Water theft laws so bad only ‘morons’ are at risk

Tracey Ferrier |

Australia’s water inspector says legislation aimed at stopping illegal water trading is ‘rubbish’.
Australia’s water inspector says legislation aimed at stopping illegal water trading is ‘rubbish’.

Some of Australia’s water theft laws are “rubbish” and so poor only morons are at risk of getting caught, the nation’s water inspector says.

Troy Grant has told Senators some of the laws meant to protect Australia’s water resources have “more get out of jail clauses, and opportunities, than a Monopoly board”.

The independent inspector-general of water compliance was responding to questions during budget estimates about what action his office was taking on illegal water trading.

Mr Grant said his team had 21 open investigations, but had closed 62 since February.

“The reason they have closed is that the legislation is rubbish,” he told a budget estimates hearing on Friday.

“It’s legislation that needs review … it’s my strong intent to be articulating that in very clear detail for policy makers and legislators to consider.”

Mr Grant took particular issue with governance issues around price reporting.

“You’d have to be a moron to get caught on doing anything wrong under that legislation,” he said.

“How many morons have you caught?” asked Nationals Senator Ross Cadell.

“None,” Mr Grant replied.

“There’s too many get out of jail, escape clauses in the entire structure of the Basin plan legislation, water acts et cetera, that we feel doesn’t have any enforceability connections

“If there’s nothing to enforce you to do the right thing or follow the law, why would you follow the law?”

Mr Grant said he would be expressing those views very strongly to government.

He also took aim at the lack of transparency for taxpayers around the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which has been beset by problems, including delays to return hundreds of gigalitres of water to the basin for the benefit of the environment.

He said he had conducted a transparency review to determine if an Australian taxpayer would be able to work out – from publicly available information – how much of the money had been spent or committed, and how much was left.

“The key observation arising from my review was that there is no simple, definitive, public source of information that clearly shows the breakdown of the $13 billion figure,” he said.

He said transparency was vital if taxpayers were to have confidence in the plan.

“Quite often, with programs of this size and complexity, funding is reprofiled and moved into and out of various program areas, various departments and agencies.

“Varying amounts – $10 billion to $13 billion to $15 billion – have been quoted as expenditure on Basin reform with no clarity on what elements of the reform package this money has been allocated to.

“And I can understand why the community and senators must be confused at times, and therefore seek answers to many legitimate questions.

“The Australian public, in my view, has a $13 billion right to know.”

Mr Grant said he would provide a public submission to the Productivity Commission’s current inquiry into the implementation of the Basin plan.

“At the conclusion of (that) … inquiry, I will then consider all options open to me with my legislative remit to potentially inquire into, or review, any and all other outstanding questions of the Basin plan spending and program management.”