Independent NSW MP Justin Field has slammed the NSW National Party over a scathing report released today by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) that examined multiple allegations of corruption in water management over the past decade and pointed to a system of governance that is broken and “unduly focused on the interests of the irrigation industry”.
The ICAC report, Investigation into complaints of corruption in the management of water in NSW and systemic non-compliance with the Water Management Act 2000’, detailed two secret operations, Operation Mezzo and Operation Avon. Operation Avon was triggered by the ABC Four Corners “Pumped” program and investigated how decisions made by former Nationals Water Ministers including Katrina Hodgkinson, Kevin Humphries and Niall Blair and the relevant departments benefited irrigators, particularly in the Northern Basin.
While the ICAC report did not make findings of corruption, it was scathing of a decade of water mismanagement, particularly around the Barwon Darling River. Most notably, the report found that:
- Water management over the past decade has been inconsistent with the law, which requires the water source and its dependent ecosystems to be prioritised over extraction, saying “the practical effects of this approach, particularly in the Barwon-Darling, have often been prejudicial to the environment”
- The Department’s approach to water management was “motivated by a misguided effort” to protect existing entitlements from any changes as a result of the Basin Plan
- The rights of productive users were given priority over other stakeholders and alarmingly, “that there was a clear alignment between the department’s strategies and goals and those of the irrigation industry”
- That the actions of the Department have had a “detrimental effect on the public’s confidence in the ecologically sustainable, equitable, transparent and efficient management of the water sources of the state and in the integrity and good repute of public administration, more generally”
- That the controversial 2012 Barwon Darling Water Sharing Plan had been made and applied in a way that “provided for the opportunistic extraction by a small number of large irrigators of unprecedented volumes of water at low flows”. This included the removal of pump sizes from each class of licence and that individual daily extraction limits (IDELs) and total daily extraction limits (TDELs) were not implemented
The report made 15 significant structural, policy and reporting recommendations to bring integrity to NSW water management. Critically, recommendation 3 requires significant changes to the Barwon Darling Water Sharing Plan. In June this year, this Plan was amended and approved by Water Minister, Melinda Pavey, with the concurrence of Environment Minister, Matt Kean. This amended plan fails to adequately and transparently apply the rules around individual daily extraction limits, as contained in the ICAC report recommendation 3.
The ICAC report comes at the same time as Federal Minister for Water Keith Pitt is due to approve, on the advice of the Murray Darling Basin Authority, several controversial water resource plans submitted by Minister Pavey as part of the Basin Plan process.
Independent NSW MP, Justin Field said, "While the Commission did not make findings of corruption, the report found the water management system in NSW is broken, open to abuse of power and has often been implemented in a way that is at odds with the law and for the benefit of a few vested irrigator interests.
"What has happened here may not amount to corruption in the eyes of ICAC, but does not absolve the Ministers responsible and the Government in general.
"The consequences of favourable treatment for some irrigators in the Northern Basin have been record low flows in the Barwon Darling, the disconnection of the Darling from the Murray, the death of millions of fish and a massive mistrust in water management in NSW that will take years to rebuild.
"Mismanagement of water to benefit some irrigators in the Northern Basin will be impossible to correct while the National Party holds the water portfolio. This report shows the National Party has had their fingers in the mismanagement of water for the past decade with no attempt for serious reform.
"The NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, must immediately step in and remove the Nationals from the water portfolio; revoke and review the recently approved Barwon Darling Water Sharing Plan; adopt the recommendations made by the Commission in full within 3 months; and, not approve any new water sharing plans as part of the Basin Plan process until the recommendations are adopted,” Mr Field said.