Murray-Darling watergate
(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

In the latest move to tranquilise Australia’s interstate war over water, a new investigative body is being established to police the Murray-Darling Basin. Will a water cop finally help restore trust between water management agencies, states and farmers?

The basin, which covers a seventh of the land in this country and provides for around 40% of agricultural production, has been mired in controversy following water theft allegations, maladministration with the federal Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and misconduct allegations concerning a senior water bureaucrat in NSW.

They all had one job — to help manage the water under the bipartisan, $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan signed off by the Gillard government in 2012. Seven years later and things are not swimming along so well, which is why there’s a new Sherlock Holmes in town.

Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud announced there would be an inspector-general put in place to investigate state and federal water agencies.

What does this mean?

The inspector-general would have heightened powers to access agency information and be able to compel people to give evidence.

Crikey understands that interim inspector-general will be former Australian Federal Police commissioner and current northern basin commissioner Mick Keelty. The oversight body, which will cross jurisdictions, will have 10 staff across two offices — north of the basin and south of the basin.

Keelty recently told The Saturday Paper that the river basin was “ripe for corruption” and was already looking into cases of agricultural water licences buybacks.

Even though Littleproud is emphasising restoring trust between states, the royal commission into the Murray-Darling found that there has been maladministration amongst Commonwealth officials, ignoring reforms it could have implemented to look after the basin. States are disgruntled about how the river basin is managed federally, particularly since fish began dying in record numbers. Further, farmers have claimed that when Barnaby Joyce was agriculture minister he was pushing the federal Murray-Darling Basin Authority in the direction of irrigators’ interests.

It is understood that the inspector-general will be an overarching role that will oversee agencies already on the ground, rather than being on the ground itself. They will have the power to investigate claims of water theft, for example, and the power to refer them on criminal matters to state integrity commissions and police.

The inspector-general will also have to front senate estimates, which could help with greater public accountability. The intention is to make the role a permanent fixture.

How do farmers feel about it?

The National Farmers’ Federation is bracing itself for a meeting with Littleproud on Sunday August 4 to seek assurances

In a press release, the federation’s chief executive Tony Mahar did not explicitly welcome the new position but said they would be watching “closely” to ensure the role would be “complementary to that of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and is of value to farmers, communities and the environment”.

“The meeting needs to: respond to the productivity commission’s five-year review of the plan; take action on improving water deliverability; progress sustainable diversion limit adjustment measures; and reinforce their commitment to basin communities,” Maher said.