Investigations into Basin-state water management
The airing of allegations of water theft by Four Corners—and through
other media reports—prompted a significant number of investigations and
inquiries into the management and oversight of the MDB. Some of these inquiries
also examined the enforcement of and compliance with water use rules by both
the Commonwealth and the Basin states.
This chapter considers each of the major inquiries and investigations
that have examined the adequacy of compliance, enforcement, transparency and
monitoring of water use throughout the Basin. The committee considers these
reports and their recommendations to be of great importance for both this
inquiry and to the successful management of the Basin more broadly.
The review by the MDBA and the independent review panel into the MDBA's
compliance functions (the Murray‑Darling Water Compliance Review) is
discussed in Chapter 4.
Independent investigation into NSW water management and compliance –
On 26 July 2017, the NSW Minister for Regional Water, Mr Niall Blair,
announced that Mr Ken Matthews AO had been appointed to independently
investigate the allegations raised by Four Corners that involved DPI-Water and
its employees. Mr Matthews presented an interim report on 8 September 2017
(interim report) and a final report on 30 November 2017 (final report).
The interim report sought to clarify the circumstances around the allegations
made by Four Corners, and to provide independent advice on opportunities to
improve compliance and enforcement of water arrangements in NSW. Any identified
breaches of the relevant water legislation were referred to the relevant
authorities for further investigation and action, as this was not the role of
the Matthews review.
The interim report found that water‑related compliance and
enforcement in NSW was 'ineffectual' and required 'significant and urgent
improvement'. Mr Matthews argued that in the Barwon‑Darling,
metering, monitoring and measurement of water extractions was not of a standard
required for proper water management, with individual cases of alleged non‑compliance
remaining unresolved 'for far too long'.
Further, the interim report argued that there was insufficient
transparency around compliance and enforcement in NSW, weakening public
confidence in water regulation arrangements in NSW.
Following the release of the interim report, Minister Blair announced
that misconduct proceedings as set out in the NSW government sector employment
legislation had been commenced and Mr Gavin Hanlon (NSW Deputy Director General
of the Department of Industry) had been stood down while the misconduct
proceedings were underway. Mr Hanlon was alleged by Four Corners to offer irrigation lobbyists classified
departmental material. Mr Hanlon resigned shortly after being stood down.
The interim report called for a systemic fix to the NSW water management
system, and presented a number of options for improving compliance and
enforcement arrangements in NSW. The options recognised that:
A trusted compliance and enforcement system is essential if
the new Barwon–Darling Water Resource Plan is to be accepted by all parties,
and if the wider Murray–Darling Basin Plan is to succeed.
The interim report suggested three principles for the future re‑design
of compliance and enforcement in NSW:
- transparency – increased public transparency would help
contribute to greater compliance;
- independence – decisions about enforcement and compliance should
be sufficiently independent of 'water policy making, water planning, water
regulation‑making, and water delivery services to customers'; and
- effectiveness – compliance and enforcement efforts should be
'sufficiently resourced, empowered and professional to support public and
investor confidence that the quantities, timing and means of water
extractions', for whatever purpose, were consistent with allowed entitlements.
The interim report encouraged the implementation of common arrangements
across the MDB, so that enforcement, compliance and auditing activities could
be readily undertaken and be suitably transparent.
In stressing the need for greater transparency, the interim report
stated that the public should have ready access to a single source that
provides all relevant information on water entitlements, including meter
reading, real time water account balances and other information. Further,
transparency should be improved around environmental water entitlements and
Mr Matthews argued strongly for improved transparency in the management
of water. The interim report stated that:
water is a community-owned resource and members of the public
have the right to satisfy themselves that it is being used in compliance with
the law. Accordingly, changes proposed include enabling the public to readily
access from a single source all details of individuals’ water entitlements, licence
conditions, meter readings, water account balances, and trading activities.
Similarly it is recommended that arrangements be put in place for the public to
readily identify any specific pump, off-take or works. Corresponding
improvements to the transparency of environmental water flows are proposed.
Such full transparency would, of itself, add considerably to a more compliant
culture among water users.
Transparency would be further increased with the establishment of state‑wide
non‑compliance reporting channels, which would allow for anonymous reporting
of breaches. Informants would then receive regular feedback on actions taken in
response to complaints.
The interim report also stated that the NSW Department of Industry
needed clear reporting channels, so that there was sufficient independent
scrutiny of water users. Any water users found guilty of serious offences would
have their identity published. All NSW compliance and enforcement actions would
be reported annually, with the reports delivered to a fixed schedule.
The interim report called for the separation of water compliance staff
from other staff involved in areas such as regulation and policy, with the aim
to 'separate approvals of rights and conditions from enforcement of conditions
and related legislation'.
Mr Matthews called for clarity around 'responsibility, authority,
accountability, and delegations' with regard to compliance and enforcement
functions, and suggested the appointment of a Chief Compliance and Enforcement
To strengthen the compliance and enforcement systems in place, the
interim report recommended that these systems be periodically reviewed by other
Basin states, possibly via facilitation from the MDBA. With regard to the MDBA,
the Matthews interim report found that its compliance and enforcement powers
and functions should be more clearly articulated and made public, including
when powers to intervene would be invoked.
Of importance to the committee's inquiry, the interim report called for
universal metering of water use, under a 'no meter, no pump' rule, and the
enforcement of modern Australian metering standards. It also called for the
removal of all self‑reporting on water use, such as the use of log books,
to be replaced by fully operational water meters.
The interim report argued that the tolerance for differences in
conditions between the northern and southern areas of the MDB should be reduced,
with standards and rules—including those for metering—applied Basin‑wide.
The review argued that 'divergences in approach should only be allowed where
the need for differences can be convincingly demonstrated'.
The report called for a mandatory requirement for meter readers to
report 'defective, inoperable or apparently tampered‑with meters in real
time', with more random and frequent meter reading schedules. The meter
readings should be published in real time.
With regard to compliance, the interim report encouraged the use of
structures and documented processes for 'commencing, progressing, and decision
making on compliance actions'. The interim review also called for the NSW
Assertively adopt and implement new monitoring and compliance
techniques and technologies such as: remote sensing of crop growth and water
holdings; back to base and remote meter reading and telemetry; and targeted
covert operations. These techniques can be made first-line tools or utilised as
cross-checks of more conventionally sourced data. To date, there had been
limited use only of these techniques—it is time to utilise them assertively.
Effectiveness would also be increased with:
- post-action audits of each major enforcement case, to seek and
- more stable and secure resourcing for compliance and enforcement
- targeted recruitment of specialist investigators and minimum
training levels for compliance and enforcement staff (including ethics training
- the wider and more ready use of innovative penalties for breaches
of water licence conditions, other than monetary penalties; and
- establishing best practice information sharing among
jurisdictions and other natural resource-based industries.
Natural Resources Access Regulator
The interim Matthews report presented a Water Management Compliance
Improvement Package. The two elements of the Package consisted of structural
reforms for consideration by ministers, and operational and administrative
improvements for consideration by the Secretary of the NSW DPI.
As part of the structural reforms, the report recommended the formation
of a NSW Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR). The NRAR would consolidate
all enforcement and compliance functions across WaterNSW and DPI‑Water. Following the release of the interim report, the NSW Government implemented
legislation establishing the NRAR.
The NRAR became operational on 30 April 2018, with principal objectives
of ensuring the 'effective, efficient, transparent and accountable compliance
and enforcement measures for the natural resources management legislation', and
to maintain public confidence in the enforcement of natural resources
management legislation. Members of the public can make confidential reports to
the NRAR should they have any concerns about potentially illegal or suspicious
The NRAR, led by an independent board, now has oversight of all water
compliance and enforcement activities in NSW. It provides directions to the NSW
Department of Industry on improvements or the need for corrective actions, and
determines whether proceedings for breaches of water legislation should
commence. The Matthews review recommended that the NRAR also make public an
annual report 'attesting to the adequacy of the department's regulatory
activities, and information on areas that it has recommended or directed
Role of the MDBA
The interim report found that the MDBA could offer a greater
contribution to water enforcement and compliance. Specifically, the review
called for the roles, functions, and scope of action for the MDBA to be more
clearly articulated and made public. It further called for the urgent
development of a revised whole-of-basin compliance and enforcement strategy.
The strategy would:
include standards and the levels of effort (resourcing) to be
achieved by each member state. The objective would be to build confidence that
all states were achieving a similar standard of compliance. The strategy should
set out a rolling program of review of the highest areas of risk of non‑compliance
and routinely audit the adequacy of each state's water measurement (especially
metering) and monitoring arrangements.
The interim report called for further contributions from the MDBA,
- the provision of more effective annual assurance reports from
Basin states about their compliance and enforcement arrangements, with the
reports to be made public;
- implementation of reciprocal third‑party auditing of each
Basin state's compliance and enforcement systems by other states; and
- sponsorship of a new national forum for compliance and
enforcement agencies from Basin states to share best practice and address cross‑border
Independent investigation into NSW water management and compliance – final
Mr Matthews' final report, dated 24 November 2017 and presented on 30 November
2017, examined the progress made by the NSW Government on implementation of the
recommendations from the interim report. The final report noted that steps had
been taken immediately by NSW following the release of the interim report, to
implement a 'historic program of reforms to the way water compliance and
enforcement is managed' in NSW. The final report summarised the steps taken,
including the establishment of the NRAR, the appointment of its board and other
measures such as:
A new division of the department to manage water and Crown
Lands...A new Deputy Secretary experienced in natural resource management was
recruited from outside the department to lead it. Leadership of the water group
within the new division was changed. Additional staff were assigned. Within the
broader department, a major program to foster ethical conduct was launched.
Considerable top management attention has been directed towards rebuilding
staff morale, team performance and commitment to the reform journey ahead. In
my view, the department has made a good start.
However, the final report presented five key risks to the successful
implementation of a water reform program, being:
risks associated with planning implementation of the reforms;
- risks in not allocating sufficient financial and staff resources
- translating high-level reform outcomes into specific and
practical measures at ground level;
- pressure from stakeholders to 'water down' key reforms, including
those for water metering; and
- an uncooperative relationship between government agencies and
risks with compliance and enforcement staff restructures.
It was noted in the final report that 'certain important stakeholders'
had expressed concerns over the interim report's recommendations about water
metering and improved transparency of information about water usage. The final
report acknowledged these concerns, and that they may result in 'practical
adjustments' to the desired policy outcomes. However, the report warned that:
if too many 'adjustments' accumulate, there is a risk of
gradually losing the current unprecedented opportunity to achieve long‑overdue
remedies to NSW compliance problems.
To counteract such an event, the final report recommended that the NSW
Government announce its intention to commission an independent audit and
evaluation of results against the original policies and desired outcomes, after
a 12‑month period.
The final report suggested that the NSW Government seek from the
Commonwealth funds that are available for Basin Plan implementation. It was
noted that Commonwealth funding for metering, compliance and enforcement, and
protection of environmental water, could advance the objectives of both the
state and federal governments.
In implementing reforms to water management, the final report called on
the MDBA to have a more assertive role with regard to compliance and
enforcement, with clear delineation between the complementary roles of Basin
states and the MDBA. The report stated that:
The MDBA is uniquely positioned to engage and lead the other
Basin states. NSW will not be able to achieve whole‑of‑basin
improvements acting alone. It therefore makes sense for NSW to seek to align
its compliance reform efforts with those of the MDBA.
It was recommended by the final report that the MDBA focus its
compliance and enforcement efforts at the Basin Plan level, and exercise its
full powers in doing so. The final report called for the MDBA to intervene
'where a Basin state has manifestly failed to act satisfactorily'. Further, the
MDBA should provide a common framework for Basin states' planning, execution
and regular public reporting of compliance and enforcement.
The final report noted that it would be desirable for the MDBA and the
NSW Government to align their metering objectives and any technical or minimum
threshold standards to be applied throughout the Basin. The report noted that
it would be of no benefit if different metering outcomes were recommended by the
MDBA and NSW, and that MDBA minimum standards should be the basis for the NSW
Reception of the Matthews review
There was widespread support from a variety of MDB stakeholders for the
recommendations of the Matthews reviews. Many parties expressed their pleasure
that the investigation had been comprehensive and offered practical and much‑sought‑after
solutions and recommendations.
For example, Mr Rob McBride expressed his view that the Matthews
recommendations were 'without doubt' adequate to address issues with water
compliance and enforcement in NSW. Further, Mr McBride felt that the
recommendations made by the Matthews review could enable some integrity to
return to the NSW water system.
Mr Justin McClure of the AFA acknowledged that the Matthews review was a
'very significant step in the right direction', while recognising that there
was much further to go.
MLDRIN thought that the recommendations of the Matthews review signified
a start to improving compliance and regulation, but it was important that the
NSW Government implement the recommendations, especially those concerning
metering and compliance.
NSW Ombudsman – Investigations into water compliance and enforcement
While the allegations made on Four Corners regarding water theft were
made in mid‑July 2017, the NSWO had already commenced, in 2016, an
investigation into water compliance and enforcement issues in NSW. The 2016
investigation was the fourth such investigation since 2006 (with previous
investigations completed in 2009, 2012 and 2013). The NSWO investigations were
instigated by complaints and public interest disclosures about a lack of
compliance and enforcement with water management principles in NSW.
The most recent investigations arose from allegations made by DPI‑Water
staff in June 2016, about the performance of DPI‑Water in relation to its
statutory compliance and enforcement functions. Staff had made a number of
allegations, including that:
- the SIU had been 'scaled down and rendered ineffectual' due to
staffing reductions and transfers;
- staff member delegations to undertake enforcement action were
- senior DPI‑Water executives allegedly directed staff to
take no enforcement action in relation to an alleged offence of an unlawfully
modified and enlarged dam;
no enforcement action was taken on unlicensed dams containing
large volumes of water, being used for irrigation purposes and without a water
there were systemic failures by senior management to take action
on water compliance matters.
Also in June 2016, a further allegation was made by a member of the
public of large-scale water theft by a cotton farmer, with the member of the
public asserting that DPI‑Water was not taking adequate action in light
of the allegations.
In November 2017, the NSWO presented a progress report into its fourth
investigation. The progress report did not present findings or concluded
opinions on the fourth investigation. The report did note, however, that the
Matthews review made findings largely similar to the three earlier NSWO
investigations, the findings of which had been reported to the relevant NSW
minister and department upon completion but were not made public.
The progress report observed that the NSWO had been raising concerns
over inadequate water compliance resourcing in NSW since 2009, and had previously
made recommendations to properly resource compliance functions. The first NSWO
investigation, concluded in 2009, determined that the ten water compliance
officers then engaged by the relevant department was 'seriously inadequate to
ensure the proper protection of the state's increasingly scarce and valuable
water resources'. This was highlighted by the fact that approximately 600
breach allegations were being received per year, with only
20 per cent of these subject to investigation.
Further, the first investigation, conducted between 2006 and 2009,
the Department’s compliance function was in disarray. There
were no adequate policies, no proactive monitoring of compliance, no adequate
system for logging and responding to alleged breach reports, no compliance
strategy, and poor record keeping and custody of evidence practices.
These concerns continued into the NSWO's third investigation, conducted
between 2011 and 2013. The 2013 report of the NSWO highlighted issues with
excessive delays in completing investigations and subsequent enforcement and
prosecution actions, with poor communication between compliance and legal staff
noted as a particular concern.
In its 2013 report, the NSWO again expressed its 'grave concerns' for
water compliance and enforcement should there be further resourcing reductions.
The NSWO also cautioned against the engagement of water licensing officers in
compliance roles, as they may be unqualified to conduct water investigations to
an acceptable standard.
However, the progress report noted that the creation of the SIU in 2013,
and its operation in 2014-15 (prior to staff reductions in 2016), was effective
in targeting higher risk breaches and delivering effective enforcement
The NSWO progress report noted that the frequency of administrative
changes to water management and regulation in NSW had 'substantially impaired'
water compliance and regulatory functions. The report noted that:
Over the past two decades the administration of functions
related to water management and regulation have been restructured and moved
between different government agencies close to twenty times. At least eight of
those changes in the last fifteen years were major restructures that resulted
in substantial staff relocations and retrenchments, carving up of functions,
splitting of departments, amalgamation of units and establishment of new
agencies. Since 2003 when the Department of Land and Water Conservation was
abolished, there has been a restructure involving water management functions
approximately every two years.
The opinion of the Ombudsman’s office is that the impact of
these changes on staff, loss of expertise and corporate knowledge, disruptions
to systems and strategy, and continuity of service delivery, have been
The NSWO concluded that many of the underlying structural and systemic
problems that it had raised throughout the course of its investigations had not
been properly addressed, or the impetus for change, when it occurred, was not
maintained. This was due to 'chronic under-resourcing of the enforcement and
compliance roles', constant departmental restructures and transfers of
responsibility, and a 'clash of cultures between a customer service focus and
The NSWO progress report recommended that to avoid the previous failures
in water compliance in NSW:
it is vital that any water compliance and enforcement effort
is adequately funded and resourced and staffed by qualified experienced persons
with investigative experience in dealing with offences where the burden of
proof is beyond reasonable doubt. It is equally important that investigators
are supported by, and have easy access to, water experts and legal officers
experienced in water issues. The expertise that was developed by DPI Water and
the SIU in particular should not be lost. Strong leadership support and a clear
mandate from Government are paramount to the success of any future compliance
On 17 August 2018, the NSWO presented a special report to NSW Parliament
on water compliance and enforcement. With the implementation of the NRAR, the
NSWO noted that the water management landscape in NSW was considerably
different to when the investigations first commenced.
The final report reiterated the view that over many years, water
compliance functions had been significantly under‑resourced, with
WaterNSW failing to adequately staff its compliance functions until after the
Four Corners allegations were broadcast. The NSWO further stated that:
The lack of resources, the impact of the disruptions, the
failure to manage staff expectations, the lack of effective communication, and
a failure to integrate staff in a timely fashion had a significant negative
effect on compliance performance.
However, since the Four Corners episode and the Matthews reviews, the
NSWO acknowledged that the NRAR had been established, and commended the NSW Government
for 'giving this issue the attention and resources it requires'. The NSWO
observed that, as of August 2018, the NRAR had:
64 compliance officers engaged in compliance, breach
investigations and monitoring activities, on‑the‑ground education
- 4 staff in the Water Enforcement Team, including 3 legal
officers, oversighting and supervising investigations; and
- 12 coordination officers for intake and triage of non‑compliance
reports and preliminary investigations.
The final report of the NSWO made a number of findings and
recommendations with regard to the NRAR, as well as other matters. To ensure
best practice moving forward, the NSWO recommended that the responsible state
minister ensure that the NRAR received sufficient resourcing to enable it to
undertake efficient and effective compliance operations. This would help to
avoid the inadequacies observed by the NSWO in its investigations over the past
The NSWO also turned its attention to prosecutions of water theft using
various technologies, and recommended that the NSW water minister:
Reviews the evidentiary requirements to prove offences under
the Water Management Act and Water Act so that evidence obtained through
appropriate technology, such as remote sensing, is prima facie admissible in prosecutions–similar
to evidence obtained by speed cameras in driving offences.
In September 2018, the NRAR advised that it had completed 147 on‑site
inspections, 58 property audits and 109 compliance actions in its first 100
days of operation, with four compliance actions progressing to prosecutions
under the NSW Water Management Act 2000. The NRAR identified the
compliance actions as follows:
- four prosecutions in the NSW Land and Environment Court;
- five penalty infringement notices;
- eight remediation notices directing landholders to undertake
- 81 advisory letters notifying landholders of alleged breaches;
- 11 warning letters advising of suspected minor breaches.
Additionally, on October 10 a Carinda man was found guilty of providing
false and misleading information to NRAR water investigators, an offence under
the Water Management Act 2000. The NRAR also advised that two directions
had been issued to cotton farms in the Brewarrina-Walgett area, to upgrade
their metering equipment.
ANAO – National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the
Murray‑Darling Basin, NSW
In 2013, COAG agreed to the Intergovernmental Agreement on Implementing
Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin (IGA). Under the IGA, the Australian
Government provides financial support to the Basin states via the National
Partnership Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray‑Darling
This financial assistance contributes to the costs involved in
implementing the Basin Plan, such as the preparation of new WRPs, and
implementing new compliance and reporting requirements. The payments to Basin
states are based on performance against milestones in the NPA, with the
milestones based on measures and objectives stipulated in the IGA and in the
Basin Plan. Milestone assessment reports are prepared by DAWR, which recommends
whether payments should be made under the NPA.
The Commonwealth therefore ensures that:
outputs are delivered and outcomes are achieved within agreed
timeframes. This includes [Basin states] making suitable progress in
sustainable water extraction, which involves the protection and use of
environmental water through effective regulatory and compliance arrangements.
As a result of the allegations made by Four Corners, the ANAO expanded
an already existing audit into National Partnership Agreements, and undertook a
limited assurance review of the New South Wales NPA.
The ANAO's review into the NPA made the following findings:
- the milestones and criteria for assessing the performance of NSW
under the NPA lack specific, measurable deliverables and outcome measures,
representing 'significant weaknesses in the performance framework';
- the NPA framework does not support DAWR to 'effectively assess
the performance of NSW in protecting and using environmental water in line with
the Basin Plan'; and
- that DAWR recommended that NSW receive payments under the NPA
despite NSW not meeting required milestones in 2014‑15 and 2015‑16,
and despite significant concerns being raised by the CEWH about NSW's 'failure,
if not active disinterest' in supporting the effective delivery of
environmental water in line with the Basin Plan.
The ANAO review found that:
While DAWR has followed agreed processes for monitoring
performance, there was a lack of evidence and explanation to substantiate its
positive assessment of NSW’s progress under Milestone 8 of the Murray-Darling
Basin NPA in light of the serious issues raised by the CEWH. Importantly, there
was little in DAWR’s submission to the Minister for 2015–16 to suggest there
were risks that NSW was not delivering environmental water consistent with the
Basin Plan. These factors indicate that DAWR has had limited effectiveness in
assessing the performance of NSW against the milestones in the Murray-Darling
Notwithstanding the effects of these findings, the Auditor‑General
determined that there was no indication that DAWR had not provided a high level
of assurance about the protection and use of environmental water in the Murray‑Darling
Basin, for the 2014‑15 and 2015‑16 assessment years.
Productivity Commission – five-year review of the Basin Plan
In August 2018, the Productivity Commission (PC) released its draft
report titled Murray‑Darling Basin Plan: Five-year assessment (draft report). The PC has responsibility for assessing the effectiveness of
implementation of the Basin Plan and associated WRPs, every five years, to
ensure public confidence in implementation of the Basin Plan.
While noting that significant practical progress had been made under the
Basin Plan, the draft report highlighted that 'immediate improvement' was
needed with regard to the development and accreditation of WRPs, which were
behind schedule. The PC also noted that over the next five years it would be
important that the Basin Plan arrangements were embedded and complied with.
The draft report argued that there was 'major shortcomings in the
current institutional and governance arrangements and these pose a significant
risk to successful implementation'. The PC further found that the two major
roles of the MDBA – supporting Basin States to implement the Plan, and, as the
regulator, ensuring compliance with the Plan – were in conflict, and that this
conflict would intensify in coming years. It was unclear to the PC whether it
was the Basin States, or the MDBA, that was responsible for leading
implementation of the Plan.
The PC spoke strongly to the matter of conflict within the MDBA with
regard to its varied roles, observing that this conflict:
will be exacerbated over the next five years. Its agent of
Government role will grow, as Basin Governments draw on its technical
capability and river operations skills to implement supply projects. Its role
as regulator of the Basin Plan comes into full effect when WRPs are accredited.
This conflict cannot be successfully managed through internal controls. In its
current form, the MDBA cannot be a trusted adviser to Basin Governments and be
a credible regulator.
Additionally, the PC has found that stakeholders were concerned about
the lack of an adequate compliance regime in many of the Basin states. The
draft report stated that:
An overwhelming number of participants to the inquiry
indicated that stakeholder confidence has been rocked by concerns that some
Basin States have been lax in ensuring compliance with water take rules. An
unwillingness to demonstrate that water acquired for the environment can be
protected from extraction further downstream, and allegations of fraud in water
recovery programs have compounded these concerns and left stakeholders
sceptical of the motivations of Basin Governments.
The PC observed that the MDBA was required to manage breaches or non‑compliance
with all aspects of the Basin Plan, and that it may—at times—be required to
call out states who were non‑compliant. The PC saw the MDBA as being 'an
inherently conflicted entity...perceived as such by stakeholders'.
To help address these concerns and the conflicted role of the MDBA, the
PC called for it to be separated into two institutions, known as the Murray‑Darling
Basin Corporation, and the Basin Plan Regulator.
The Corporation would be governed and funded by the Basin states. The
compliance, evaluation and review functions of the MDBA would be assigned to
the Regulator, which would be a new, independent Commonwealth statutory entity.
The Regulator would be governed by a board 'comprising of members with skills
that are aligned to its compliance and evaluation role'. The PC stated that these
institutional reforms should be in place by 2021.
South Australian Murray‑Darling Basin Royal Commission
On 26 November 2017, the then Premier of South Australia, Mr Jay
Weatherill MP, announced a state royal commission to investigate the allegations
of water theft by upstream irrigators. In announcing the royal commission, the
Premier stated that it would have 'wide-ranging coercive powers' to investigate
breaches of the Basin Plan and the Murray‑Darling Basin Agreement, and
would examine any changes to the legislation and policies implemented in 2012
that were inconsistent with the Basin Plan and the Agreement.
Upon release of the draft terms of reference for the royal commission,
the SA Government at the time stated that it was:
concerned at recent reports as to the alleged non‑compliance
with the Basin Plan, the current state of implementation of the Basin Plan, and
whether the Basin Plan will achieve its objects and purposes and those of the
Act. It considers that an independent Commission of Inquiry with coercive
powers is required to inquire into these and related matters.
The commission was formally established on 23 January 2018. The terms of
reference provided that the royal commission, led by Bret Walker SC, would
examine, among other things:
- whether the WRPs will be delivered in full by 30 June 2019, in a
form compliant and consistent with the Basin Plan, and whether any WRPs are
unlikely to be delivered in full and in a compliant form;
- whether the current Basin Plan, its implementation and any
proposed amendments to it are likely to achieve the purposes of the Water Act
and the Plan, including enhanced environmental outcomes and the additional
450GL as provided for in the Water Act;
- if the Basin Plan is unlikely to achieve any of the Water Act or
Basin Plan objectives and purposes, what amendments should be made to ensure
those objectives are achieved and what legislative impediments should be
changed, if needed;
- whether the underlying assumptions in the original modelling used
to develop the objects and purposes of the Water Act and the Basin Plan have
been sufficiently adjusted for the impact of improved technologies;
- the likely impact of alleged illegal take or other non‑compliance
on achieving the objects and purposes of the Water Act and Basin Plan, and
whether appropriate enforcement proceedings have been taken in such instances
(and if not, why);
- whether enforcement and compliance powers in the Water Act are
adequate to address non‑compliance, and recommendations for legislative
change if required;
- whether monitoring, metering and access to relevant information,
such as usage data, is adequate to achieve the objects and purposes of the Water
Act and Basin Plan; and
- whether water purchased by the Commonwealth will be adequately
protected from irrigation extraction under WRPs, and recommendations for
legislative or other changes.
The South Australian royal commission has concluded its public hearings,
with a final report to be provided to the South Australian Governor by
1 February 2019.
Views on a Commonwealth judicial
There was strong support put forward throughout the inquiry for a
federal‑level judicial inquiry or royal commission into the management of
MDB water resources.
For example, Mr Leon Zanker, of the AFA, stated that there has been a
'loss of confidence in the ability of government regulatory authorities to do
their job', and further, that there was no integrity left in the water system.
Mr Zanker, along with the AFA more broadly, called for a royal commission or
judicial inquiry to look at the overall state of the water system, as well as
the underlying premise of the Basin Plan and its expenditure of taxpayer money.
PAWD was supportive of the calls for a royal commission, noting that
such a fulsome inquiry would have the necessary powers to compel evidence and
offer protection for whistle-blowers, while allowing irrigation and
agricultural communities the chance to 'start afresh in the court of public
However, the NFF cautioned against a judicial inquiry or royal
commission, noting such inquiries often take considerable time and at great
expense. The NFF was instead supportive of the reviews undertaken since the
Four Corners program, as these had shown that 'focused and expert inquiries can
report and deliver clear recommendations, in a very timely and effective
Likewise, Cllr O'Connor of the Brewarrina Shire Council did not fully
agree with the calls for a judicial inquiry or royal commission. The Councillor
noted that as water theft was now in the public domain, the issue was 'too big
now to be swept under the carpet'. Cllr O'Connor argued that the Matthews
review went further than many people were expecting it to, and that, in
conjunction with the other inquiries such as the ICAC investigation, things
were heading in the right direction.
The committee acknowledges the strong sentiment amongst stakeholders and
other interested parties for the establishment of a Commonwealth‑level
judicial inquiry or a royal commission into the management and operation of the
MDB. The committee, however, is not the appropriate body to make a
determination on whether such an inquiry or commission proceeds at a federal
The committee recognises that underpinning these demands are concerns regarding
perceived inequalities in the management of the MDB system, furthered by a lack
of transparency in Basin management and modelling, and a lack of effective
compliance activity in some Basin jurisdictions. The committee observes that
there is a consistency to the themes and issues that have been raised about the
management of the Basin, regardless of the forum.
To this end, the committee notes that the various reviews and
investigations completed in recent months, addressing concerns with water
monitoring and compliance, have gone a considerable way to improving water
management across the Basin, with increased clarity around compliance and the
ramifications for those who breach the water use rules.
Further, despite the issues highlighted by this inquiry and many others,
the Basin Plan is yet to be fully implemented and operational. Until such time
as it is, and the legislative frameworks and water management plans can be
properly tested, a federal judicial inquiry or similar may be pre-emptive.
In its submission to the inquiry, DAWR noted that Queensland was
undertaking an independent review into rural water metering, which would
examine the operation and maintenance of meters, and water use reporting.
Queensland has since completed, in March 2018, an audit into its
regulatory frameworks for water measurement and compliance. The audit
identified three key areas to be addressed as a matter of priority, being the
introduction of robust measurement and compliance governance, implementation of
a new policy for water metering, and implementation of better water information
management systems and improved resourcing.
In response to the recommendations made by the audit, Queensland has
established a Rural Water Management Program. Among other things, the program
seeks to identify regulatory enhancements with regard to offences, penalties,
measurement and monitoring; review water metering policies, and undertake a
risk assessment of measurement and monitoring activities.
Additionally, the committee notes that the NSW ICAC has not yet made
public any information regarding its investigations following the allegations
in Four Corners, nor has it released any findings to date. The committee trusts
that once ICAC does finalise and publicise its conclusions, that the
appropriate NSW agencies will take the necessary steps to address any concerns
raised with regard to water management and compliance in that state.
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