On 16 August 2017, the following matter was referred to the Rural and
Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee for inquiry and report by
5 December 2017:
The integrity of the water market in the Murray-Darling
Basin, with particular reference to:
the allegations of theft and corruption in the management of water
resources in the Murray-Darling Basin,
the investigation and public disclosure by authorities, including the
New South Wales Government and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, of reported
breaches within the Murray-Darling Basin, including the Barwon-Darling Water
the actions of member states in responding to allegations of corruption
and the potential undermining of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan,
the use of Commonwealth-owned environmental water for irrigation
purposes, and the impact on Basin communities and the environment,
the operation, expenditure and oversight of the Water for the
Environment Special Account, and
any other related matters.
On 24 July 2017, the ABC Four Corners program aired allegations about
water theft and corruption in the Murray‑Darling Basin. The episode made
a number of negative assertions about the manner in which the Murray‑Darling
Basin Plan (MDBP) is working, and included 'accusations of illegal water use,
pumping water from fragile rivers and tampering with [water] metres'.
The program also aired claims that top NSW Government officials
deliberately assisted wealthy irrigators along the Barwon and Darling Rivers,
around Bourke and Brewarrina, to undermine the MDBP. There was also discussion
about NSW possibly withdrawing from the MDBP.
aired on the ABC Four Corners program
A number of the allegations raised by the program concerned a prominent
cotton farmer from the Brewarrina and Bourke area. Further allegations were
made about other large property owners and irrigators breaching water use rules.
Some of the information and allegations presented in Four Corners included that:
large volumes of water were being extracted beyond licensed
pumping of large volumes of water was occurring at times when
pumping was not allowed;
appropriate records and log books were not maintained in
instances where water meters were not working, as required under NSW water
water channels and other structures were being constructed by large
property owners, on Crown land, without approval;
water pumping was occurring during embargo periods;
water meters appeared to have been tampered with and had parts
the relevant NSW Government agencies had no appetite for water
a senior officer in the NSW Department of Primary Industries
(DPI) shared confidential departmental documents with irrigator lobbyists; and
irrigation companies were making money by selling water at a
The allegations described in the Four Corners program have given rise to
a number of inquiries and investigations, particularly within NSW. The
inquiries underway to date include:
an independent investigation into NSW water management and
compliance, by Mr Ken Matthews AO, examining the allegations raised by Four
Corners that involve the responsibilities of DPI‑Water and its employees.
An interim report was presented on 8 September, with a final report due end of
a NSW Ombudsman investigation into water compliance and
enforcement. An interim report was presented on 15 November, with a final
report due no earlier than April 2018;
a NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation
into the allegations raised by Four Corners and the actions of senior
the announcement by the Premier of South Australia, on 26
November 2017, of a state royal commission into the allegations of water theft
in the Murray‑Darling Basin. The royal commission is set to begin in
On 28 November 2017, the Australian National Audit Office released its
audit report into New South Wales' Protection and use of Environmental Water
under the National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the
The committee will consider this report and its findings as it progresses its
Purpose of this inquiry
This inquiry was instigated by the Senate to examine, from a federal
perspective, the management of water resources in the Murray‑Darling, the
allegations of theft and corruption within the Basin, and the actions of Basin
states which may be undermining the MDBP.
In progressing its inquiry, the committee has also been tasked with
identifying possible solutions that would address issues with compliance and
transparency in the water market. This may include improved enforcement
measures, better water metering and monitoring systems, and timely public
disclosures about breaches of water use rules along the Murray‑Darling.
On 25 November 2017, the Murray‑Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and
an Independent Review Panel released reports considering the legislative,
policy and practical implementation of water management across the Murray‑Darling
Basin, as part of a Basin-wide review. The reports found that Basin states had significant
and concerning differences in compliance and enforcement policy and activity,
and that the MDBA had not given 'sufficient attention' to compliance or dealt
appropriately with allegations of compliance breaches.
These reports examined important issues of compliance and transparency
in the water market, and made a number of valuable recommendations for both the
MDBA and Basin states to action. Given their alignment with the committee's
objectives, the committee will closely examine these reports and the progress
of implementation of the recommendations.
The committee has received substantial evidence asserting support for
the allegations made in Four Corners, along with claims of other alleged
instances of water theft, over‑extraction and insufficient water
The committee has also received submissions disputing the claims made by
Four Corners and other media outlets. A number of submitters have argued that
water users along the Murray-Darling, and in particular irrigators, comply with
water extraction rules.
A large number of submitters have stressed the need for improved water
monitoring throughout the Basin, and in particular in the Northern Basin.
Submitters have called for improved water use compliance regimes, including
more effective metering and enforcement mechanisms. Similar concerns have been
raised in the interim reports of Ken Matthews and the NSW Ombudsman, and in the
Basin-wide compliance review undertaken by the MDBA.
Conduct of the inquiry
As part of its inquiries to date, on 31 October 2017 the committee
travelled to Broken Hill and undertook a site visit around the region. This was
followed by public hearings in Broken Hill on 1 November 2017, and Adelaide on
2 November 2017.
The committee plans to conduct additional public hearings in Sydney and
Canberra, to receive evidence from witnesses. Further, the committee intends to
travel to Brewarrina, NSW, for a further site visit and public hearing.
The purpose of these hearings is to hear first‑hand what possible
steps can be taken to strengthen compliance with water use rules, and the
adequacy of those rules. Additionally, the hearings will help to clarify the
role of the MDBA regarding its compliance and enforcement activities across the
Basin, and how it operates alongside the rules and regulations of Basin states.
The committee holds a keen interest in the findings of the inquiries and
investigations already in train.
The Matthews interim report from September, and the NSW Ombudsman report
from November, highlight the important issues under consideration by these
inquiries, particularly with regard to compliance, enforcement and transparency
in the water market. The finding of these reports have been supported by the
findings of the MDBA Water Compliance Review and Independent Review Panel,
which found serious flaws in the compliance regime of both the MDBA and Basin
Many of the current investigations are due to report by the end of 2017,
and will greatly assist the committee in its deliberations. Many of these
reviews are examining individual jurisdictional issues, and will make
appropriate recommendations in that context. The committee will take the opportunity
to apply any relevant findings to improving the Commonwealth approach to water
management and the MDBP.
The evidence so far received, coupled with the material gathered by the
respective reviews and investigations, has provided the committee with
considerable insight into the concerns of the communities along the Barwon‑Darling
and greater Murray‑Darling systems.
This evidence has given the committee a thorough understanding of the
key issues with regard to water use, over-extraction, protection of low flows, as
well as insufficient metering, monitoring and compliance across the Murray‑Darling
The site visit around Broken Hill allowed the committee to see and hear
first‑hand the devastating impacts of inadequate water flows. The
committee appreciates that many individuals have come forward during this inquiry,
and in contribution to the other ongoing reviews, to detail their individual
experiences and hardships in operating within the Murray‑Darling water
The committee recognises the seriousness of the allegations raised to
date, and the impact such allegations have on water users across the Basin.
Inadequate water supply along the Murray‑Darling presents considerable
risks to river communities and industries, and to individual livelihoods. The
committee understands why many stakeholders are therefore calling for, at the
least, a judicial inquiry to investigate the overall integrity of the water
Underpinning the respective allegations of water theft and corruption
are issues of transparency and compliance, and the need for appropriate
repercussions in instances of water rule breaches. While there is near‑universal
agreement on the need to maintain the integrity of the water market in the
Murray‑Darling Basin, the evidence suggests that considerable
improvements to compliance and monitoring regimes are required.
The committee stresses that it is not in a position to investigate
individual cases of alleged water theft. Nor can the committee provide any
legal remedy for matters, many of which are already before the courts or
subject to other legal proceedings. However, the individual matters raised by
submitters will assist in illustrating systemic or wider policy issues across
the Murray‑Darling Basin.
Moving forward, the committee will be keen to acquire evidence about how
to improve compliance, transparency and monitoring of water use across the
Basin. The committee will consider matters such as:
areas of the Murray-Darling Basin that are not metered and monitored
and whether they should be;
water compliance obligations, including recording methods for
water use and reporting requirements;
the adequacy of compliance and enforcement powers, especially for
the benefits to more transparent, real-time water monitoring
improvements to public disclosures and reporting on breaches of water
use in the Murray‑Darling;
practices within the water trading market, including buybacks;
the transparency around the expenditure of public money in the
The committee hopes the evidence received at future hearings, in
additional to the findings of the other inquiries, will help to address the
issues above. It is the committee's view that sufficient time should be
provided to allow the hearings to occur and to properly consider the findings
of the other reviews.
Therefore, the committee recommends that the final reporting date for
the inquiry be extended to 28 March 2018.
The committee recommends that the Senate grant an extension of time for
the committee to report, to 28 March 2018.
Senator Glenn Sterle
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