Monday, 7 August 2017

Politicians and Water: The Murray Darling Basin Scandal Fallout

The ABC Four Corners program “Pumped” which was screened on 24th July has illustrated how important scrutiny of the establishment is to the rule of law in our democracy. It also illustrates why the ABC is under threat from many politicians and other powerful players who see any effective scrutiny of their operations as an intolerable threat to their way of doing business, a way that is against both the general community interest as well as the national interest.
The outrage from the revelations of water theft and other illegality by big irrigators in the northern NSW area of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) has increased over the days since the program was screened.  Politicians have been left scrambling and forced to change tack following the strength of the reaction and the condemnation of the inadequacy of their initial responses.
In NSW the Nationals Minister for Primary Industry, Niall Blair, was forced to change from an internal inquiry conducted by his department to an independent inquiry.  Blair was excessively optimistic in thinking that such an internal inquiry would be acceptable given that Four Corners had revealed a questionable relationship between Gavin Hanlon[1], his department’s Deputy Director General (Water), and big irrigators in the upper MDB.  In addition there was the important question of why the department had failed to act on departmental compliance officers’ reports of licence breaches and meter tampering. And there were questions about the role of the former water minister Kevin Humphries in dealing with the large irrigators.
The NSW Opposition has also taken action referring both the former Nationals water minister Kevin Humphries (Member for Barwon) and a senior bureaucrat (presumably Gavin Hanlon) to ICAC.
The Federal Government reaction was initially almost dismissive.  The Minister for Water Resources, Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce[2], as well as attempting to downplay the water theft by comparing it to cattle rustling, claimed that it was a matter for NSW and that there was no need for Federal Government involvement. Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds have been used to buy back water for environmental flows and instead of being used for this purpose this water has gone to the big irrigators in the upper Barwon-Darling.  Presumably the taxpayer funds had come from the Federal Government. This would surely make it a matter of very great interest to this government which, seeing it is so concerned about budget repair, would surely be appalled at the waste of billions of taxpayer dollars.
Joyce’s totally inadequate initial response was compounded shortly afterwards with what he said in a speech to irrigators in a hotel at Shepparton, a speech which was recorded by one of those attending.
Joyce said, "We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you and make sure we don't have the greenies running the show basically sending you out the back door, and that was a hard ask.”
"A couple of nights ago on Four Corners, you know what that's all about? It's about them trying to take more water off you, trying to create a calamity. A calamity for which the solution is to take more water off you, shut more of your towns down."
Even a dinosaur like Barnaby Joyce should have been aware that anyone carrying a smartphone has the capacity to secretly record what others are saying.  In the political sphere we have seen how damaging this can be in the cases of Christopher Pyne and One Nation’s James Ashby. The Shepparton recording has certainly damaged Joyce and has added volume to the calls for him to be sacked from the Water portfolio.  Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen as the Prime Minister has enough problems in his own party without alienating Joyce and the Nationals.
By Sunday 30th the scandal became a matter that the Federal Government had to act upon despite Joyce’s earlier labelling it a state matter. The Federal solution was for the Murray Darling Basin Authority to carry out an independent basin-wide review into compliance with state-based regulations governing water use. The Authority is to report by 15th December 2017.  The Government saw this review as complementing the other investigations of the Four Corners allegations.
However, this is a case of far too little too late.  The MDB Authority is scarcely a body able to conduct an independent review of what has obviously been happening under its watch.  Furthermore a cynic would see the reporting date of 15th December, just before the Christmas holiday season, as a typical government move to ensure that the review report would receive minimal attention and be forgotten about over the holiday break.
The Federal Opposition, like its NSW state counterpart, has also taken action on the scandal.  It requested that the Auditor-General expand his current audit of the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.  The Auditor-General will now include how the federal department is monitoring the performance of NSW under the National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the MDB relevant to the protection and use of environmental water.
Unsurprisingly, the South Australian Government, which has long been concerned about the lack of water reaching the end of the Murray-Darling system, was outraged by the allegations.  It is calling for a judicial inquiry, a much stronger investigation than those arranged by NSW and the Federal Government.  SA senators from Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Party and the Conservatives have joined their state government in calling for a judicial inquiry.
This scandal has a long way to run yet.  There are major questions to be answered about the National Party – both state and federally - and its relationship with the big irrigators and its apparent indifference to the needs of other irrigators further down the system.  There is also the question of its influence on the workings of the NSW Department of Agriculture.   And just what role has it had in limiting the effectiveness of – perhaps even of sabotaging - the Murray Darling Basin Plan?
For both Federal and NSW state Liberal leaders there is the question about the advisability of having resource management portfolios in the hands of Nationals and of putting both Agriculture and Water in the same portfolio.  Each of these governments has a very poor environmental record.  What has been happening on the Barwon-Darling reinforces the view that keeping “in good” with the Nationals is far more important for the  Liberals than ensuring that environmental policies are in the best long-term interests of the state and nation.
[1] Gavin Hanlon joined the NSW Department of Primary Industries in December 2014.  Prior to this he had been Managing Director of Goulburn Murray Water since 2011.
[2] The water portfolio was removed from the Environment Department and allocated to Joyce as a result of the agreement with the Liberals in 2015  following  Malcolm Turnbull becoming Prime Minister.

Northern Rivers
2nd August 2017

Guest Speak is a North Coast Voices segment allowing serious or satirical comment from NSW Northern Rivers residents. Email northcoastvoices at gmail dot com dot au to submit comment for consideration.

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