CREDIT where it is due, NSW government under Regional Water Minister Niall Blair is acting swiftly to address recent allegations of water theft and dysfunctional administration.
Mr Blair has committed to the significant reforms recommended by the expert Matthews review, which he commissioned in July, starting with a new water compliance and enforcement agency.
The Natural Resources Access Regulator Bill takes compliance duties from Water NSW and give them to a Natural Resource Regulator that is chaired by a three-member expert panel.
“This bill sets us on a pathway to restoring the community's confidence in water resource regulation in NSW. It represents the beginning of a period of reform and improvement for compliance and enforcement in the regional water portfolio,” Mr Blair told parliament.
The bill became law on Wednesday, squeaking through parliament just before the summer break.
“Ken Matthews’ interim report recommended a suite of reforms to improve the administration of water compliance and enforcement in NSW, and the passing of today’s Bill delivers on a major component of those recommendations,” Mr Blair said.
“Our timely and transparent response to these issues is a first step towards a more robust management framework for all water users into the future.
“It’s been a confronting period for water administration in this State but we have wasted no time in making sure we address every recommendation.”
But Labor water spokesman Chris Minns said government had shied away from the Matthews review and had rejected all non-government amendments.
“Niall Blair approaches this legislation like everything else: ‘Just trust us’,” he said.
“No one would suggest we’re tabling radical alternatives. These mirror the recommendations of Ken Matthews almost exactly.”
He wanted a public register of breaches, a parliamentary oversight committee similar to those in place for health and police, as well as requirements for indigenous cultural background and natural resources experience on the new agency’s panel.
Greens water spokesman Jeremy Buckingham wanted full disclosure of the bureaucracy watchdog’s advice to government.
He said Mr Blair’s reforms did not require independent appointment of experts to the expert panel, but allowed for ministerial appointments.
“Government has been repeatedly warned that water compliance and enforcement is rotten, yet has turned a blind eye and deliberately hid previous Ombudsman reports from the public.
“The bill leaves responsibility with the Minister and the Department of Primary Industries, thus failing to deal with the conflict of interest identified by Ken Matthews and the Ombudsman.”
Irrigators caught in flood of bad press
IT TOOK a public scandal over alleged water theft, and now a scathing report from the NSW Ombudsman on the state of “disarray” in water management.
But finally there is an end in sight for the game of musical chairs that delivered constant change to the state’s many and varied water agencies.
Regional Water Minister Niall Blair has acted swiftly, referring the allegations to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, instructed Water NSW to address allegations and ordered the independent Matthews Review, which is due to make its final report by November 30.
Yet, as the political storm plays out, producers just want an appropriate solution so everybody can move on.
David Dissegna, “Westlands”, near Griffith, grows stone fruit, olives, rice and sheep.
“Look, I pay all my bills and they’re very expensive and anyone who steals water, that’s a matter for the law, it’s like stealing money, because that’s what it is,” he said.
At Wee Waa, David Phelps, of Havana Farming, "Myola", who irrigates cotton and chickpeas said the Four Corners program on water use in the Murray Darling has tainted all irrigators – “the overwhelming majority of whom aren't doing anything wrong”.
“The program inferred that cutbacks by the Murray Darling Commission created an advantage for irrigators who were able to sell properties they couldn't sell before.
“In fact no one knew the value of those properties until the commission announced cut backs and delivered a known value.”
Narromine irrigator, Jodi Browning, Narramine Station, said their system was well regulated and accounting was done quarterly.
“I don’t know, by comparison, how it could go on up there for so long without someone twigging and picking the problem up, if the allegations are correct,” she said.
“It is disappointing that the whole industry had been dragged into this matter. We have been bunched into one group that is seen to be bad, and this is disappointing, as I know we are doing the right thing.”