Former NSW Labor Minister to chair new water regulator

Former NSW Labor Minister Craig Knowles to chair new water regulator


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Regional Water Minister Niall Blair this morning unveiled a Water Reform Action Plan in response to the mismanagement and corruption allegations that began with the Four Corners Pumped report in July, and will probably spill into the new year amid repeated calls for a Royal Commission.

Regional Water Minister Niall Blair this morning unveiled a Water Reform Action Plan in response to the mismanagement and corruption allegations that began with the Four Corners Pumped report in July, and will probably spill into the new year amid repeated calls for a Royal Commission.

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Plus: Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers Party joins Royal Commission call

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UPDATED 2.50pm: WITH the tide rolling out on a turbulent year, NSW has revealed how it plans to shore up water matters into 2018. 

And a former NSW Labor Minister is central to government’s new compliance regime. 

Regional Water Minister Niall Blair this morning unveiled a Water Reform Action Plan in response to the mismanagement and corruption allegations that began with the Four Corners Pumped report in July, and will probably spill into the new year amid repeated calls for a Royal Commission, including from the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers Party. 

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 Also revealed this morning was the makeup of the newly-established Natural Resources Access Regulator – the independent body created to handle water compliance matters and complaints instead of Water NSW. 

Former Murray-Darling Basin Authority chairman and Labor Minister Craig Knowles, AM. Photo: Penny Bradfield.

Former Murray-Darling Basin Authority chairman and Labor Minister Craig Knowles, AM. Photo: Penny Bradfield.

Former NSW Labor Natural Resources Minister Craig Knowles is chair of the three-member board, alongside Baker and McKenzie environmental lawyer and policy expert llona Millar and agribusiness professional Bruce Brown.

Mr Knowles was also chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. 

Ms Millar is the former principal solicitor of the Environmental Defender’s Office and has authored reports such as Testing the Waters: Legal Challenges to Water Sharing Plans in NSW.

They join Interim Chief Regulatory Officer, Ross Carter, who Mr Blair said is already working to revamp water compliance and enforcement.

An extra $9.5 million will be provided for compliance and enforcement activities in the state. 

NSW undoubtedly has its work cut out to rebuild water trust, and today Mr Blair continued down that channel by releasing a Water Reform Action Plan.

Included in the plan is intent to “implement a robust metering framework” that will begin with consultation on a ‘no meter, no pump’ set-up for irrigators.

That will take place by the end of March 2018, with a timetable for rolling ‘no meter, no pump’ to be delivered by next October. 

The plan also outlines a discussion paper by the end of March on creating a public register of water information that could cover water entitlements, water licences and water work approvals.

NSW compliance and enforcement activities will also be published by the end of July. 

“It’s also very important that environmental water is managed effectively and NSW will work closely with stakeholders and Basin states to ensure this occurs,” Mr Blair said. 

Shooters load up on Royal Commission

Meanwhile, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party have joined calls for a Royal Commission into Murray Darling Basin matters. 

The call comes ahead of a crucial Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council meeting will be held in Albury on Tuesday December 19. 

Shooters’ Murray electorate spokesperson and water campaigner Helen Dalton – who failed to dislodge the Nationals at the recent byelection – said only a Royal Commission could turn over every stone. 

She was also critical of South Australia’s “one sided” push for an additional 450GL. 

“Out here we’re all fed-up with water in the Murray-Darling being the political football of people in Canberra and several state governments who are putting their own interests ahead of communities on the ground,” Ms Dalton said.

“The success of other recent Royal Commissions shows how effective they are to allowing those affected by a key issue to actually have their say and not permit people in power to hide matters from public scrutiny.

“The South Australian Government has already called-for a State Royal Commission, but given that they are pursuing a request next week for an additional 450GL from the Murray-Darling Basin, I fear that their proposal will be one-sided.

“Next week’s Basin Ministerial Council meeting will be critical for many rural communities, and the farmers that live in them.

The Shooters’ NSW Upper House MP Robert Brown is currently the chair of a parliamentary inquiry into water augmentation and supply. 

The story so far...

Mr Blair commissioned former water bureaucrat Ken Matthews to review the state’s management and compliance, after a controversial report by the ABC’s Four Corners program in July.

Pumped alleged that a small number of powerful Cotton irrigators in northern NSW had been stealing taxpayer-bought water indented for environmental flows. 

Deputy Director General water Gavin Hanlon was recorded in an exclusive meeting with a small group of irrigators offering to provide confidential information to guide their lobbying efforts in Murray Darling Basin Plan consultation. He has since resigned. 

ICAC has also launched preliminary inquiries into the actions of the NSW Government.

The interim report by Mr Matthews, released in October, said irrigators’ social licence to operate had been put at stake by systemic failure in the Department of Primary Industries’ Water division.

In light of the Interim Report, the Department of Industry introduced an external whistleblower service to report water fraud and misconduct, and additional departmental cultural transformation programs for staff.

The NSW Ombudsman also highlighted further significant flaws in the state’s management of the public resource.

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