NSW is under attack along two borders amid accusations senior officials helped irrigators undermine the Murray Darling Basin Plan and failed to properly investigate alleged water theft.
Downstream states have called for a judicial inquiry into NSW’s dealings, while the local opposition referred the matter to the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Tuesday.
The ABC aired a 2016 recording of top NSW water bureaucrat Gavin Hanlon offering to share de-badged government information with irrigation lobbyists.
The program revealed the NSW government was considering abandoning the Murray Darling Basin Plan altogether and suggested water theft and tampering with meters was rife in the state’s north.
NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair announced a government inquiry into the matter, but his South Australian and Victorian counterparts want a more independent review.
SA Water Minister Ian Hunter said only an independent judicial inquiry could get to the bottom of what was going on, an idea endorsed by federal opposition water spokesman Tony Burke.
Mr Hunter said he was shocked at the extent of the alleged water theft, including tampering with water meters and the way the activity was “systematically endorsed across a whole region of NSW”.
Mr Burke has written to Australian Auditor General, asking he investigate allegations outlined in the report, while Victorian Water Minister Martin Pakula echoed calls for an independent investigation into the matter.
NSW opposition water spokesman Chris Minns said Labor would refer the allegations to the state’s ICAC.
“The department shouldn’t investigate themselves. We can’t trust them to investigate themselves,” Mr Minns told reporters.
He is also demanding answers from Mr Blair following allegations his predecessor advised irrigators to ignore bans on water pumping under the plan.
“The National Party’s lack of action is incredible when you consider it is their communities who are being driven to the brink, yet minister after minister has turned a blind eye to the problem,” Mr Minns said in a statement.
Mr Blair defended his decision to have the matter investigated by an “independent, eminent” person and said the government remained committed to the Murray Darling Basin plan.
“My focus is to make sure the system as a whole is looked at, particularly when it comes to compliance,” he told the ABC.
Mr Blair said Mr Hanlon, who was a “very good” member of the agency, would be moved to another role while the investigation was underway.
Meanwhile, the chief of the Murray Darling regulatory body says he didn’t know the extent of water theft and meter tampering in the basin, describing the revelations as “a wakeup call”.
“That was certainly news to me personally,” Phillip Glyde told the ABC on Tuesday.
“I think there is a lot more trust in the southern part of the basin, in terms of regulatory regime and meters, less so in the north.”
Barwon Darling Water spokesman and former cotton farmer Ian Cole said he felt irrigators in the catchment had been misrepresented in reports.
“There will be rogue people (stealing water), and I’m not saying they don’t exist on the Barwon Darling. What I am saying is I don’t know of them,” he said.
Asked if he welcomed an ICAC inquiry into the matter, Mr Cole said he agreed with the NSW government’s course of action.
“I’d rather a court room than be tried by media,” he said. Mr Cole said he had taken part in phone conferences with Mr Hanlon, but was never given de-badged government information.