The Murray-Darling maelstrom spilled onto parliament floor this week – with Labor calling for Ken Matthews’ investigation into water management and compliance in NSW to be turned on the past three Nationals’ water ministers: Katrina Hodgkinson and Kevin Humphries, as well as the embattled Niall Blair.
The terms of reference for Mr Matthews’ investigation currently focus on the Barwon-Darling irrigators who were alleged to have breached water entitlements and engaged in meter tampering – as highlighted in the Four Corners expose Pumped.
The investigation will also look at the WaterNSW bureaucrats alleged to have provided sensitive information to benefit big irrigators.
But state Opposition leader Luke Foley says Mr Matthews’ vision must be broadened to Mr Blair and the two Nats ministers who had overseen water since the Coalition came to power in 2011.
“The Nationals have proven they can’t be trusted to handle the state’s water and Ken Matthews must be allowed to investigate them,” Mr Foley said.
Since Linton Besser’s Four Corners Pumped expose on July 24 bad press has continued to lap at the door for Mr Blair, the NSW Nationals’ deputy leader and, until recently, a minister with little media baggage.
He has reiterated the state’s commitment to the Murray Darling Basin Plan in the face of criticism from other basin states, most noticeably South Australia – with calls growing downriver for judicial and senate inquiries into the matter.
However, Mr Blair has the staunch backing of both NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Nationals leader John Barilaro, and himself claims to be the number one man for the job.
“We must continue to advocate for (law abiding irrigators) and support them, because they are an important part of the sector,” Mr Blair said last week.
“Likewise, if anyone steps outside those rules then they need to be dealt with appropriately.
“I just want to make sure it is known there are many, many good people throughout regional NSW that are operating within water sharing plans and the rules and are contributing enormously to our communities and our economy.”
Mr Blair has also welcomed Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement of a basin-wide review of compliance arrangements by the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
Ms Hodgkinson has denied her resignation from parliament has anything to do with Murray-Darling matters, and maintains compliance increased on her watch.
Greens and Labor making waves
That Mr Blair and the Nationals would be targeted at the resumption of state parliament was of little surprise.
Politically, the Greens and Labor have lead the charge against Mr Blair and the NSW Nationals.
Labor has referred former water Minister Kevin Humphries and senior water bureaucrat Gavin Hanlon to ICAC.
It has also moved to disallow the regulation for the water management framework, zones and maps said to have given Mr Blair the discretionary power to pardon irrigators who may have broken the law by committing unauthorised illegal works to harvest water.
Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham, meanwhile, has repeatedly called for the the water portfolio taken from the NSW Nationals altogether.
Much of the post-Four Corners water pressure has been born from details obtained by the NSW Environmental Defenders Office – who have reportedly gone to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal in attempts to get further information from the regulator, WaterNSW.
While Mr Blair, as minister for regional water, would naturally cop the brunt of scrutiny of the state’s handling of Murray Darling matters – particularly alleged favouritism to big irrigators – the minister has come in for some special attention himself.
Among the steady drip of stories these past two weeks are claims:
- Mr Blair lobbied to change Barwon-Darling rules to retrospectively legalise big party donor moving their pumps to another part of the river. He said the proposed changes were “nothing more than a drafting error” and hadn’t been agreed to yet.
- Mr Blair gazetted a Barwon-Darling valley floodplain management plan, allowing him approve flood works built illegally even if they do not comply with requirements prior to the plan. A spokeswoman for Blair said the gazettal was a “significant legacy issue” required to create a process where unapproved works could be properly and transparently assessed. She said to be considered, works must not have been previously refused and would still need to be assessed under certain criteria.
- Mr Blair was warned that big donors were getting preferable irrigation deals as far back as 2015. A spokeswoman said: “The irrigator had an A-class licence which were not subject to the pumping embargo in place at the time” and that the “extraction was permitted in accordance with clause 48 in the Water Sharing Plan”.
Environment groups have also provided reams of comment on the saga, with the Nature Conservation Council, Australian Conservation Foundation, the Inland Rivers Network and the Wentworth Group of Scientists all vocal.
On Thursday green groups will rally in Sydney for the Regional Water portfolio to be taken off the Nats.