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Job ahead to re-build trust

Friday, 1st December, 2017

The NSW Government has been warned that if it does not act quickly to fix the problems on the Barwon-Darling rivers and prosecute the law-breakers it will lose not only the trust of the public, but that of honest irrigators.  

Following the allegations of corruption and collusion between certain cotton growers and senior public servants, broadcast by Four Corners in July, the NSW Government commissioned former senior water bureaucrat, Ken Matthews AO, to conduct an independent investigation into water management and compliance in NSW.

In September Mr Matthews presented his interim report which found “serious failings” within WaterNSW and the Department of Primary Industries.

Yesterday he delivered to the government his final report in which he said action must be taken soon and warned that the public would not let the matter rest.

“Based on the feedback I have received, community concern about compliance shortfalls has, if anything, intensified since my first report,” Mr Matthews told the government. 

“The issue is not going away.”

While he praised the government’s willingness to accept his finding of “serious shortcomings” in water management, he said the recommendations to fix them were at risk of delay and of being “watered down”.

After the Four Corners’ report the state’s top water bureaucrat was forced to resign in September. NSW Department of Industries (DPI) director general, Gavin Hanlon, was secretly recorded in a teleconference promising to share internal government documents with cotton lobbyists in 2016.

Mr Matthews had recommended that Mr Hanlon be investigated for misconduct.

Yesterday Mr Matthews revealed that another senior DPI executive had been sacked.

“This executive had allegedly been involved in certain events reported in the Four Corners program, including the teleconference,” he said.

Ken Matthews’ report came less than a week after NSW and Queensland were condemned by a Murray-Darling Basin Authority review into water theft and regulation.

That inquiry found those states regularly failed to make sure irrigators complied with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and weren’t honest or open about their failures.

A day after the MDBA report was handed down, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced a royal commission into water theft in the basin.

Mr Matthews said he was worried that aspects of his reform package could be weakened or delayed due to the number of recommendations.

He also said while he thought the NSW reform process had got off to “a good start”, he was disappointed that decisions still haven’t been made about whether to prosecute several alleged cases of illegal irrigation on the rivers by cotton growers.

“Resolving these allegations must be a priority if public confidence in NSW water compliance is to be re-built,” Mr Matthews said.

He said he was pleased that the government had passed legislation to establish the new independent Natural Resources Access Regulator to oversee compliance and enforce the regulations, but that the regulator had to be a proper “task force” and not a mere “working party”.

Compliance officers also had to be removed from WaterNSW and taken back into the Department of Primary Industries, he said, and upstream irrigators must be forced to install modern, working meters, which irrigators on the Lower Darling had been made to use years ago.

Despite evidence of upstream water meters having been deliberately disabled by certain irrigators, the NSW Government has given those same irrigators a full year to fix them.

Mr Matthews said having properties properly metered was among the most important things that had to be done.

“As implementation proceeds, the three major reforms likely to be most in the spotlight will be the commitment to water metering, improved transparency about water usage and protecting environmental water,” he said.

“None of these will be easy. All will require substantial planning, adequate resourcing both in terms of staff and budgets, and proper consultation with all interested parties.”

Regional Water Minister, Niall Blair, said the government was committed to the program of reform but that it would not be easy.

“Mr Matthews’ final report acknowledges the actions we have already taken to address water management problems, but it is also clear there will be challenges to achieving such an ambitious program of reform,” he said.

(The full 37-page report may be found at: bit.ly/matthewsreport).

-BDT/AAP

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