POLITICAL fallout has continued this week in Canberra over the Murray Darling Basin Plan with demands for tougher measures for government to inquire into allegations of water theft, raised on ABC television last month.
A debate was held in the Lower House as a Matter of Public Importance today, spearheaded by former Labor Water Minister Tony Burke who oversaw the Basin Plan being introduced in 2012.
A motion was also raised in the Senate, largely aimed at trying to wedge the Coalition government and expose Liberal South Australians over water policy, calling for an independent judicial inquiry into the Four Corners allegations.
That motion initiated by SA Senators from Labor, the Nick Xenophon Team, Greens, ex-Liberal Cory Bernardi and independent Lucy Gichuhi was passed and is understood will now move to the Lower House for another vote.
Largely a political stunt, it will seek to draw criticism of SA rural Liberal MPs like Tony Pasin and Rowan Ramsey, for voting with the government.
NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm - who headed a Senate inquiry into the Basin Plan in the previous parliament - voted with the government, against the motion.
The motion noted that the matters raised in the ABC program have been referred to the Australian National Audit Office and NSW authorities for investigation.
But it said a state-based inquiry into allegations, revealed in the report, were “insufficient and the only way to ensure confidence in states’ commitment to achieve the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is through a national investigation”.
Another debate on the Basin Plan was held in the Senate over an urgency motion moved by Labor, on the need to establish an independent national judicial inquiry through the Council of Australian Governments “following allegations of theft and corruption in management of water resources in the Barwon Darling Basin”.
The water issue also surfaced during question time in both houses during what’s been the first sitting week of parliament following the extended winter break.
Mr Burke directed a question at Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce asking him to confirm that the inquiry to be conducted by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) can’t compel witnesses to appear, take evidence under oath, seize documents or protect whistleblowers.
“Why won't the Deputy Prime Minister commit to a national judicial inquiry through COAG to ensure the Murray-Darling Basin plan is not undermined?” Mr Burke asked.
But Mr Joyce said the allegations were yet to be proven and “No-one condones theft or ever has”.
“If a person is thieving something, it is as if they are thieving anything else,” he said.
“If they are thieving a car, if they are thieving water, if they are thieving cattle, if they are thieving sheep.
“If it's a theft, it's a theft - but these are allegations.
“Be very, very careful.
“These are allegations and have not been proved.
“However, there is a lot of work now going into the investigation of the allegations.”
Mr Joyce said Ken Matthews, with the support of three people, police officers, with experience in ICAC, “is currently investigating precisely this”.
“Might I also say to the House that Mr Hanlon has referred himself to ICAC, right now, on this issue,” he said of a NSW bureaucrat, following allegations raised in the ABC program.
“Might I also say to the House that we have the Auditor-General investigating this.
“Might I also say to the House that the Murray Darling Basin Authority is conducting an independent review and investigation into this.
“All of these have the capacity, and ICAC in NSW do not need anybody to encourage them to expand their investigations if they need to do precisely that.
“We are taking this thing abundantly seriously and we are pursuing this issue through to make sure that if someone has thieved something they will be found out.
“But right now, as I always say, you have to understand that these are allegations that have been put forward and allegations that are being tested.”
Questions fired in Senate at Nationals deputy-leader
In the Upper House, Senator Bernardi asked questions to Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash saying NSW Water Minister Niall Blair “long knew about the illegal water-pumping allegations” against large cotton farmer and irrigator Peter Harris “accused of water theft on Four Corners”, in the Barwon Darling section of the river system.
“Then Mr Blair, last week, lobbied state cabinet and gave himself powers to retrospectively approve water allocated to Mr Harris,” Senator Bernardi said.
“Is this the same Peter Harris who donated $5000 on two occasions in 2011 to the National Party?
“And if so, does this not strengthen the case for a truly independent inquiry?”
But Senator Nash said “I would certainly want to check that and not assume that is the same Peter Harris, but I am certainly very happy to do so for the Senator”.
“At the outset, reject any assertion of impropriety by National Party ministers,” she said.
“I would also note around these issues of water that, as recently as June this year, all basin states - including South Australia - agreed to the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin plan.
“Now, I am aware - as I suspect everybody is around this chamber - of the allegations that were raised in the Four Corners program.
“Firstly, noncompliance will not be tolerated - nobody condones theft - people who act illegally should face the full force of the law.
“I also point out that these are, indeed, allegations.”
Senator Nash said the response should also not be driven by reports in The Daily Telegraph.
She said the NSW government and the Commonwealth had taken “very measured and considered steps” to respond to the allegations.
Senator Bernardi also asked about Perin Davey’s withdrawal of her MDBA board nomination after it was alleged she said 'Rebadging leaked departmental material would be fabulous,' in a secret recording aired on Four Corners.
Senator Nash said Ms Davey was “a very well-known player in the water industry” who had “extensive experience in water policy issues over a number of years”.
“It is unsurprising that she was put forward to be part of that group,” she said.
“Indeed, I note that the Queensland Labor government supported that going forward.
“However, I do note that, in the interests of the Murray Darling Basin and in the interests of the health of the river, Perin Davey has withdrawn that nomination and asked not to be considered.
“I think she should be commended for putting the Murray Darling ahead of any of her own interests.
“The government believes that it is neither necessary nor justified to have either a royal commission or a judicial inquiry, which would take around nine to 12 months and cost millions of dollars.
“I don't think anybody in this chamber would be of the view that the ICAC has the powers absolutely to look into this issue and to determine appropriately the response, with the power to compel the production of documents or other information, the power to compel a public authority or a public official to provide information, the power to enter properties, the power to obtain search warrants and the power to use surveillance devices.
“The response has been thorough and appropriate.”
Ms Davey told Fairfax Agricultural Media she requested that her nomination be withdrawn so as not to distract from the MDBA’s important work, to ensure the Basin Plan’s smooth implementation.
“It was a difficult and disappointing decision, as I believe that my understanding of the Basin Plan, the Water Act and the multiple layers of water regulations and my experience at the coal face would have been an asset to the MDBA,” she said.
“However, the Basin Plan is one of the few areas where there is bi-partisan commitment to deliver.
“Unnecessary politics risks the smooth delivery of the Plan and I was concerned that my nomination was becoming that kind of distraction.”