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  • Writer's pictureHannah Phillips

Water Boarding

Boards of inquiry into the Murray Darling water situation are proliferating like blue green algae in a pond.

There’s an inquiry by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) which was generated by the bureaucrat, Gavin Hanlon, who’s accused of colluding with irrigators.

There’s an inquiry by the NSW Ombudsman and Ken Matthews, former head of the National Water Commission, initiated by the NSW Water Minister Niall Blair; a Senate inquiry initiated by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a call by the governments of Victoria and South Australia for a judicial inquiry which is supported by Senator Cory Bernardi.

The Commonwealth Minister for Water, Barnaby Joyce, is unmoved by the call for a federally funded judicial inquiry.

He maintains that water management is a state matter and he prefers to wait until the ICAC inquiry is completed and its finding has been considered by the council of Water Ministers.

The nub of the allegations, aired on the ABC’s ‘4 Corners’ programme on Monday night, is that irrigators have been stealing environmental water from the Murray Darling system and thatthese assertions have been around for a long time but have not been investigated by the NSW authorities.

The NSW government denies that it has taken its eye off the ball and maintains that its investigators are aware of meter tampering and other defalcations and are enforcing compliance.

SA Premier Jay Weatherill says that the upstream states are looking after their own vested interests at the expense of the downstream states and that the only solution is for the Commonwealth to take over the whole of the water system.

He’s called for an inquiry with the power to recommend this to the states so that it can be a national decision.

Without a surrender of water powers by the states such an outcome would be unconstitutional.

Two things have become clear about the Murray Darling Water Plan: firstly, despite the expenditure of nearly $7.5 billion in water buybacks, the situation with water in the basin is roughly what it was prior to the implementation of the plan and, secondly, the politics have, if anything, become more toxic.

It’s clear that the real problem is that there is no entity with the final responsibility for implementing the Murray Darling Water Plan.

In the event that a national judicial inquiry comes up with recommendations about compliance with commitments, there is no national authority that can enforce it.

The NSW government would still have to implement the plan in NSW and the South Australians would still be complaining that they were being ripped off, even though virtually none of their water comes from the Barwon.

Moreover the rules that apply to the water market generally preclude effective trading and encourage companies to treat water rights as a speculative asset to be sold to the government when they are not required any more.

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