NSW om­buds­man re­leases damn­ing re­port on wa­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion

The Guardian Australia - - News - Anne Davies

The NSW om­buds­man has re­leased a damn­ing re­port into mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion of the state’s wa­ter port­fo­lio, re­veal­ing that three pre­vi­ous re­ports pro­vided to the gov­ern­ment were buried.

The om­buds­man has taken the un­usual step of lodg­ing a spe­cial re­port di­rectly with the NSW par­lia­ment, in a bid to ex­pose what it de­scribes as “se­ri­ous sys­tem fail­ures” in the man­age­ment of the state’s wa­ter pol­icy.

The re­port, which spans a cur­rent in­ves­ti­ga­tion and three ear­lier ones over the last decade, re­veals coverups at the high­est lev­els of gov­ern­ment and the bu­reau­cracy. Three pre­vi­ous re­ports were handed to the de­part­ments re­spon­si­ble for wa­ter but not made pub­lic.

The Greens are now call­ing for a royal com­mis­sion and say the mea­sures taken by the gov­ern­ment to date – an in­de­pen­dent in­quiry and a new Na­tional Re­sources Reg­u­la­tor – do not go far enough.

The re­port, tabled in par­lia­ment to­day, re­veals the om­buds­man re­ceived dozens of pro­tected dis­clo­sures from staff, com­plaints from the pub­lic and from or­gan­i­sa­tions over the last decade, well be­fore the ABC’s Four Corners pro­gram put the is­sue of wa­ter theft on the agenda.

Yet de­spite in­ves­ti­gat­ing these and mak­ing rec­om­men­da­tions for pros­e­cu­tions, the NSW Of­fice of Wa­ter and its pre­de­ces­sors largely failed to act.

So se­ri­ous was one mat­ter, that the om­buds­man re­ferred it to the In­de­pen­dent Com­mis­sion against Cor­rup­tion (Icac) in April this year, well be­fore the rev­e­la­tions of al­leged wide­spread wa­ter theft, me­ter tam­per­ing and al­le­ga­tions of spe­cial treat­ment for ir­ri­ga­tors were made by Four Corners.

Af­ter the ABC pro­gram, the head of the Of­fice of Wa­ter, Gavin Han­lon was re­ferred to Icac over a tape which ap­pears to record him of­fer­ing a group of ir­ri­ga­tors doc­u­ments from the de­part­ment that had been “de­badged” (of­fi­cial mark­ings re­moved).

The NSW Greens wa­ter spokesman, Jeremy Buck­ing­ham said the spe­cial re­port by the om­buds­man “ex­poses that wa­ter com­pli­ance and en­force­ment has been rot­ten to the core for al­most a decade and the gov­ern­ment has failed to act de­spite re­peated and de­tailed warn­ing by the om­buds­man”.

Pre­vi­ous om­buds­man re­ports in 2009, 2012 and 2013 told the gov­ern­ment of se­ri­ous is­sues with com­pli­ance and en­force­ment, but the gov­ern­ment failed to act and re­fused to pub­licly re­lease those re­ports.

The lat­est re­port re­veals that in 2007 the om­buds­man re­ceived a com­plaint that the de­part­ment re­spon­si­ble for wa­ter man­age­ment at the time had failed to take ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion on an un­law­ful dam con­structed on a flow­ing creek of river. The com­plainant who owned a prop­erty down­stream had tried to get ac­tion from the de­part­ment as early as 2003-4 and in frus­tra­tion went to the om­buds­man’s of­fice.

It in­ves­ti­gated and found “am­ple ev­i­dence” that the dams were un­law­ful. In 2009 it rec­om­mended the de­part­ment take ac­tion to en­force the law but in 2010 the de­part­ment con­cluded there was in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence avail­able to de­ter­mine whether the dams or the di­rec­tion to mod­ify one of the dams were law­ful. No fur­ther ac­tion was taken.

In 2012 a sec­ond com­plaint was made by an­other neigh­bour al­leg­ing noth­ing had been done about fur­ther il­le­gal dam con­struc­tion.

The dam had gone from 0.5 ML at the time of the om­buds­man’s first in­ves­ti­ga­tion to 11.3 ML – 22 times the size – but de­spite in­spec­tion by the de­part­ment and ev­i­dence of four un­law­ful works on the creek, it took three years for the de­part­ment to is­sue a draft di­rec­tion for the dam’s re­moval.

“This de­lay was par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing as the breach was clas­si­fied as high risk and the ini­tial con­struc­tion of the dam was un­law­ful, yet it was now 22 times larger,” the om­buds­man said.

The prop­erty owner, who is not named, even­tu­ally pleaded guilty in the Land and En­vi­ron­ment court and

was or­dered to pay fines of $90,000.

The om­buds­man said the case high­lighted “se­ri­ous sys­temic is­sues with the De­part­ment’s con­duct of its com­pli­ance and en­force­ment func­tions”. Buck­ing­ham said some of the rev­e­la­tions in the re­port were worse than what was re­ported by Four Corners or the Matthews Re­port, which was com­mis­sioned by the NSW gov­ern­ment af­ter the ABC pro­gram. “The gov­ern­ment has been re­peat­edly warned by the om­buds­man that wa­ter com­pli­ance and en­force­ment is rot­ten, yet has turned a blind eye and de­lib­er­ately hid pre­vi­ous om­buds­man re­ports from the pub­lic. It is only be­cause the om­buds­man used his pow­ers to go around the wa­ter min­is­ter and have this in­terim re­port tabled in par­lia­ment that we now know just how rot­ten things are in Wa­ter NSW,” he said.

“The Na­tion­als must be stripped of the wa­ter port­fo­lio or it will re­main an area of mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion and ripe for cor­rup­tion.”

Pho­to­graph: Wash­ing­ton Post/Getty Images

NSW Greens call for royal com­mis­sion into mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion of wa­ter port­fo­lio.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.