Flat White

Water thieves steal from us all

18 August 2017

2:58 PM

18 August 2017

2:58 PM

Stealing in Australia is serious. The consequences are severe. That does not seem to be the case when the property is stolen from every Australian. Apparently, no matter its scale, if the rich and influential do the theft, those in authority can turn a blind eye.

As South Australia’s minister for water resources about 17 years ago I publically accused some Darling /Barwon irrigators of being water pirates. Recent revelations on Four Corners prove nothing’s changed.

Australians were outraged. The South Australian government, aided by Nick Xenophon, is apoplectic. They are demanding a judicial enquiry.

If any other Australian serially stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in property, the police would beat down our door. The stolen property would be returned and any profits would be confiscated. Those who aided and abetted us would be viewed as accomplices. Not so when it comes to cotton growers.

In contrast, the Commonwealth are imitating ostriches, sticking their heads in the sand.

The Deputy Prime Minister tried to present it as a storm in a teacup. He compared the amount stolen with the amount available in the system. He chose to ignore the fact that water access in Australia is a property right. Because it can be owned, it has value.

The value of the pilfering is millions. That water has been stolen from its owners, you and I. I wonder if he would adopt the same argument if someone stole a comparable amount from the Treasury. After all, it would only represent a similarly small percentage of our wealth.

The same centralist government that seems to view the states as mendicants resulting from a historic leftover have found it convenient to rediscover states’ rights.

Treasurer Scott Morrison argued on Adelaide radio that while the matter was serious, New South Wales should sort it out. What’s worse is that, despite the evidence, he seemed to believe that they might do so.

Aren’t we missing the point here? Theft of public property is serious. More serious still is the fact that we don’t have the wit, the will or the structures to deal with it.

The Murray Darling Basin is the nation’s greatest natural resource. It is certainly its most productive and valuable. Despite our best efforts towards a united whole of basin approach, myopic parochial interest still trumps good science, common sense and the rule of law.


Four Corners is a reputable program, surviving for decades because of its insights and accuracy. It presented facts indicating a level of complicity, if not by executive government, then by its agents. When public servants started to highlight these problems, they were ignored, penalized or reassigned.

New South Wales has form when it comes to water. In New South Wales, some rivers had licenses issued to withdraw more water than ever flowed down them. An agreed pre-condition by COAG, before introducing the assignment of property rights in water and allowing trading, was that each state would ensure that over-allocation in rivers was rectified. New South Wales did nothing.

They failed to meet agreed targets. As a result, then-prime minister John Howard disallowed the competition payments that had been agreed for achieving the goals set. New South Wales countered by deducting from their contribution to Murray Darling Basin Commission funding the same amount as the Commonwealth had denied them.

Not only did this almost bankrupt the Commission. Their actions effectively railroaded wholesale water reform in Australia. It has never recovered.

These are the foxes that Treasurer Morrison asks us to believe will police the chook house.

Once river water was part of a national resource overseen by government. Water irrigation licenses couldn’t be traded. That changed.

Effectively, Australians can now “own” water. Because we can own it, owners can use it in whatever way they see fit. They can lease it. They can buy entitlements. They can sell it. And in the Murray Darling Basin, those rights are worth billions.

Irrigators are privileged. They are Australia’s biggest ever lottery winners. We, through our governments, have gifted them millions. And more besides. Government has effectively removed much of the risk for these cotton barons.

They know its value. As one of the growers said on the program, “When water is scarce, we will not grow cotton, we will lease the water. We can make more from that lease than we can from the crop”.

Not content with their windfall, Four Corners showed the unbridled greed and selfishness of a privileged few.

Despite NSW amending the rules to make it legal for water to be withdrawn when it is clearly detrimental to the system and in clear contravention of basic human rights, these cowboys even flout those laws.

Their behaviour is criminal. NSW water law indicates their actions are offences; offences carry prison terms and fines measured in millions. Further, their actions violate international law and raise questions as to the government’s bona fides in defending basic human rights.

It’s interesting to speculate what might hit the fan and how far it would splatter if those cotton growers were reported to the NSW police for theft, for its theft they appear to have committed. Or what would happen if Australia were censured in the United Nations over violations of its International agreements and obligations?

Despite the all too convenient (for politicians) legal questions about who has legal responsibility for Australia’s water rights, solutions are not difficult to find.

In the Basin, the players are clearly defined. The playing field is established and the pitch tested (the Murray Darling Basin Commission), The rules are set in the MDBC agreement and State Laws. The problem is that there is no captain and no umpire.

Basin ministers need to take off their parochial blinkers and act in Australia’s interest. They don’t need to give up their current legal rights. They simply need to agree on an independent umpire (either the Commonwealth or officers of the MDBC) who is given the power to police and enforce the rules basin wide and without fear or favour.

Recognizing the value of the resource to this nation, penalties should be toughened. Not only should the punishments be more severe, they should include license forfeiture and losing the right to carry on an agricultural business in an Irrigation area. They should mandate the confiscation of profits gained by the theft. If the offending company is a foreign entity they should be banned.

It’s time for action, not enquiries.

Politicians put up their hands to be elected. They promise to govern in the best interests of all Australians, not just their own electors and certainly not just for a few wealthy and influential donors.

It’s past time that their rhetoric was backed up by actions in the Murray Darling. It’s past time to act, not only in the best interest of the present but with a mind towards the stewardship we exercise for Australia’s future.

Mark Brindal is a former South Australian Liberal minister, an academic, public policy consultant and commentator.

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