With Federal Parliament reconvening this week, National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) President Fiona Simson has called for political calm on the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
The call follows serious allegations of improper behaviour of NSW Government water officials and of alleged illegal water extraction by irrigators on the Barwon-Darling River system in northern NSW. The Barwon-Darling spans from Mungindi on the Queensland/NSW Border to the Menindee Lakes.
“We acknowledge the steps taken by Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to achieve the agreement of all Basin states for the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to carry out an independent Basin-wide review of compliance," Ms Simson said.
The Commonwealth Auditor General is already in the throes of auditing National Partnership Agreements, and, at the request of the Federal opposition, has expanded this to include how the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources is monitoring the performance of NSW under the National Partnership Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Ms Simson said illegal water take could not be condoned. Illegal take is theft from all other water users, basin communities, taxpayers and the environment.
“However, we must be mindful that until the claims are properly investigated, they remain only allegations."
Ms Simson said the referral of serious allegations by the NSW Government to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was entirely appropriate.
“We welcome the appointment of Mr Ken Matthews to lead an independent examination of the NSW Government’s conduct in relation to the issues raised by Four Corners and on Wednesday, The Daily Telegraph.
“Given the right terms of reference and full access, we have every confidence that Mr Matthews will call out deficiencies where he sees them."
Now is not the time to down tools and unravel the historic compromise that is the Basin Plan
Fiona Simson, President, National Farmers' Federation
In response to calls for a Royal Commission and other forms of national inquiry, Ms Simson called for calm.
“Our view is that we should let the inquiries into compliance being conducted by ICAC, the MDBA, the Auditor General and Ken Matthews run their course, rather than jumping headlong into a protracted Royal Commission or judicial inquiry that could take years to come to any conclusion.
“The onus is on all Murray-Darling Basin Governments to be transparent in the inquiries that are already in train.
"We expect Governments to cooperate fully and that interim and final reports be made available."
The Murray Darling Basin is home to more than two million people, accounts for around 20% of Australia’s total agricultural land area, contains about 40% of all Australia's farms and 65% of all irrigation farms.
Ms Simson said the Basin Plan was 100 years in the making.
“The agreement by all jurisdictions and both sides of politics in 2012 was historic. The plan is a compromise.
“The allegations on Four Corners and The Daily Telegraph, are serious and should be fully investigated.
“However, spiralling into complete policy uncertainty is just not a good outcome for anyone.
“Now is not the time to down tools and unravel the historic compromise that is the Basin Plan,” Ms Simson said.