THE Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has defended new claims it knew about but failed to take appropriate action over alleged water theft in the NSW Barwon Darling region of the Basin and shouldn’t be investigating compliance failures.
Controversial claims, first raised by the ABC Four Corners program in late July, of illegal water tampering in that section of the river, were re-floated in media reports today suggesting the MDBA knew about monitoring and compliance flaws a year before, through its use of new satellite technology testing, to measure water flows.
While the article suggested the Authority didn’t take appropriate action, until after the Four Corners program raised concerns, that view was scotched in a statement issued by the MDBA which said the technology failed to generate robust evidence of any wrongdoing and the methodology was riddled with assumptions.
But regardless, the new claims have sparked renewed calls for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to instigate a full judicial inquiry into the alleged water theft which has raised concerns about loss of public trust in the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s implementation.
However, a view is also held by some farm-water stakeholders that the Four Corners reporting was aimed at re-igniting a heated and emotive political debate over the Basin Plan, setting environmentalists against irrigators who rely on water for economic sustainability, by exagurating allegations against a few potential offenders.
On the new claims, an MDBA spokesperson said the Authority, along with the community, expected to see a robust regulatory framework where all water users in the Basin abide by the rules.
“Compliance is important and we all need trust and faith in the system,” the spokesperson said.
“In March 2016, the MDBA started investigating the use of the Data Cube initiative to see whether satellite technology could be used to track water flows.
“The original draft report from this work made quite a few assumptions.
“The report went through a peer-review process internally, as do all MDBA technical reports.
“The peer review found that the technology was promising but more was required to turn the information into evidence of any illegal actions.”
The MDBA said it provided a copy of the final report to WaterNSW and NSW DPI in April 2017 with the advice that there had been some internal discussion during its development about whether the data could indicate non-compliant water take, giving WaterNSW the opportunity to consider the data and images for themselves and make their own assessment.
A final report was published on the MDBA website in June 2017.
The spokesperson said separate to the Data Cube work, the Authority formally referred concerns about alleged illegal water take in the Barwon Darling to WaterNSW and NSW DPI in August 2016.
“As these matters are currently under investigation by NSW the MDBA has no further comment to make on the allegations,” the spokesperson said.
“The MDBA is committed to playing our part in improving the regulatory regime along with the Basin states.
“We welcome reviews which aim to strengthen compliance in the Basin and will report to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) with our review in December 2017.
“The MDBA review is supported by an independent panel which will provide a separate report to COAG and Basin ministers on the MDBA review, the Authority's own role in compliance and enforcement practices and ways in which these can be improved.”
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) issued a media statement that reflected a similar view to the Greens and that of former Labor Water Minister Tony Burke who signed the Basin Plan into law, in 2012.
“Revelations that the MDBA has known about problems on the Barwon-Darling for at least a year shows it is not fit to investigate river compliance and a full judicial inquiry must now be called,” the ACF said.
“Documents published by the Guardian Australia today indicate MDBA’s Data Cube project picked-up compliance concerns on the Barwon-Darling at least a year before Four Corners lifted the lid on the allegations.
“But it is unclear whether the Authority did everything it could to act on these concerns or raise them at the highest levels.”
ACF CEC Kelly O’Shanassy, said the revelations, coupled with the “damning interim” findings of the Matthews Inquiry out of NSW – handed down earlier this month - meant Mr Turnbull now had no choice but to convene a full independent judicial inquiry into the problems on the river.
“We are concerned the Authority is a watchdog with little bite and that there is little national enforcement to make sure the river gets its promised water,” she said.
“The Authority shouldn’t be investigating issues that it did not, or could not, act upon in the first place.
“The community needs confidence that the massive effort to restore the health of the Murray-Darling is not being perverted by a handful of irrigator interests.
“That confidence can only be delivered with a national independent judicial investigation that has the power to compel and protect witnesses.
“Anything short of that will not sort out this mess.”
Greens and Labor dive into the debate
Mr Burke said “billions of litres of tax-payer-funded environmental water have allegedly been stolen in the NSW - a judicial Inquiry is needed to get to the truth”.
“Malcolm Turnbull and (Agriculture and Water Resources Minister) Barnaby Joyce ordered an investigation by the Murray Darling Basin Authority in to compliance with the Basin Plan,” he said.
“It (has) always been preposterous for the Authority to independently asses these claims because part of their role is compliance.
“If the allegations made today are true Barnaby Joyce’s proposal is ludicrous.”
Mr Burke said the Basin Plan’s implementation crossed state and federal jurisdictions and only COAG could provide a process which allowed the same investigation to access all the relevant information across each jurisdiction.
“Surely this shows the government the need for a national independent judicial inquiry that can compel and protect witnesses,” he said.
“Only a national approach will provide a thorough investigation into those who have allegedly committed crimes of theft and will clear those who have acted appropriately.
“In the coming weeks Labor will use the Senate inquiry as an opportunity to ask further questions of the MDBA - however Labor will not back down in its push for a judicial inquiry.”
Greens South Australian Senator and water spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young said new revelations that the MDBA knew about water theft and corruption for over a year raised “serious questions about the competence and integrity of the national body”.
“What did the Authority know and when?” she said.
“Who is watching the watchdog?
“These allegations are extremely serious and strengthen the call for a Royal Commission - $13 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent on this Plan and now we hear the Authority in charge of overseeing the management and compliance have either ignored or covered up theft, corruption and the misuse of water.
“I will interrogate the MDBA when they appear at Senate Estimate in October.
“The key question is whether the Authority is just incompetent or in fact complicit in corruption and cover-up?”
Joyce – defamation cases show need to “differentiate between allegations and proof”
Earlier this month, Mr Joyce responded to questions in parliament about the findings of the Matthews’ inquiry into the Barwon Darling allegations which also ignited calls for a full judicial inquiry, when the NSW based report was tabled.
Mr Joyce said the Matthews inquiry had been “diligently carried out” but was actually instigated by the NSW Coalition and the state’s Water Minister Niall Blair.
“What we had in that inquiry was three qualified ICAC investigators, people with experience in ICAC, and the information that they have brought forward is now available if further prosecutions need to occur,” he said.
“That goes on the back of (NSW water bureaucrat Gavin Hanlon) referring himself to ICAC and I note there have been discussions that he certainly has questions to answer there.
“On top of that, of course, we had the independent inquiry by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority which is currently underway, and we also have an auditor's inquiry as well as a Senate inquiry.
“ICAC is well and truly capable of sending people to jail, as we've seen with a couple of members who were formerly in the NSW Labor Party, now residing at Her Majesty's pleasure in respective institutions around town.”
Mr Joyce said “We don't condone any form of theft and we certainly don't condone water theft”.
“In pursuit of this we will make sure that, if any of these allegations stack up, they will be pursued to the full extent of the law,” he said.
“What I can say also, and it is important, is that at this point they remain allegations. I am also aware of other issues that have been brought forward with regard to defamation cases, so we have to be very careful that we differentiate between allegations and proof.”
National Farmers’ Federation President Fiona Simson said the Mathews report continually highlighted the importance of public confidence in compliance and enforcement systems “and we cannot agree more”.
“Farmers from the north to the south of the Basin and everywhere in between must have confidence that the compliance framework that underpins water management in each state is fair and robust,” she said.
“The majority of irrigators across the basin who do the right thing are aggrieved that the reputation of their sector is being called into question by allegations against a few, and actions of a government that fall short of everyone’s expectations.
“Illegal take is theft from all other water users, basin communities, taxpayers and the environment.
“Irrigators pay a considerable charge as part of their licence fees to fund compliance activities and in return, they expect effective compliance to be the carried out.
“We expect regulators to do their job and to do their job properly.”
Ms Simson said the Matthews' interim report pointed to significant shortcomings in the NSW government’s approach.
“Unresolved allegations of illegal water take and lax compliance systems are very concerning and if left unaddressed, risk detracting from the continued implementation of the plan,” she said.
“We do not support jumping headlong into a protracted Basin-wide judicial inquiry that could take months to establish and years to come to any specific conclusions and recommendations.
“As the interim report of the Matthews’ inquiry has shown, focused and expert inquiries can report and deliver clear recommendations, in a very timely and efficient manner, enabling governments to respond now and not sometime in the distant future.”
Ms Simson said agriculture across the Murray Darling Basin accounted for about 40 per cent of the $62.8 billion total value of agriculture in Australia.