the issues raised by the broadcast potentially impact on other basin states,” Mr Blair said.
“I will be writing to my commonwealth and state counterparts with the terms of reference and providing them with an opportunity to comment.
“If the review identifies staff whose conduct has not been in keeping with department policies or processes, this information will be provided for decision-making in any subsequent disciplinary processes.
“Referral of any potentially illegal or corrupt activities identified will be made to relevant authorities.”
Mr Matthews is due to provide an interim report by August 31 and final report due at the end of November this year.