A POLITICAL inquiry into alleged corruption of water compliance and monitoring in the Murray Darling Basin Plan remains in a state of flux due to ongoing friction between the Greens and government members.
The inquiry was initiated along with several other high level examinations following explosive revelations mid last year, made on ABC television’s Four Corners program, of alleged water theft and corruption in the NSW Barwon-Darling section of the iconic river system.
Concerns were raised that the alleged illegal water use and unchecked pumping for agricultural production risked the multi-billion Basin Plan’s aim of meeting environmental objectives, while trying to ensure farmers and regional communities are also protected from social and economic harm.
An interim report from the inquiry - that’s primarily aiming to enhance water use transparency measures - by the Senate Regional Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee was released late last year.
It made only one recommendation - that the Senate grant an extension of time for the Committee to report, to March 28 this year - which was subsequently approved.
The original reporting deadline was set for December 5 last year after the inquiry was established on August 16, shortly after the allegations first broadcast via ABC television (on July 24).
But the interim report also contained a dissenting contribution by government Senators Barry O'Sullivan (Queensland Nationals) and Slade Brockman (WA Liberals) which pointed the finger at SA Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young over events which occurred at the inquiry’s controversial Adelaide hearing.
That hearing saw a bizarre interruption by SA Water Minister Ian Hunter which forced him to be ejected by federal Senator and Labor colleague Glenn Sterle, who Chairs the Committee, for seeking to politicise the forum and inquiry process in what was described as a “political stunt”.
Senator O’Sullivan has since recused himself from the Senate inquiry process until Senator Hanson-Young publicly retracts comments she made to media in a separate incident at the Adelaide hearing, alleging the Nationals were running a “protection racket”, relating to water allocation in the Basin, in connection to the inquiry.
“During hearings for this inquiry, a participating Senator made a number of unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations on the public record, reflecting negatively on the conduct of the Committee and its members,” the dissenting report by Senators O’Sullivan and Brockman said.
“Since making these allegations, that Senator has refused to provide any evidence in support of the claims made, nor has that Senator withdrawn their comments.
“As a result, government senators withdrew their participation from the inquiry.
“Senate committees should reflect the composition of the Senate.
“The withdrawal of government Senators from this inquiry therefore calls into serious question the adequacy of representation on the Committee, and whilst the Committee continues to labour under the existence of serious allegations their work and their findings will be subject to question.
“The government Senators have absolute confidence in the conduct of all Senators participating in the enquiry with exception of the Senator making the allegations.”
Senator Hanson-Young’s office has been contacted for comment - but it’s understood she has not as yet retracted the comments since the interim report’s release and has no intention of doing so.
The interim report said a number of the allegations raised by the ABC Four Corners program concerned a prominent cotton farmer from the Brewarrina and Bourke and further allegations were made about other large property owners and irrigators breaching water use rules.
It said the Committee had also received substantial evidence asserting support for the allegations made in Four Corners, along with claims of other alleged instances of water theft, over-extraction and insufficient water metering.
But the Committee has also received submissions disputing the claims made by Four Corners and other media outlets, it said.
“A number of submitters have argued that water users along the Murray-Darling, and in particular irrigators, comply with water extraction rules,” it said.
“A large number of submitters have stressed the need for improved water monitoring throughout the Basin, and in particular in the Northern Basin.
“Submitters have called for improved water use compliance regimes, including more effective metering and enforcement mechanisms.
“Similar concerns have been raised in the interim reports of Ken Matthews and the NSW Ombudsman, and in the Basin-wide compliance review undertaken by the MDBA.”
The report said the Committee recognised the seriousness of the allegations raised to date, and the impact such allegations had on water users across the Basin.
It said inadequate water supply along the Murray-Darling presented “considerable risks” to river communities and industries, and to individual livelihoods.
“The Committee understands why many stakeholders are therefore calling for, at the least, a judicial inquiry to investigate the overall integrity of the water market,” it said.
“Underpinning the respective allegations of water theft and corruption are issues of transparency and compliance, and the need for appropriate repercussions in instances of water rule breaches.
“While there is near-universal agreement on the need to maintain the integrity of the water market in the Murray-Darling Basin, the evidence suggests that considerable improvements to compliance and monitoring regimes are required.
“The committee stresses that it is not in a position to investigate individual cases of alleged water theft.
“Nor can the committee provide any legal remedy for matters, many of which are already before the courts or subject to other legal proceedings.
“However, the individual matters raised by submitters will assist in illustrating systemic or wider policy issues across the Murray-Darling Basin.
“Moving forward, the committee will be keen to acquire evidence about how to improve compliance, transparency and monitoring of water use across the Basin.”
The report also said the Committee planned to conduct additional public hearings in Sydney and Canberra, to receive evidence from witnesses, and intended to travel to Brewarrina, NSW, for a further site visit and public hearing.
“The purpose of these hearings is to hear first-hand what possible steps can be taken to strengthen compliance with water use rules, and the adequacy of those rules,” it said.
“Additionally, the hearings will help to clarify the role of the MDBA regarding its compliance and enforcement activities across the Basin, and how it operates alongside the rules and regulations of Basin states.”
Extract from interim report
Some of the information and allegations presented in Four Corners included that:
- • large volumes of water were being extracted beyond licensed limits;
- • pumping of large volumes of water was occurring at times when pumping was
- not allowed;
- • appropriate records and log books were not maintained in instances where water meters were not working, as required under NSW water legislation;
- • water channels and other structures were being constructed by large property owners, on Crown land, without approval;
- • water pumping was occurring during embargo periods;
- • water meters appeared to have been tampered with and had parts removed;
- • the relevant NSW Government agencies had no appetite for water compliance activities;
- • a senior officer in the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) shared confidential departmental documents with irrigator lobbyists; and
- • irrigation companies were making money by selling water at a profit.