Inquiries multiply following Murray Darling Basin water theft revelations

Allegations of water theft and corruption in the Murray Darling Basin by a 'select few' large-scale cotton irrigators aired in the recent ABC 4 Corners program continue to prompt high level responses, with the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Deputy, Barnaby Joyce, announcing they will seek the agreement of Basin states for the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to carry out an independent Basin-wide review into compliance with state-based regulations governing water use.

The 4 Corners program reported that billions of litres of water earmarked for the environment under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan signed by four states and the Australian Government five years ago were being diverted for use by NSW cotton irrigators with knowledge of senior officials within the NSW Department of Primary Industries following the changing of water extraction rules in New South Wales to benefit cotton growers.

The proposed MDBA independent review would undertake a strategic review of compliance and enforcement regimes in the Murray Darling Basin.

Subject to approval by the participating states, the MDBA will present its findings to the Council of Australian Government (COAG) by 15 December 2017, following a report to the scheduled meeting of the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council in November 2017.

The terms of reference will cover:

  • The appropriateness of and compliance with state laws, statutory instruments (including water resource plans), the terms and conditions of water licences and entitlements and any other relevant powers or approvals;

  • The adequacy of water measurement and monitoring arrangements, including metering and investigating irregular activity; and

  • The adequacy of governance and institutional arrangements necessary to ensure legally compliant water use.

The South Australian Minister for Water and the River Murray, Ian Hunter, has responded to the Australian Government's announcement, saying the MDBA review will be 'toothless' and calling for a full judicial inquiry.

“The allegations go well beyond any compliance issue and need a full judicial inquiry that will fully investigate the NSW Department of Primary Industries and ensure public servants at the highest level are not undermining the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and jeopardising the future water use for the nation,” Mr Weatherall said.

“The judicial review must have powers to compel witnesses to give evidence, compel individuals and corporations to provide documents and provide recommendations to establish national compliance and enforcement arrangements.

“The NSW-led inquiry and the MDBA-led inquiry announced by the PM are toothless reviews that won’t provide the confidence our state needs to get the Basin Plan back on track.”

The MDBA review is in addition to an independent investigation into the issues raised by the ABC’s 4 Corners program ordered by the NSW Minister for Regional Water, Niall Blair.

The investigation, to be undertaken by Ken Matthews, a former Commonwealth Department Head and the foundation Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the National Water Commission, will cover all allegations raised in the broadcast that involve the responsibilities of DPI-Water and any of its employees. Mr Matthews will provide an interim report by 31 August, and the final report will be provided by 30 November, 2017.

Another investigation is being undertaken by the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), referred by the NSW Opposition. This investigation will look into irrigators' compliance with the system as well as the allegations around a senior bureaucrat, Gavin Hanlon, and Mr Kevin Humphries, formerly NSW water minister.

The Australian National Audit Office will also look into the issue, with an audit already underway of the effectiveness of monitoring and payment arrangements under National Partnership Agreements to be expanded to include how the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources is monitoring the performance of New South Wales (NSW) under the National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin relevant to the protection and use of environmental water.

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