PM blames drought, but there’s been over 100 cases of maladministration in Murray Darling in less than one year

Hundreds and thousands of native fish have been killed in the Murray Darling Basin. Drought is the catalyst, but mismanagement and policy failure of implementing the Murray Darling Basin Plan is the cause.

ABC report on the mismanagement of the Murray Darling Basin

Since allegations of large-scale water theft were first aired on Four Corners in 2017, barely a fortnight has passed without the media reporting on some type of maladministration in the Murray Darling Basin — including agency cover-ups, political and regulatory capture, government agencies with cultures of non-compliance, dodgy water deals, alleged fraud and unlawful amendments to the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

The Prime Minister wants to blame the recent Darling River fish kills on drought, but research by The Australia Insitute has found over 100 reports of maladministration of the Murray Darling Basin Plan in our report The Basin Files — Maladministration of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Here are just a few instances maladministration of the Murray Darling Basin Plan has been reported:

1 // There are multiple allegations of water theft

Controversy has raged around Murray Darling Basin water issues since Four Corners aired allegations of large-scale water theft and the ability for irrigators to legally extract water purchased for the environment from the Barwon-Darling River.

In fact, WaterNSW took nearly a whole year to act on accusations that seven billion litres of water were taken during the 2014–15 and 2015–16 water years without authority.

2 // WaterNSW had to be investigated for misleading the ombudsman

WaterNSW — the body responsible for compliance with the state’s water laws — was blasted by the NSW Ombudsman for giving them incorrect figures on the number of enforcement actions and prosecutions it had initiated over a 15-month period when in reality, it had not taken ANY enforcement actions at all.

NSW failed to inform the Senate that WaterNSW claimed it made 117 penalty notices and prosecutions over 16-months when there were actually zero. The Senate then voted on cutting environmental flows for the Northern Basin without this information.

3 // Evidence shows billions of litres was taken from the Barwon River, yet the Murray Darling Basin Authority did nothing about this until the ABC’s Four Corners report

In fact, several independent reviews were published post Four Corners and reported a consistent theme of a culture of non-compliance in agencies, and the Murray Darling Basin Authority as an ineffective regulator.

4 // The Murray Darling Basin Plan has been altered in favour of large irrigators

The then NSW Water Minister made last minute changes to the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan at the request of irrigators, behind closed doors and with no scientific basis for the changes.

5 // The then NSW Water Minister removed a pumping embargo at the request of upstream irrigators

Because of this embargo being lifted, in some areas river flows ceased, leaving the remaining stagnant pools of water as the only water source for some communities.

As a result, children living downstream were later hospitalised due to toxic water.

6 // The NSW regional water minister, Niall Blair, quietly granted himself the power to approve illegal floodplain works retrospectively

When the people who are supposed to act in the public interest are instead being accused of changing rules and advancing the commercial interests of groups they are supposed to be regulating, you know there’s an issue.

7 // Then Federal Water Minister Barnaby Joyce boasted about taking water away from the ’greenies’ and giving it to agriculture.

Yep, that’s right — when he was Agriculture and Water Minister, Barnaby Joyce actually told a gathering at Shepparton that he had given water back to agriculture through the Murray Darling Basin Plan so the “greenies were not running the show”.

8 // The entire state of NSW had fewer water enforcement & compliance staff than the City of Canada Bay has parking inspectors, the NSW Ombudsman found

In fact, reports from the NSW Ombudsman have outlined nearly a decade of mismanagement of the Murray Darling river system, made worse by major overhauls of the bureaucracy roughly every two years since 2003.

9 // Buybacks of water rights from three large properties, as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, proceeded without tender

Several ‘strategic’ water purchases were made by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Water Resources in 2017, all of which had a purchase price well above market value and consisted of water unlikely to return much, if any, environmental benefit. None of these transactions were available to all water licence holders via an open tender.

10 // It was revealed that excessive payments for water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin were made, with the government paying a quarter more for the water than the seller even asked

Eastern Australia Agriculture was paid almost $80 million in July 2017 for about 29 billion litres of its water licence, a price that generated the company a $52 million profit.

11 // In May 2018 the Coalition & Labor made a deal to pass 36 projects worth over $1 billion dollars through the Senate.

However, no list of how much water each project contributes, or its cost, has ever been made public.

12 // Broken Hill’s water supply will now be sourced from the Murray, via a new pipeline, despite pleas from the community

Its construction commenced without community consultation or the release of the business case. The irrigation industry advocated strongly for the pipeline and Cotton Australia celebrated it as a policy win for their members in their 2016–17 annual report. There has been major community concern that the pipeline would be used to justify continued over-extraction of water from the river system.

13 // There is alleged fraudulent use of billions of dollars of Commonwealth funds

A large Queensland irrigator — related by marriage to current Water Minister, David Littleproud — is facing charges for the fraudulent use of over $25m funds and possible ‘significant fraud committed against the Healthy HeadWaters project’.

The Commonwealth and Queensland government did not properly investigate allegations about alleged fraudulent use of Commonwealth funds and continued to pay the accused millions of dollars.

14 // In 2018, cotton growers enjoyed a bumper year ‘harvest bonanza’, despite water shortages at the end of the system that were blamed on drought

The Basin Plan has had a dramatic effect on what the agricultural industry looks like in the Basin. Water trades have allowed the consolidation of water licenses to large agribusiness and, increasingly, foreign investors. Because of this, nuts and cotton are becoming the dominant commodities, displacing family farms and a diverse agricultural base like fodder, dairy, horticulture, and vegetables.

15 // This is just a fraction of 100 reports by media on the maladministration of the implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan is failing.

Add your name to our open letter calling for a Fair Go for the Murray Darling Basin here.


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