Kevin Humphries, former Water Minister, attacks ABC over Murray Darling water theft report

NOT HAPPY: Kevin Humphries lashed out at the ABC. Photo: Simon McCarthy

NOT HAPPY: Kevin Humphries lashed out at the ABC. Photo: Simon McCarthy

*See Kevin Humphries’ full speech and ABC’s response at the bottom of the story

BARWON MP Kevin Humphries slammed the ABC over its Four Corner’s report in to water theft in the Murray Darling Basin, which he said was “full of factual errors, bias and poorly researched”.

The report alleged Mr Humphries, the then Water Minister, gave a room full of irrigators in the North West permission to pump water out of the river during an embargo.

“It is false to promote a hearsay allegation that a Minister can override a water extraction embargo on the Barwon‑Darling,” Mr Humphries said in a speech to parliament.

“The comment was never made by me to an individual or at a meeting.

“It is improper for the ABC to impugn any representative’s reputation without the facts or reference to proper due diligence by the appropriate authorities.

“The bias and innuendo would indicate another agenda, and it is largely anti-rural.

“These are the people who gave us the live cattle debacle that nearly killed off a multi-million dollar industry for this country.

“They tried to kill off the greyhounds with an emotional report. They have rubbished retirement villages in recent programs and they have seriously overreached first on land clearing and now on water.”

The ABC said Four Corners requested to interview Mr Humphries for the program, in his capacity as former NSW Minister for Natural Resources, Lands and Water, but he declined.

“He also specifically declined to comment on claims that were put to him prior to broadcast,” an ABC spokesperson said.

“With respect to the claims by an irrigator that Mr Humphries had given permission to pump during an embargo, it was reported as his claim.

“The irrigator made the claim in a formal interview with investigators. Mr Humphries specifically declined to comment when this allegation was put to him prior to broadcast.”

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Kevin Humphries full speech

The management of the Barwon-Darling river system between Menindee and Mungindi in the north is a specific issue that relates to the Barwon electorate.

On average, 3,300,000 megalitres flow through the Menindee gauge each year. Across the river system, 189,000 megalitres or 6 per cent of all flows go through the system. The environment and end-of-system flows are allocated 3,111,000 megalitres or 94 per cent of the flows through the system. The Barwon-Darling system contributes 2.84 per cent of water to the whole Murray-Darling Basin.

The ABC Four Corners program is false to propagate that two water holders control 70 per cent of the water when only 6 per cent is available for production. It is also false to propagate that since 2012 water-sharing plans for irrigation on the Murray-Darling have increased. The extraction limit pre‑2012 when discussions began was 523,000 megalitres.

Post 2012 this was reduced to 189,000 megalitres—a reduction of 234,000 megalitres for the environmental end-of-system flow. It is false to propagate the comments from two graziers who implied there are no limits to water extraction on the Barwon-Darling system. Clearly this is false, and needs to be acknowledged as such.

It is also false to propagate that water is being traded up, down and all over the system when there are only four inter-trading zones at which trading can only be undertaken locally. This is largely around the historical irrigation districts of Mungindi, Brewarrina and Bourke.

It is false to propagate the notion, as stated by Mr Mal Peters and supported by the ABC, that water sales and transfers are transfers of wealth from one part of the community to another. That is not how a free market or democratic society works. It smacks of envy and extreme socialist views and does not reflect the reality of rural agri-based economies like western New South Wales. It is also false to propagate or promote the illusion that all irrigators are taking water illegally.

It is false to propagate that compliance action has not been or is not being undertaken along the Barwon‑Darling system. This is an issue that we all take seriously, given the precious nature of the intermittent water supply.

In any given year around 500 investigations are carried out under the Water Management Act in New South Wales. There are also currently 47 water regulation officers in DPI Water who are authorised to undertake compliance activities and 69 officers in WaterNSW engaged in compliance activities across the State.

Since 2010 investigations have resulted in 27 prosecutions, 369 penalties notices, 377 stop work orders and 30 remediation orders. Everybody within the system supports compliance. It is an important issue.

It is false and disingenuous to promote comments from disgruntled bureaucrats who did not survive a restructure of WaterNSW or a farmer who goes broke only to take out vexatious retribution on the new owner.

It is false to promote a hearsay allegation that a Minister can override a water extraction embargo on the Barwon‑Darling.

That comment relates specifically to me.

The comment was never made by me to an individual or at a meeting, nor it is possible for anybody in the representative position of a member or a Minister to override a gazetted process which only follows after due diligence and a lot of considered assessment by Office of Water officials.

It is improper for the ABC to impugn any representative's reputation without the facts or reference to proper due diligence by the appropriate authorities. The bias and innuendo would indicate another agenda, and it is largely anti-rural.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan seeks to recover 2.75 million megalitres of surface water from the system. Some 2.1 million megalitres has already been retrieved and recovered. That is about 73 per cent; there is a little bit more to go. An amount of 290,000 megalitres has come from the northern basin and 32,000 megalitres has come specifically from the Barwon-Darling system. There is more to go, but at the end of the day people like me will only support more recovery through efficiency gains and infrastructure improvements.

The ABC report on the Barwon-Darling was full of factual errors, bias and poorly researched allegations. These are the people who gave us the live cattle debacle that nearly killed off a multimillion-dollar industry for this country. They tried to kill off the greyhounds with an emotional report.

They have rubbished retirement villages in recent programs and they have seriously overreached first on land clearing and now on water. This type of coverage brings the credibility of its reporting into disrepute.

It undermines the good work that has already been achieved through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and that which is to come.

ABC’s response

The Four Corners report “Pumped” was an in-depth investigation into serious issues concerning water usage under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and the program stands by its reporting. The program has been widely welcomed in rural communities, including by farmers in Kevin Humphries’ electorate, some of whom appeared in the program.

As a result of the program, the Federal Government has ordered an interstate review of water use in the Murray-Darling Basin and the NSW Government has announced it will conduct an inquiry into the issues raised.

Four Corners requested to interview Mr Humphries for the program, in his capacity as former NSW Minister for Natural Resources, Lands and Water. He declined. He also specifically declined to comment on claims that were put to him prior to broadcast.

Regarding some of Mr Humphries’ specific points, we would note:

Government records of licence-holdings in the Barwon-Darling show very clearly that of the water available for extraction, two entities now control about 70 per cent of that water – a dramatic change from prior to 2012.

Under the 2012 Water Sharing Plan, in any one year water-licence holders are allowed to draw three times their allocation, plus any water temporarily traded to that licence. They also benefit from unlimited carryover of account water, as well as the absence of individual daily extraction limits (for each licence) and total daily extraction limits (for all licences). This means that significant volumes of water can be extracted in very short periods of time (including during low flows).

Mr Humphries is incorrect to suggest that the 2012 changes resulted in a reduction of available water from 523,000ML to 189,000ML. In 2010, for example, water-holders had a total volume available to them in the Barwon-Darling of 173,000ML. In fact, irrigators in the Barwon-Darling had never used anything like 523GL, and indeed hadn’t had such a nominal total volume available for extraction since 2005, two years before John Howard announced the Murray Darling Basin Plan initiative.

It is noteworthy that in January 2015, when Mr Humphries was Water Minister, the government increased allocation for A, B and C class water licences for the Barwon-Darling by nine per cent.

In the final WSP gazetted in October 2012, the Daily Extraction Limits mooted in the draft plan put on public display were absent. In addition, the default physical limitations on daily extraction which were the result of a limit on pump sizes and flow rates disappeared as approvals issued under the Water Management Act following gazettal of the 2012 Plan, which allowed much larger pump sizes to extract low-flow A class water.

With respect to water trading: The 2012 Water Sharing Plan enabled water trading in the Barwon-Darling for the first time. Mal Peters, a longstanding farmers advocate, is entitled to his view about the social impact of such trading.

With respect to compliance, the program did not say that no compliance action had been taken.

We do not agree that the 47 “water regulation officers” are equivalent to the highly-qualified and trained Strategic Investigations Unit members, who tackle serious non-compliance.

The NSW Government is yet to offer a serious explanation for how it allowed its numbers to dwindle by 2016 to half when compliance was transferred to Water NSW. The Government, similarly, has yet to explain why it was that serious investigations into non-compliance in the Barwon-Darling have not progressed further.

With respect to the claims by an irrigator that Mr Humphries had given permission to pump during an embargo, it was reported as his claim. The irrigator made the claim in a formal interview with investigators. Mr Humphries specifically declined to comment when this allegation was put to him prior to broadcast.

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