FARMERS and rural communities have endured great stress and anxiety from two historical water reforms, with the Murray Darling Basin Plan meant to be the last. But with fallout from the Four Corners program plus problems in Queensland, a Royal Commission is the only way to guarantee farmers will not have to go through it again. Compounding the problem is a small number of large farmers impacting on smaller neighboring farmers’ ability to make a living.
Government must lance the boil and establish a Royal Commission because there are serious problems that will only be made transparent when federal and NSW government ministers and bureaucrats are cross examined and paper trails subpoenaed to get all facts on the table.
The substantial number of farmers affected by the actions of a few will not thank governments if there is wrongdoing that is not exposed.
There is an old saying “you cannot be the poacher and the game keeper”, and as NSW water ministers fall like nine pins people are legitimately questioning the independence of the NSW inquiry. Niall Blair established the inquiry, but was formerly boss of the water department’s Gavin Hanlon, who is now stood aside.
And there are legitimate questions why Blair instigated retrospective water legislation on theft.
Former water minister Kevin Humphries has been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the actions of another minister, Katrina Hodgkinson, who was minister when the 2012 Barwon-Darling water-sharing plan was changed so dramatically, warrant consideration.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported that one of the irrigators in the Four Corners story had donated $10,000 to the The Nationals just before the changing of the Barwon-Darling water-sharing plan that advantaged him, reportedly his son works in the office of the leader of the NSW Nationals.
Also troubling was the Murray Darling Basin Authority employing one of said irrigator’s current employees as a community liaison staffer.
There is strong evidence NSW is not the only state with issues, as questions have been asked about both Queensland and Victoria. There are also major problems with some of the rules around the on-farm efficiency program and overland flow water licenses that need federal investigation.
I agree with last week’s column by Peter Austin that these issues are hugely damaging to our industry, but allowing things to continue as they are and a consequent death by a thousand cuts, particularly when the nation is watching so closely, will do farmers no favors. The magnitude of these complex issues means the Turnbull government has no choice but to beef up its inquiry to a Royal Commission, so Australian taxpayers regain confidence in government management of the $12.7 billion of their tax money.
- Mal Peters