Photograph: Washington Post/Getty Images
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 cover-ups 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.”