Environment & energy, Government and governance, Food & water | Australia

15 December 2017

For over a decade, Australian governments have declared their commitment to good water governance on the Murray-Darling Basin. James Horne takes a look at what real commitment would mean.

A July 2017 Four Corners program on the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) suggested major problems in parts of New South Wales in implementing the 2012 Basin Plan.

The program highlighted issues with compliance and enforcement, including apparent scant regard for alleged water theft and the importance of environmental water, and significant issues with ethics and culture in the NSW public service. With an MDB Ministerial Council meeting on 19 December, it is timely to review what has been learned, and what action is required going forward.

Four of seven reviews spawned by the Four Corners investigation have already been completed.

In a report published last month, the NSW Ombudsman examined longstanding allegations that “the water management principles and rules were not being properly complied with and enforced”. The report makes damning statements about questionable behaviour and culture among some public servants in NSW water agencies over many years.

Problems with ethics and public service culture in the water area are also prominent in the final report of Ken Matthews, a former Chairperson of the National Water Commission. He concluded that water compliance and enforcement arrangements in NSW have been ineffectual and need systemic improvement. While observing that NSW had in recent months embarked on an “historic program of reforms” in relation to water compliance and enforcement, he notes pressure from ‘certain stakeholders’ were already seeking to water down key reforms.

More on this: Australia’s water policies are washing billions of dollars down the drain

Two reports emanating from an MDB-wide water compliance review commissioned by the Prime Minister have also been completed. These two reports highlight the low priority attached to compliance and enforcement in the northern part of the MDB in NSW.

The weakness of the four reports is that they are far too reasonable.

For more than a decade, federal and state governments have expressed their commitment to good compliance, the enforcement of water plans, and the importance of strongly supporting fairness to all water users, including the environment. Yet this seems to have been accompanied by a persistent lack of political commitment, and a culture where water theft and compliance with licence conditions have been optional.

For example, in 2009 the governments agreed to the National Framework for Compliance and Enforcement Systems for Water Resource Management. The Commonwealth provided funds for state-based frameworks to be developed. Yet today, nearly a decade later, NSW still does not have a fully functioning and transparent framework in place.

Four actions are essential to address what appears to be a lack of political commitment to deliver the Basin Plan.

First, governments throughout the Basin, in particular the NSW Government, need to recommit to, and quickly implement, effective monitoring, compliance and enforcement of water being taken by all water users.

At the MDB Ministerial Council meeting on 19 December, all governments should strongly support the immediate implementation of all recommendations of the MDB-wide compliance review. A transparent timetable with transparent reporting is essential. The NSW Government needs to make clear that water theft is unacceptable, and that the law and Basin Plan will be vigorously enforced.

Second, the Commonwealth and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) can no longer afford to leave compliance and enforcement to the states. The Commonwealth water minister needs to be a stronger proponent of the Basin Plan, calling out state behaviour that is inappropriate. The MDBA needs to proactively and transparently push for greater accuracy and coverage of metering and comparable transparent modelling throughout the Basin.

More on this: Australia needs to reinvigorate its stagnant debate on water policy

Third, NSW needs to clean up its water administration. Many public servants have been trying to do the right thing, but some have not. The report of the NSW Ombudsman left me asking: how can this be? Why hasn’t action been taken already?

The answer can only be that there has been a lack of political commitment to the reforms. Without this commitment we can expect more of the same over coming years. Interest groups that seek to dilute these much-needed reforms need to be both resisted and transparently exposed.

Fourth, transparent and accurate metering should be non-negotiable. In 2007, John Howard said, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” A decade later, only between 25 per cent and 51 per cent of unregulated surface water used in the northern MDB is metered. Additionally, many meters do not meet today’s standards for accuracy.

If a water licence holder wants to use water, they should be required to operate a tamper-proof meter of a specified standard. The policy should be ‘no working meter, no water’. The time for transitional arrangements has long passed.

A regulator is being established by legislation in NSW among other things for this purpose, but only time will tell if it is independently staffed, adequately resourced, and operates with genuine resolve to stamp out illegal behaviour. Some political and commercial interests will want the status quo to be maintained. Their overtures need to be resisted.

Compliant state water plans, which are at the core of the Basin Plan, are required to be in place by the end of June 2019. NSW needs to commit the necessary resources to get this job done. Currently it is not.

All these actions require strong political commitment from all governments. When they meet later this month, all members of the MDB Ministerial Council should recommit to timelines set out in the Basin Plan and lay out transparent documentation showing how that will be achieved.

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