Water Minister David Littleproud's call for a "tough cop on the beat" of compliance and monitoring across the Murray Darling Basin was intended to unite the states against water theft and mismanagement, but it may spark another round of infighting.
There's already a Commissioner in a similar role for the Northern Basin in NSW and Queensland, former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, and he supports the call for a basin-wide expansion of his role.
But his praise of NSW, and criticism of other state governments' compliance regimes, highlights where things may go awry with a ministerial council meeting this Sunday, in Canberra.
NSW has been the focus of intense public criticism after scandals over water theft by irrigators. Since then, NSW has reformed its laws, created a new compliance agency in the independent Natural Resource Access Regulator and beefed up water metering and monitoring.
Mr Keelty said NSW's response had been "tremendous" and it was now up to Victoria, South Australia and particularly Queensland to follow suit.
"What's happening with NRAR is it's embarrassing the other states into addressing how they look at compliance," Mr Keelty said.
"In Queensland, there are hardly any resources for compliance at all."
NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey said she would support the call for a new inspector general, but put other states on notice.
"NSW now has the strongest water compliance and enforcement system in the country with a zero tolerance for water theft," Ms Pavey said, and accused South Australia of poor compliance and losing 100 gigalitres of environmental water.
She cited an internal audit report by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder released publicly this year.
"The risk of not achieving the Commonwealth Environment Water Holder's obligations appears highest in South Australia," the audit report said.
"SA has not provided reporting over the last two to three years that attribute Commonwealth environmental water transferred to SA to specific environmental actions. For, example as of 2015-16, over 100 gigalitres was not attributed to any environmental outcomes in SA".
Ms Pavey said one of the first things she would raise with an inspector general would be these findings.
"Losing 100,000 megalitres of environmental water is certainly news worthy and needs to be investigated. The new Inspector General would be the obvious person to do it.
"NSW won't let its parched river towns watch as water flows downstream to interstate towns that are not suffering from the same level of drought," Ms Pavey said.
"NSW communities have been doing the heavy lifting to ensure water is being shared across the country, including the environment.
"Our communities need to have confidence in where and how environmental water is being used once it crosses the South Australian border."
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall told parliament today that Mr Littleproud's call for an inspector general came in response to his request.
Last week Mr Marshall called for an independent Basin Plan "umpire", to ensure compliance, transparency and delivery of water.
"At the meeting South Australia will be pushing for the establishment of an independent umpire to help ensure the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and Basin Governments are delivering what's been promised," Mr Marshall said.
"One of the key concerns of the current system is that government bodies are 'marking their own homework'.
"South Australia is reliant on water being delivered under the plan and an independent umpire will help ensure everyone keeps their end of the deal."
South Australian Water Minister David Speirs said in the lead up to the ministerial council his government was focused solely on how to deliver the Basin Plan.
"Less talking and bravado, more focus on delivering the plan, it's what our communities expect and it's what we have all agreed to," Mr Speirs said.
"South Australia will be seeking commitment from across the Basin on delivery of the plan in full including the 450GL of environmental water through efficiency measures."
Today, Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville also welcomed the call for an inspector general, as has the National Irrigators Council.
It's about trust
Mr Keelty was appointed Inspector General for the Northern Basin last year, after irrigator water theft was exposed in the media.
He said NSW's response to the scandal showed the way for other state governments.
"The plan suffers from a crisis of confidence and we need to support compliance action to ensure everyone is playing fairly," he said.
"One of the points I've made is the issues raised in the media, none of them came through departmental lines, it was from journalists. That shows the departments are flawed in their approach to compliance.
"NRAR has turned that on its head. It demonstrates if you put the resources into it, you can see the results."
Mr Littleproud said today the inspector general wouldn't duplicate NRAR's work in NSW and instead would ask state water ministers to endorse his call to extend that role when he chairs the ministerial council meeting in Canberra on Sunday.
"I commend what NSW has done, but this is about making sure there's trust between the states. This is a national position."
The inspector general would have initial funding of $8 million over four years and 10 staff, including boots-on-the-ground compliance officers.
Mr Littleproud is backing Mr Keelty to be the first basin-wide inspector general.
Mr Keelty's northern role would cease when the basin-wide inspector general took office and Mr Littleproud hopes the federal Cabinet, which is responsible for the appointment, gives him the gig.
A basin-wide inspector-general would not just monitor irrigator compliance, they would hold state and federal governments and agencies such as the Commonwealth Environment Water Holder responsible for their actions," Mr Littleproud said.
"We need to make sure every basin community has someone on their side now, someone they can trust," Mr Littleoroud said.
"He or she will have powers to compel evidence, from anybody, to be able to then pass it on to integrity commissions on a federal and state basis.
"This is about making sure all the basin states are compliant and individuals have a statutory person they can report to."
Productivity Commission review shelved
Environment, irrigator and farmer representative groups have called on the government to implement the recommendations of the Productivity Commission, which has conducted the only statutory review process of the Basin Plan since the National Water Commission was disbanded in 2013.
Mr Littleproud said while he hadn't rejected the findings of the commission, there was too much on the MDBA's plate for it to be split, with the development of new water sharing plans and its decentralisation of regional offices from Canberra to the regions.
In its latest statutory review of the Basin Plan, the Productivity Commission said the MDBA should be split into two agencies.
The PC wants a Murray Darling Basin Corporation to serve state governments with the expertise needed to implement the plan and manage the new basin-wide water regime.
It also wants an independent Basin Plan regulator to restore public confidence and provide in-the-field assessments that demonstrate the state's offset projects are delivering the required amount of efficiencies.
In time, the inspector general role could be part of an "evolution" into two agencies, Mr Littleproud said.
The story Murray Darling's top water cop puts states on notice first appeared on Farm Online.