IT is routine to accept stakeholder feedback on water sharing plans and make changes right up until the draft is finalised – even if public consultation is closed – says the office of Regional Water Minister Niall Blair.
Mr Blair’s office has also denied it is common practice for ministers to ‘rubber stamp’ draft water sharing plans handed to them by bureaucrats.
But the minister’s office did not address whether changes made to the draft Barwon-Darling water sharing plan by former minister Katrina Hodgkinson had delivered a 51.4GL gain to irrigators who lobbied her – as reported in The Guardian Australia on Thursday.
Nor did Mr Blair’s office specifically say whether he had complete confidence in the actions of the NSW Coalition’s water ministers between 2011 and 2015.
“Let’s deal with the facts rather than with claims and assumptions based on draft documents from unnamed sources with an agenda,” a spokeswoman said.
Earlier, The Guardian reported former Primary Industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson changed a Barwon-Darling water sharing plan in 2012 to reflect recommendations from irrigator lobbyist Ian Cole, at the time the chairman of Barwon-Darling Water.
It was reported that changes were made to the draft plan after it was presented to Ms Hodgkinson to sign in mid-2012 – at least six months after public consultation finished – and, “according to draft Murray Darling Basin Austhority modelling”, may have increased legal extractions by irrigators by 32 per cent, or 51.4GL.
A spokeswoman for Mr Blair said all stakeholder comments on water sharing plans were considered, and changes made, up to the finalisation of the plan.
She also said, despite ‘insiders’ telling The Guardian otherwise, it was not normal practice for a Minister to ‘rubber stamp’ recommendations provided by advisers.
“That Minister would not be doing their job,” Mr Blair’s spokeswoman said.
“The Minister’s job is to consider advice from the full range of stakeholders at each stage of the process and make their best decision based on that input.”
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The Guardian reported that while state government did not incorporate Mr Cole’s main demand to reinstate 2006 “nothwithstanding” rules, numerous tweaks were made relating to A class licence holders, and the ability to access water during low flows.
Mr Blair’s spokeswoman said the details in the story had been public since September 2012 when the plan was first published.
“The facts are that the government took the advice of a broad range of stakeholders and experts in making the Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling,” the spokeswoman said.
“The Plan includes background documents which describe the final decisions including what changes were made, when they were made and why they were made. The final plan was approved by the former Minister for Primary Industries (Katrina Hodgkinson) and the former Minister for the Environment (Robyn Parker).
Ms Hodgkinson said she remained proud of her record as the Minister for Primary Industries and denied any wrongdoing.
There are 22 water resource plans required to be developed in NSW by July 2019, as per the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
Each plan area varies in the number of water sources, their level of development, environmental assets, and geography affecting the way the rivers are run in each area.
The formulation of the Barwon-Darling plan is understood to be part of an Independent Commission against Corruption investigation.
The investigation will also look into concerns over state government’s handling of alleged of water theft and compliance, kicked off by the Four Corners Pumped investigation last year.