ACTING Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Malcolm Turnbull has urged state water ministers to “lift their game” to ensure water sharing compliance laws are adhered to, so as to avoid the multi-billion dollar Murray Darling Basin Plan plunging into “jeopardy”.
Mr Turnbull spoke out after the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) today released its review of state and federal government water compliance and monitoring laws, as required in the Basin Plan, to meet environmental targets.
The MDBA’s review was sparked along with six other major inquiries after ABC’s Four Corners raised allegations of alleged water theft for use in agricultural production, in the NSW Barwon Darling section of the river-system.
One of its report’s 12 findings calls for the MDBA to be given more powers to oversee water compliance enforcement activities, at the federal level.
“This Review was imperative - without it, we were likely to be faced at 30 June 2019 with the prospect of the Basin Plan being placed in real jeopardy, caused, in part, by a lack of action on the part of the MDBA, but to a not insignificant extent by the failure of states to deliver on their commitments,” the report concluded.
Mr Turnbull issued a statement with Assistant Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Anne Ruston saying the Coalition government supported the review findings
He said the MDBA, and the Independent Panel of experts assisting the review, had identified a number of areas where compliance arrangements need improvement.
“The Commonwealth supports these recommendations and calls on Basin states to do the same,” he said.
“The review clearly shows that all Basin governments need to lift their game and better enforce their water laws.
“Specifically, we need improved metering, protected environmental flows and proper resourcing of compliance and enforcement activities.
“The review, and the report of the independent panel, both found the MDBA also needs to ensure better compliance with the Basin Plan and Water Act.”
Mr Turnbull said “water theft is a crime – pure and simple”.
“All Australians need confidence the rules governing water use are applied fairly, without fear or favour,” he said.
“The review provides a sensible pathway for governments to work collectively to rebuild trust and deliver the Basin Plan.
“For its part the Commonwealth commits to strengthening the MDBA’s compliance capacity, and making current funding for Basin states to implement the Basin Plan contingent on achieving the improved compliance outcomes identified by review.
“The Prime Minister calls on Basin states to step up, do their part, get behind the recommendations, and commit to implementing them.”
The review’s report said full compliance with the Basin Plan cannot be achieved until state water resource plans had been revised and accredited in line with the plan’s requirements.
It said the revision timetable allowed seven years from 2012 for that work to be done but “slow progress in NSW and Victoria means there is a risk the June 30, 2019 deadline will not be met”.
“Further, it is important that current state plans are not amended during the transition to 2019 in a way that is counter to the intent of the Basin Plan,” the report said.
“More vigilance and more transparency are needed to ensure this is the case.”
Mr Turnbull said Basin states and the Commonwealth should come together at the next Basin Ministerial Council meeting on December 19 to map out implementation and then report to the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.
“The MDBA’s review, together with other recent reports and inquiries, shows clearly what needs to be done - it’s now time to get on with it, rather than commissioning yet another inquiry,” he said with the report saying seven resulted from the revelations of alleged water theft.
The review comprised two reports - one prepared by the MDBA and one by the independent panel.
MDBA CEO Phillip Glyde and independent panel member Allan Holmes said the review recommendations were a solid basis for a stronger and more effective compliance regime across the Basin and would require action from Basin states and the MDBA.
“The illegal take of water is theft and both reports have found that state regulators must play a more active and assertive role in policing it,” Mr Glyde said.
“We know there are many irrigators across the Basin who do the right thing and abide by the rules and they deserve to have confidence that their commitment to compliance is not being undermined by those who are breaking the law.
“Our review found that Basin states - particularly SAW and Queensland - must do more to increase the robustness, transparency and consistency of compliance and enforcement across the Basin.
“Of particular importance is the implementation of a ‘no meter, no pump’ policy, more transparency of compliance activities and a more comprehensive suite of penalties that are actually used rather than just sitting on the shelf.”
Mr Glyde said the independent panel had stated the MDBA needed to be more assertive and “this starts today”.
“We’re committed to acting on all of the recommendations and actions in the review that are within our remit,” he said.
Mr Holmes said the panel was calling for greater commitment and goodwill from all those involved in implementing the Basin Plan.
“The June 30, 2019 deadline for revising state water resource plans must be kept and these plans must ensure that rules are in place to ensure the adequate protection of environmental flows,” he said.
““We can’t allow a situation where taxpayer funds are used to recover water for the environment only to have that water extracted further downstream because of a lack of resolve.”
Mr Glyde said that while Basin states would and should remain the primary regulatory authorities, the MDBA would be assertive in escalating matters and exercising its own compliance powers if insufficient action was taken by state authorities.
“All Australians must be able to have trust and confidence in the MDBA’s handling of compliance matters so we will be more transparent and consistent in how we handle allegations of non-compliance,” he said.
“We will be revising our compliance and enforcement strategy and framework, providing a clear escalation pathway, and reporting publically and regularly on handling and progress of compliance matters.”
The review said the “A more assertive and transparent approach to compliance by the MDBA is needed”.
“A resounding community response to the Four Corners program, also expressed in the
Matthews Interim Report, has been the concern that the MDBA’s powers are unclear, and that the MDBA should be doing more to enforce compliance with the Basin Plan,” it said.
“The MDBA has a statutory function of taking action to enforce compliance with the Basin Plan and state water resource plans and is vested with powers for that purpose.
“The MDBA’s powers could also be strengthened, for example with the addition of appropriate provisions on evidentiary requirements and the inclusion of criminal sanctions.
“Many Basin Plan requirements are achieved through provisions in state water resource plans that are to be assessed by the MDBA.
“Under these arrangements, states have the lead compliance and enforcement function against individual water entitlement holders.
“The MDBA is not resourced to take over this role, and it would be inefficient for the MDBA to do so.
“That said, the MDBA’s role is to hold states to account if they are not performing their compliance and enforcement functions effectively.
“The MDBA accepts that it has not adequately escalated allegations of water theft when the relevant state authorities have not dealt adequately with them.
“A more assertive and transparent approach to compliance by the MDBA is needed, including a proactive escalation strategy, an audit and assurance program, better public reporting, and a willingness to employ its enforcement powers where necessary.”