Political bid to restore confidence in Murray Darling Basin Authority

Agribusinses Insights

Farmers need greater clarity around what constitutes ‘appropriate compliance’ with Murray Darling Basin Authority water use regulations, before the findings of a badly needed review initiated by the Turnbull government are made public later this year, warns RSM Australia.

Revelations within an ABC documentary, which aired last week, that a handful of irrigators are allegedly rorting water serves as a wake-up call for all irrigators to ensure they:

A) fully understand existing regulations

B) are acting within them, and 

C) are aware of the penalties if found to be in breach.

Given that the states retain constitutional responsibility for water – which has always been regarded as a state-based issue – future findings into whether state laws, water licence conditions and statutory instruments are being met are technically not a matter for the Commonwealth.Government review

What’s equally unclear is whether the ministerial council and/or the Commonwealth have the necessary teeth to step in to rectify findings of misuse. While some irrigators in New South Wales may end up being guilty of ‘stealing water’, it should also be remembered that they may have been encouraged by the NSW state government to do so.

What also needs clarifying within the Turnbull government initiated Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC ) and independent investigation, are allegations made within the ABC documentary, that the NSW government has unwittingly or otherwise facilitated the misappropriation of water.

According to the ABC documentary, meter tampering has allegedly masked the amount of water pumped into some farm dams in the region.

What’s notably alarming within the ABC documentary are allegations that the NSW government has turned a blind eye to evidence - by one of its own former water compliance investigators - that billions of litres of water earmarked for the environment have instead been used to irrigate farms.

Government reviewThose irrigators with the finger pointed at them for stealing billions of litres of water include cotton farmers within the Barwon-Darling valley region of northern NSW.

Any review should clearly include the adequacy of water measurement and monitoring arrangements, and whether governance arrangements are strong enough to prevent water theft or misuse. However, irrigators should be in no doubt as to how current requirements should be interpreted.

It’s equally incumbent on the regulatory authorities (within each state) to remind farmers of misappropriation controls within their infrastructure stations (pump stations) ahead of any future findings.

Assuming most irrigators are playing by the rules, it seems unnecessary putting the entire sector under suspicion. Given that shepherding of water across jurisdictions has been, and always will be one of the challenges to the ultimate success of the Basin Plan, any enquiry may only raise more questions than it answers.

A greater focus on compliance with existing rules could very likely open up a Pandora’s Box at the state government level.

For example -  There could be significant political blow-back for NSW and potentially other state governments, if improper and unethical behaviour by senior bureaucrats – that undermine the Basin Plan - ultimately finds its way back to the minister’s office.

Given limited trust in the NSW investigation, with its limited terms of reference and powers to extract documents and call witnesses, an independent enquiry is a welcomed outcome. However, there is some merit in the call for a national judicial inquiry.  

As the vast majority of irrigators do play by the rules, there’s little to be gained by using them as pawns in a political bid to restore confidence in the system.

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