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Ombudsman finds alleged maladministration of NSW’s water portfolio

The NSW Ombudsman is pushing forward in its claim of the serious maladministration of NSW’s water portfolio, which includes water theft, allegations of special treatment for irrigators, and meter tampering.

Coming in the wake of these recent allegations, the Investigation into water compliance and enforcement 2007-17, made directly by the Ombudsman with the NSW parliament, spans the current investigation and three earlier investigations, and reveals that three previous reports handed to government departments were not made public.

Furthermore, the report states that the Ombudsman received dozens of disclosures from staff, complaints from the public and from organisations during this time, with recommendations for prosecutions dropped by the NSW Office of Water.

“Water is a vital public asset. It is also a scarce public resource in Australia. Regulating how water can be accessed and used is a matter of intense public interest,” Acting NSW Ombudsman Professor McMillan said.

“We have undertaken three prior investigations into complaints and disclosures that resulted in reports to government and the minister. We commenced a fourth investigation in 2016, once again triggered by complaints from the public and public interest disclosures from officials working in the agencies charged with administering the legislation.

“The concerns that we raised in the earlier investigations continue to be a strong theme in the current investigation, and are summarised in this progress report,” McMillan said.

NSW Greens water spokesman Jeremy Buckingham told ABC Online that the NSW ombudsman report “exposes that water compliance and enforcement has been rotten to the core for almost a decade and the government has failed to act despite repeated and detailed warning by the ombudsman”.

The NSW Greens are calling for a royal commission, stating that the measures taken to ensure steadfast compliance by government to date have not been good enough.

According to NSW Irrigators’ Council (NSWIC) CEO Mark McKenzie, the report’s revelation of significant compliance management shortcomings is “extremely concerning” for the irrigation sector.

“NSWIC and its members have an absolute zero tolerance for illegal water take. We support a very stringent water compliance system. We pay millions of dollars annually in charges to support a strong system to ensure irrigators abide by their licences and we expect that those taking water illegally will be punished to the full extent of the law,” he said.

“So to now have a second report highlights significant failures in the management of those compliance functions, which we have paid for but have not been effectively delivered, is extremely concerning.

“A strong system of water take compliance is fundamental to irrigators because it secures their property rights over water, and underpins their right to use that water.”

In light of the NSW Ombudsman report, McKenzie also said NSWIC has called on the NSW Government to invest in additional compliance measures in irrigation districts in order to reset the compliance system.

“To now learn that changes in water management agencies in NSW over the last few years have meant compliance measures have been reduced is simply not acceptable. An urgent reset of the compliance system is an urgent priority,” he said.