Water bills under the spotlight

Pavey and Dalton lay out their water transparency bills

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Water Minister Melinda Pavey and Murray MP Helen Dalton have both introduced water transparency bills to Parliament, but which is better?

Water Minister Melinda Pavey and Murray MP Helen Dalton have both introduced water transparency bills to Parliament, but which is better?

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Due to water transparency being hotly debated in parliament and among our readers, The Land wanted to push past the political agendas to lay out what impact these bills could actually have.

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In just a week, two water transparency bills were put to parliament.

On one side of the political divide was Water Minister Melinda Pavey whose bill forces NSW MPs to declare their water interests.

On the other side was Murray MP Helen Dalton whose bill also calls for an easily accessible water register.

With the numbers behind her, Mrs Pavey's transparency bill passed through the Lower House last Wednesday.

A day later Mrs Dalton, who has been campaigning for water barons to be outed since last year, re-introduced her bill after it lapsed. The bill is expected to be debated in the coming months.

Both bills have been referred to an Upper House committee for inquiry and report.

Due to water transparency being hotly debated in parliament and among our readers, The Land wanted to push past the political agendas to lay out what impact these bills could actually have.

A summary of your water bill?

Pavey: An act to amend the Water Management Act 2000 with respect to public access to information recorded in the Water Access Licence Register; to amend the Constitution (disclosures by members) Regulation 1983 to require members of parliament to disclose certain water interests held by the members and certain water trading activities of the members; and for related purposes.

Dalton: The bill will force NSW state MPs to declare their water interests on their pecuniary interest form, including any water owned in the past five years and any water their spouse owns. It will also change the NSW online water register so people can search for water owners by name (currently, you can only search by water licence number). And it changes the application process to ensure people and companies can't hide their identity when applying for a licence.

What is the mechanism in your bill that will benefit irrigators the most?

Pavey: The bill is aimed at improving transparency and removing damaging conspiracy theories that cause angst in regional communities by putting on the table NSW MPs water assets and water trading activity. Our bill also includes provisions to ensure that any future regulation of the public register protects the privacy of mum and dad farmers.

Dalton:By providing transparency. It will expose conflicts of interests and the extent to which water traders and foreign interests are distorting the market and hurting farmers. Once this information is publicly available, the government will be forced to make changes and a case for a royal commission will be compelling.

What has driven you to put forward your bill?

Pavey: Water is our most precious resource and as such there is an expectation within the community that the ownership and trading of water should be done in a transparent way. The Nationals have put forward this bill to strengthen parliamentary disclosures as they relate to water trading.

Dalton: The devastation water mismanagement and corruption has had on rural communities over the past five years. We can't fix our water problems until we find out who owns it.

What is missing from the other bill?

Pavey: Our bill focuses on water trading and water held within irrigation corporations. Our bill also includes provisions to ensure that any future regulation of the public register protects the privacy of mum and dad farmers.

Dalton: It only covers 135 people (NSW state MPs) among the thousands who own water. It doesn't cover foreign companies, political donors or water traders. It gives the Minister the power to block public access to the register on the grounds of privacy. For MPs, it's not retrospective and it doesn't cover politician spouses. There are many loopholes for politicians.

Should there be an easily accessible NSW water register?

Pavey: NSW already has public registers for water ownership and trading, which covers everyone, not just members of parliament. It is important that all members of the public are provided with straightforward, online access to water ownership information.

Dalton:Absolutely. The public have a right to know who owns our most valuable natural resource.

Are there risks to water owners and traders if knowledge of the volumes of the water they hold and the trade they have done are made public?

Pavey: The risk to water owners and traders is the potential to expose the names and addresses of mum and dad farmers across the state. We all remember the disastrous impact the Orwellian "Aussie farms" website had on the privacy of our regional communities: Farmers' private homes were listed on a Gestapo-like hit list. We need to get this right by working with the Commonwealth, other basin states and the ACCC on an all-of-basin approach to improve transparency within the water market.

Dalton: We received feedback from irrigators that publishing of real-time trades could provide information to speculators to short the market. However, I don't see an issue with publishing info on water holdings. If we have a register of land and property, we ought to have a proper register of water. People already know irrigators have water. My bill will expose the secret Sydney traders, foreign companies and politicians who own water.

Should the application process for obtaining a water licence include details like company directors and major shareholders?

Pavey: Any changes to the public register should be done in consultation with the Commonwealth, other Basin states and the ACCC. That is why our bill provides for further regulatory change to the public register once we have the findings from the ACCC report.

Dalton: Absolutely. My bill provides for this, Minister Pavey's bill does not. It's not good enough for a secret Cayman Islands company to buy our water.

Should MP's be forced to declare their spouses' water interests?

Pavey: The purpose of this bill is straight forward. To win back the trust of our communities, so they can see we do not make decisions for personal gain.

Dalton: Yes. The oldest trick in the book is for politicians to hide assets in their spouses' names. A Minister can influence the price and profitability of water. If their wife or husband is making millions from water trades, we deserve to know.

Should MP's have to declare retrospective water interests?

Pavey: Retrospectivity sets a dangerous precedent, and it is generally accepted that retrospectivity should not be applied to legislation except in the most exceptional of circumstances. Members already have to declare monies made through trading or owning water.

Dalton:Absolutely. The Nationals have spent the last six months delaying my bill. No they've introduce their own bill. We need to know if they owned water during that time.

Should MP's have to declare their water trades within 14 days?

Pavey: Trades can happen quickly, and the market can change day to day, so it's important to make sure that members declare these quickly. Where things like shares change, this will generally be captured in the water trade declarations, and the total interests of the members can be updated as part of the regular cycle.

Dalton:So long as they also have to declare property and share trades/sales etc within 14 days. With their bill, the government seems to be targeting me personally, as the only irrigator in Parliament, and imposing on me paperwork requirements that don't apply to anyone else.

Do you think it's possible to improve the situation for NSW irrigators under the Murray Darling Basin Plan?

Pavey: At the moment some people, including Members of the Shooter's Party are pitting farmer against farmer for political gain. This is disgraceful and our communities have been doing it hard enough without people like the Shooters planting these conspiracies within our communities.

Dalton: The plan is broken. It needs to be paused for five years, during which time we should have a federal royal commission to rid it of corruption.

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