Labor says the man policing water theft across the Murray-Darling is a cop without any weapons. Image by Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS

Environment

Labor criticises basin ‘tough cop’ delays

2020-03-07 16:36:15

Labor has labelled the man in charge of policing water theft across the Murray-Darling Basin a tough cop without any weapons.

At Senate estimates on Friday, senior bureaucrats were grilled about the delay in legislating powers for the Murray-Darling Basin inspector-general.

Former water minister David Littleproud announced a “tough cop on the beat” across the basin in August last year, three days before state and territory leaders gave the idea unanimous approval.

But agreement appears to have evaporated since.

States haven’t given a final green light despite the issue being discussed at the last ministerial council meeting in December.

Labor senator Tony Sheldon accused the government of a dismal failure to address water theft in the basin.

“We’ve got a bit of a situation where we’ve got a tough cop on the beat without any weapons,” he told the hearing.

Department official Andrew Dadswell told the committee legislation was expected to be ready in coming months.

But he wouldn’t go into specifics on what was behind the delay.

Without legislation, interim inspector-general Mick Keelty lacks powers to compel people to give evidence or deal with them if they dodge his requests.

Agriculture Department secretary Andrew Metcalfe said bushfires had been a strong focus for Mr Littleproud in his capacity as emergency management minister during December and January.

“I’m not saying he can’t do more than one thing at one time, but I think it was very clear he had a very high priority in relation to managing the bushfire response,” Mr Metcalfe said.

He said the department had been continuing work on the bill, but also noted a ministerial reshuffle which put Keith Pitt in charge of water in February.

“I can simply assure you this is a high priority for the minister and for the government. It is being worked through in the proper way,” Mr Metcalfe said.

Compliance across the basin has been a sore point with allegations of water theft plaguing parts of the river system’s north.

Mr Keelty agreed he needed powers urgently but conceded the legislative process may take some time.

He said misinformation about political corruption needed to be put to bed one way or another and stressed the need to protect whistleblowers.

The interim inspector-general said despite not having powers, he had engaged with more than 1000 people and conducted hearings to give recommendations to state and federal governments.