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Blair must go: Labor

Saturday, 10th March, 2018

By Craig Brealey

The NSW Labor Party says the Water Minister must resign after it was revealed that he told Parliament cotton farmers had been prosecuted for water theft when, in fact, none had.

A report by the NSW Ombudsman, tabled in parliament on Thursday, showed that the Water Minister, Niall Blair, misled the public and Parliament when he quoted figures provided by WaterNSW that the Ombudsman has found to be false, said Labor.

WaterNSW told the Ombudsman that they had posted 105 infringement notices and made 12 criminal prosecutions for water theft. In fact, WaterNSW had levied no infringement notices and no criminal prosecutions in 17 months, the Ombudsman’s report revealed.

Mr Blair quoted the same false figures to the NSW Parliament in November last year.

The Ombudsman also revealed that he informed the department that the data was incorrect in December last year but the government failed to correct the record or inform the Federal Senate, said NSW Shadow Water Minister, Chris Minns.

At that time the Senate was deciding whether to cut environmental flows to the Darling River and give the water to upstream cotton growers who were already facing allegations of stealing and illegally diverting water into their dams in southern Queensland and northern NSW.

“A stated concern for many senators was that the NSW Government did not take the prosecution of water theft seriously, a concern confirmed by (yesterday’s) revelations in parliament,” said Mr Minns. 

On the day the Ombudsman’s report was tabled, WaterNSW announced that it was taking two NSW cotton farm companies to court - eight months after water theft allegations were made against them in a Four Corners exposé.

Mr Minns described the belated prosecution as “hugely convenient” for the NSW government.

“Minister Blair has been found to have misled Parliament and refused to correct the record when he was told it was wrong; his position is untenable,” said Mr Minns.

“This government sacked the investigation unit and then didn’t prosecute anyone for 17 months, all the while insisting that failures had been corrected and that compliance was no longer an issue,” he said.

“Minister Blair knew that information concerning supposed prosecutions was false, and yet he did nothing about it.

“This is exactly why no one has any confidence in the National Party. They have misled the Parliament, closed down investigations and misled the Ombudsman. 

“It’s time for the Minister to lose the Water Portfolio.”

The Ombudsman tabled the report in parliament on Thursday and another in November last year because previous reports to NSW Water Ministers have not seen the light of day.

Mr Blair was invited to comment on Labor’s call for him to resign and yesterday a spokeswoman from his office said that he had used figures contained in the Ombudsman’s preliminary report in parliament which were later found to be incorrect but had later “informed parliament of this fact.”.

“The newly established Natural Resource Access Regulator will build a compliance and enforcement regime that ensures strong and certain regulation of water in NSW and is set to be operational in the coming months,” the spokeswoman said.

Mr Blair’s office said the Shadow Water Minister “had no understanding of water issues.

“Rather than demanding his Federal counterparts stop playing political games with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan or offering an alternative plan to provide water security for the people of Broken Hill, he focuses on scoring cheap political points,” the spokeswoman said. 

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