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NSW Ombudsman makes a move on Murray-Darling Basin water thieves

The NSW Ombudsman has started procedures to prosecute irrigators involved in the theft of Murray-Darling Basin water, following months of criticism that the regulator was providing inflated numbers of enforcement actions.

The Ombudsman has also tabled a report in Parliament late last week to correct public record, following publication of false statistics relating to enforcement measures undertaken by WaterNSW in the Murray-Darling Basin.

A special report which WaterNSW tabled in Parliament, in November 2017, detailed overstated statistics on prosecutions and compliance activities since July 2016.

NSW Ombudsman Michael Barnes said the information provided by WaterNSW – amounting to 115 formal warnings, 192 advisory letters, 105 penalty infringement notices and 12 prosecutions – was “significantly incorrect”.

The data was part of a larger voluntary submission in the context of the Ombudsman’s ongoing investigation into water compliance issues following water-theft allegations made last year.

“Prior to the tabling of the November report, WaterNSW provided updated enforcement figures and pressed for them to be included in the report in order to provide a fair and balanced picture of its performance,” Barnes said.

“Following some clarification of the numbers, the Acting Ombudsman agreed to this request.”

The Ombudsman launched an investigation following official complaints made about the data outlined in the November 2017 report.

“The information provided to us indicated that the updated statistical information from WaterNSW that we’d published in the report was significantly incorrect and that there had in fact been no referrals for prosecutions and no penalty infringement notices issued in the relevant period,” Barnes said.

“I therefore initiated a separate investigation into WaterNSW as not only did the November report contain incorrect information, but the Minister for Primary Industries, Regional Water and Trade and Industry also relied on and quoted the incorrect statistics in an answer to a question without notice in the NSW Legislative Council.

“As part of our investigation, we confirmed with Revenue NSW that no penalty infringement notices were issued by WaterNSW in the relevant period.” The new report states that, although the senior executives of WaterNSW are ultimately responsible for the provision of the incorrect and misleading information, there is “no evidence to support a conclusion” that it was the intention of senior executives to wilfully provide misleading enforcement statistics.

“After a detailed investigation, I am satisfied the provision of incorrect information was not intentional,” Barnes said.

Revised figures are detailed in the new report, indicating that 53 formal warnings and 121 advisory letters were made by WaterNSW from 1 July 2017 to 3 November 2017, with no penalty infringement notices or prosecutions made in that time.

Find out more about the alleged maladministration of NSW’s water portfolio here.