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SA leads calls for inquiry into upstream water grab

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South Australian political leaders are pushing for multiple inquiries into allegations that billions of litres of water from the Murray-Darling Basin, earmarked for the environment, are being diverted for use by NSW cotton farms.

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The ABC’s Four Corners program last night aired allegations that huge volumes of water purchased by the taxpayer as part of the Murray-Darling plan’s environmental measures were instead being diverted to some NSW cotton-growing operations.

The report also suggested that senior NSW public servants turned their back on internal calls for investigations into illegal pumping from the river system.

The outraged South Australian government wants a judicial inquiry into the allegations, while independent Senator Nick Xenophon also wants the NSW ICAC to investigate.

In NSW, the Opposition, Greens and environmentalists have variously called for ministers to be stripped of their responsibilities, a royal commission and an ICAC corruption watchdog investigation.

“This is a serious matter,” the Murray Darling Basin Authority said today.

“The water extraction rules must protect environmental water and low flows, while ensuring industry and production continue.”

However, the Federal Government is taking a more circumspect approach to the growing scandal.

Federal water resources minister Barnaby Joyce, when asked about water use by NSW cotton growers yesterday, said it was a matter for the states.

His junior minister, South Australian Anne Ruston, believes the state water ministers should consider the issue after the NSW Government provides its response.

“I’m not saying that I think one particular action, whether a judicial inquiry, referring to the New South Wales ICAC, or a myriad of other options that are available to investigate this are better or worse – what I think we need to do is to take the first step,” she told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“New South Wales has an obligation to respond to those allegations and the non-compliance that was there. Once we’ve got that, the state ministers and the federal minister need to make a decision.”

She said she agreed the program had raised serious allegations that needed to be investigated as a matter of urgency.

The NSW Government has ordered an “urgent overview” of the state’s compliance with the Murray Darling Basin Plan in response to the Four Corners report, which included recordings of the state’s top water bureaucrat offering to share government information with irrigation lobbyists.

The 2016 recording of Gavin Hanlon aired by the program revealed the NSW government considered abandoning the plan altogether.

Water Minister Niall Blair said he had “directed the secretary of the NSW Department of Industry to provide an urgent overview of all the compliance matters raised in the program”.

“I have also asked for clarification around the circumstances of the deputy director general’s (Hanlon’s) briefing,” the Nationals MP said in a statement.

“This government is determined to address the economic, environmental and socio-economic concerns around the river system, with local communities front and centre in this balancing act.”

NSW opposition water spokesman Chris Minns says towns and cities being starved of water along the Barwon and Murray rivers “can have absolutely no confidence in the management of water by the NSW Nationals”.

The Nature Conservation Council today called on NSW Premier Gladys Berejikilian to remove Nationals MPs from natural resources portfolios and refer the issues raised in the Four Corners’ program to the state’s ICAC.

That call was echoed by Xenophon, who also agreed with South Australian water minister Ian Hunter that there should be a judicial inquiry into the allegations.

However, Xenophon said the complications of the federal system might stymie the strategy.

“These allegations are incredibly serious,” he told ABC radio. “The only issue with a judicial inquiry is that under a Constitutional law principle, states cannot be compelled to give evidence to a federal inquiry.”

He said the states and Commonwealth would all need to commit to cooperating with any inquiry.

“If New South Wales won’t cooperate with such an inquiry, that would be very, very telling.”

Hunter wants an urgent COAG meeting to set up the judicial investigation.

“That inquiry should have terms of reference that will make recommendations about a new national regime of compliance and enforcement for the basin plan,” he said.

Conservation SA backed the government’s call, stressing that the public’s confidence in the basin plan has dwindled.

“Every litre paid for by taxpayers to aid the river’s long term health that ends up stolen by upstream irrigators is an attack on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and a direct hit on SA,” Conservation SA chief executive Craig Wilkins said in a statement.

The Murray Darling Association, which represents councils across the basin, said the Four Corners report vindicated concerns raised by its members.

MDA chairman David Thurley said local communities “have been aware of the anomalies and irregularities that affect their local areas for a long time, and have sought to be heard”.

“Our local government members in the far west of NSW are today feeling vindicated that their concerns were not misplaced, and are looking forward to working together with their state and federal counterparts, with the irrigators and farmers in their communities, and with local government across the Basin to ensure the Basin Plan is implemented, and that rules are applied in a fair and equitable way.”

– David Washington with AAP

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