THE turbid waters of Murray Darling politics were given another stir this morning.
NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair is alleged to have pushed for Barwon-Darling Water Sharing changes, which would allow a big irrigator to move his pumps to get more water.
Mr Blair has defended the proposed tweaks to “contradictory” rules in the plan, also adding no change had been made so far, and that the proposal would apply to all water licence holders, not just one.
He also said he was the “number one person” to be dealing with water in government.
He got the backing of Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Premier John Barilaro to continue in his role, despite call from conservation groups for water to be taken off The Nationals.
The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Clennell had reported Mr Blair was angling to retrospectively change Barwon-Darling Water Sharing rules to justify a 2016 Department of Primary Industries decision to grant extra irrigation rights to prominent Brewarrina cotton farmer Peter Harris.
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Mr Harris was a Nationals party donor to the tune of $10,000 in the lead-up to the 2011 election.
His lawyers told the Telegraph he had no knowledge of the proposed changes to the Barwon-Darling plan or how it would affect him.
Disturbing allegations by Daily Tele that NSW Nationals doing secret deals for— Nick Xenophon (@Nick_Xenophon) August 2, 2017
irrigators who are large political donors.Inquiry a must
In this morning’s news, a Department of Primary Industries briefing obtained by the Telegraph showed in 2016 it recommended Mr Blair amend the Barwon-Darling Plan “to remove an error” in Clause 66(1) that “has had an impact on some users wishing to trade water between river sections.”.
This was months after the department had already approved an application that would allow Mr Harris to move pumps to another section of the river, something the Telegraph said was in breach of the “error” in question.
Water Minister Gabrielle Upton has reportedly refused to allow the proposed changes through.
Murray Darling politics has been a hot topic in basin states since last week’s Four Corners report Pumped, which alleged some irrigators in the Barwon-Darling had breached water entitlements, and that NSW water bureaucrats were tweaking the rules to suit big business.
Blair defends move to change ‘contradictory’ rule
Mr Blair told The Land this afternoon that the controversy was “nothing more than a drafting error” on the Barwon-Darling water sharing plan.
“There’s nothing more than that. (The correction) is not something that is designed to benefit anyone but the whole of the participants in the plan. It was brought to my attention in 2016 that it was an error and should be corrected and based upon the advice from my department that’s what we sought to do.
“As we stand here today it hasn’t been changed. But he clarification around what the intent of the water sharing plan is something the department has gone to great lengths to get through.”
A spokeswoman further explained: “Clause 66(2) of the regulation explained the procedure for making water trades (a standard feature of most water sharing plans, and consistent with objectives of the National Water Initiative) but Clause 66(1) said that trades could not be made.
“Documents published at the time to help the industry and public understand the regulation clearly demonstrate the intent of the plan.
“There are over 45,000 water licences in NSW, giving rise to competing interests in how water is shared, and that’s why in NSW we have water sharing plans covering 100 per-cent of the state, the only state in Australia to do so.
“The Minister was advised that these contradictory statements in the same regulation needed to be amended to be consistent with the original intent as announced in 2012.”
The spokeswoman repeated that Ken Matthews had been appointed to look at matters of compliance and trading within the agreed water sharing plan.
“NSW Nationals must relinquish water portfolio”
In response to revelations in the Telegraph, conservation groups have called for Nationals MPs to be removed from natural resource portfolios.
“Water must be overseen by somebody who is interested in protecting the health of our rivers,” said The Australian Conservation Foundation’s acting campaigns manager, James Trezise.
“It appears from the report that there is a move to retrospectively change the law to accommodate a National Party donor.
“This would be an egregious breach of trust with the NSW public. Our elected officials should be acting in the public interest.”
The Nature Conservation Council and the Inland Rivers Network also called on the Premier to refer the matters to ICAC.
“It appears the National Party has been working hand-in-glove with the big irrigators to cook the rules, and the Darling and environmental water have been the casualties,” said Inland Rivers Network spokesperson Bev Smiles.
“The Four Corners report showed the government turning a blind eye to potentially illegal behavior like meter tampering and water theft.
“Now the Daily Telegraph article shows National Party Ministers have been doing the bidding of irrigators and attempting to rewrite water-sharing rules to benefit major donors.”
But Berejiklian, Barilaro back Blair
Premier Gladys Berejiklian stood behind her Regional Water Minister this morning when asked about the allegations raised in the Telegraph.
“There’s no doubt issues around water are extremely complex and sensitive and I’ve no doubt we have an outstanding minister looking at these issues in a most appropriate way,” she said.
Deputy Premier and NSW Nationals Leader John Barilaro also backed Mr Blair to continue in his role.
“What we need to remember is NSW is completely covered by water sharing plans,” Mr Blair said.
“I don’t think many could name another jurisdiction in the world that has 100 per cent of its borders covered by a water sharing plan.
“It sets aside what can be used for productive use, and the rules around that productive use. That’s also very important to remember. Because I would say the majority people in NSW operate inside those rules.
“We must continue to advocate for them and support them, because they are an important part of the sector.
“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.”