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It's crunch time for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

2017 brought no shortage of scandal, ill-will and frustration over the nation’s largest and most important waterway. And the tinderbox threatens to combust in an election-fuelled 2018, writes Thea Cowie.

“Those who seek to undermine the plan are bringing forward a raft of proposals that will bite chunks out of the plan and diminish its effectiveness. This year is the crunch year for the plan,” said Jamie Pittock of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

Under a cloud

After an explosive Four Corners report unveiled serious allegations of water theft and maladministration, no fewer than nine investigations have been proposed, launched or expanded.

The July 2017 report – ‘Pumped: Who is benefitting from the billions spent on the Murray-Darling?’ – and revelations in its wake, prompted the launch of a federal Senate Committee inquiry and calls for a federal royal commission.

A National Audit Office review was expanded, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was directed to conduct a strategic review of compliance and enforcement regimes.

And in November 2017, then South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced a state royal commission into alleged water theft.

Federal Assistant Water Resources Minister Anne Ruston dismissed it as “just another stunt” and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull accused Weatherill of “picking a fight” with the Federal Government and upstream states.

Meanwhile, New South Wales Regional Water Minister Niall Blair said the royal commission could very well double-up on investigations within his state.

He added that NSW was already implementing findings from Ken Matthews’ interim report – Independent investigation into NSW water management and compliance – which noted a “systemic fix” was required and recommended a “far reaching reform package”.

Other NSW investigations underway include an ombudsman’s probe, the interim report of which revealed that since 2006 the ombudsman’s office received dozens of protected disclosures alleging water management principles and rules were not being complied with.

Meanwhile, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption is also investigating former Water Minister Kevin Humphries and former DPI Deputy Director Gavin Hanlon.

Despite the extensive inquiries, National Irrigators’ Council CEO Steve Whan said the number of accusations and complaints represented only a tiny portion of irrigators.

“According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the MDB there are 9200 businesses that irrigate and what we’ve seen is accusations, not yet proven against three,” he said.

“Irrigators pay a lot for water and if somebody else is rorting the system, they’re getting an advantage over people doing the right thing, so it’s important that we see compliance working properly.”

AWA Chief Executive Jonathan McKeown said individually, the allegations “should not be overstated” in terms of their impact on the operation of the plan. “But if the examples turn out to be more systemic in nature then it can go to the credibility of the plan,” he said.

“Once the community has lost confidence that the plan is being enforced and worth preserving, you’ve got a serious problem in terms of the longevity of the plan.”

Bipartisan support

The $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan was created after a decade of painful negotiations reached bipartisan agreement in 2012.

But, five years on, there are serious political cracks emerging in the plan to recover 2750GL of water from irrigated agriculture and return it to the environment.

South Australia’s Water Minister Ian Hunter said the state had “lost all confidence in [Prime Minister Malcolm] Turnbull’s ability to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on time and in full”.

He pointed to revelations that the Federal Government paid $78 million to buy back an agricultural company’s water rights – almost double the amount recommended by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES).

“There needs to be a royal commission to look into the serious allegations of water theft and corruption that have engulfed the NSW and Commonwealth governments,” Hunter said.

Additionally, Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Kate Smolski has called for the water portfolio to be removed from the National Party at both the state and federal level.

“It appears National Party ministers have sat on its hands while big irrigators game the system to the detriment of the environment and downstream communities,” she said.

A Federal Government spokesperson, however, has said the government is committed to delivering the plan on time and in full.

“Implementing the Basin Plan is a difficult and complex task, but it’s our best and only option to improve this vital river system,” the spokesperson said.

The government also said it remains committed to the 2004 National Water Initiative and its long-term objectives.

That’s despite upholding the Abbott Government’s 2014 abolition of the National Water Commission – the body charged with monitoring, auditing and assessing progress on the NWI.

The commitment of the NSW and Victorian Governments to the MDBP has also been questioned in relation to proposals around the adjustment mechanism, Northern Basin Review and Sustainable Diversion Limits.

The Wentworth Group’s Pittock said their proposals “could effectively destroy the plan”.

“We’ve seen NSW and Victoria basically seek to scuttle the plan by putting forward most inadequate proposals that don’t move enough environmental water below the middle reaches of the Murray,” he said.

Baby out with the bathwater?

All this controversy has lead to speculation over the future of the plan, with headlines pondering if the MDBP is broken and if it’s time to ditch the Plan.

NSW Regional Water Minister Blair said: “To suggest the Basin Plan is a silver bullet with immediate impact is foolhardy. Progress is incremental and NSW is delivering the MDBP in a way that balances economic, environmental and socio-economic concerns.”

The Irrigators’ Council has also backed the plan going forward.

“People who are trying to turf the plan, or saying that it’s not enough, are doing something which would plunge us all into many decades more of uncertainty and not being able to guarantee the health of the river,” National Irrigators’ Council’s Steve Whan said.

Yet, something needs to be done to rectify the issues that have bubbled to the surface this past year – whether it’s via a royal commission, judicial inquiry or the various investigations already underway.

AWA’s McKeown said community support for the plan may well dissipate, particularly if a lack of action is turned into a political football.

“That’s very dangerous given that we have a number of jurisdictions – including potentially the Commonwealth – looking at elections,” he said.

What’s next?

With interstate cooperation on the Murray-Darling Basin in jeopardy, many are looking for national authority on the issue. The AWA proposes replacing the NWI and its aspirational targets with a National Water Plan (NWP) to achieve them.

“States and territories need to come together and provide certain powers to the national government to ensure that the NWP is consistent and fairly enforced across all jurisdictions,” McKeown said.

“Targets need to be incentivised through the release of payments to the states and territories in return for meeting certain NWP milestones.”

The proposed NWP would enact three national frameworks: water trading; water resource planning and urban water planning; and be implemented by a new independent national water authority reporting to parliament, not the minister.

The Wentworth Group’s Pittock broadly welcomed the proposal, adding that the water sector had an important role to play in restoring trust and cooperation.

“The water sector has tremendous credibility in terms of being very innovative and that can be turned to good advantage,” he said.

“Australian water companies have the technology that will provide solutions in terms of decent water metering and modelling water flows so that South Australia can begin to genuinely trust NSW.”

First published as 'Building a better basin' in Current magazine February 2018.