NSW government officials busted favouring irrigator groups

Just a week after the New South Wales corruption watchdog concluded that the state’s water bureaucrats had an “entrenched irrigator focus” that made “policy making vulnerable to improper favouritism”, the same division has been caught singling out sympathetic irrigator groups and discussing how to sideline critics.

a path with trees on the side of a river: Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

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Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

a path with trees on the side of a river: File photo of the Darling River at Louth. Increased flood plain harvesting, along with climate change, has been blamed for providing less water to the Murray.

© Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images
File photo of the Darling River at Louth. Increased flood plain harvesting, along with climate change, has been blamed for providing less water to the Murray.

The deliberate strategies were contained in an internal email chain that was inadvertently sent out to a number of stakeholders this week.

On Tuesday, the water group in the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE Water) sent out a pack of social media materials for water stakeholders to use to promote the government’s forthcoming consultations on the regulation of flood plain harvesting.

Related: Murray-Darling Basin: Icac finds NSW’s water management favoured irrigators over environment

The email was part of the department’s attempts to invite comment on what is arguably the most important policy decision remaining to be made to give effect to the Murray-Darling Basin plan.

But the internal discussion preceding the release was also included.

It revealed extraordinary discussions on who should receive the material and groups to avoid. It also appeared to refer to “catch-ups” that the head of water relationships, Peter Hansen, was having with selected groups.

This bureaucratic behaviour mirrors some of the behaviour strongly criticised in the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s report into allegations of corrupt conduct in water policy in NSW, released on Friday.

Icac did not find anyone acted corruptly but found “the evidence established that the rights of productive water users were given priority over the rights of other stakeholders and that environmental objectives had suffered”.

In 2017, Four Corners had revealed tapes of a former head of the water division, Gavin Hanlon, offering to provide departmental information to selected stakeholders in order to help them attack the Murray-Darling Basin plan.

Upon the release of the report, the current NSW water minister, Melinda Pavey, said the report was about water management “four years ago” and its findings were outdated.

“We’ve learnt from it and made changes. I think NSW is now leading for transparency and accountability,” she said.

But the email chain casts doubt on how far change has permeated the culture of the department.

In one email, the senior communications officer Jessica Fernandez says she has spoken to Peter Hansen, head of Water Policy Engagement, about who should receive the ready prepared social media posts.

He had advised “it would only be a small group that would have the capability to post the social tiles and have a regular newsletter with their members”.

“He also have [sic] regular catch ups with these groups and could raise it during the meeting.”

Hansen had recommended NSW Farmers Association, NSW Irrigators Council and Murray Darling Association, she said.

“These groups have broad networks across regional NSW. There are small stakeholder and water user groups, but most would not have the capability for social media tiles. There are dedicated Facebook pages, eg Darling River Action Group, but those groups with such Facebook pages tend not to be favourable to DPIE Water,” she wrote.

In another email, Catherine Parker, the director of communications – water, wrote: “There is a southern group that SDLAM liaises with ….. Murray Regional Strategy Group … I think it would be worth considering sending the pack (even if they only use the email text) a bit wider.”

“Can we discuss before you send to that group. You need the background on them,” replied Hansen.

The group, chaired by Geoff Moar, a potato farmer, describes itself “as representing farmer and community organisations in the Murray region of NSW”.

The group has been quoted in several regional newspapers on the issue of flood plain harvesting, which is a major concern to farmers in the southern Riverina. The group has been highly critical of the NSW government’s proposals.

This is because farmers in the southern Riverina fear the new policy will entrench the current level of harvesting of flood waters by northern irrigators who store the water in large on-farm storages.

Increased flood plain harvesting, along with climate change, has been blamed for more frequent cease-to-flow incidents in the lower Darling. It then affects farmers in the Murray, as the Darling provides much less water into the Murray.

The issue of NSW’s favouritism to irrigators, particularly the cotton industry in the north of the state, has been a major issue in water policy.

Related: More than 3 billion people affected by water shortages, data shows

The Guardian revealed in 2018 that cotton irrigators had successfully had late changes included in the 2012 Barwon-Darling water sharing plan (BDWSP), making the plan more favourable to them.

Icac said the consistent approach of the department in devising the BDWSP was “not to push for reforms that met the requirements of the Water Management Act’s water sharing priorities, but to codify existing arrangements even where this had adverse implications for the environment and downstream users.”

The same bureaucrat who ran the BDWSP process, Daniel Connor, is now in charge of running policy on flood plain harvesting.

A spokesman for Pavey said the information about the consultations had been sent out to 60 groups.

“We are killing ourselves trying to get this out and to make it a transparent process,” she said.

However, the independent MP Justin Field, who publicly questioned the government’s flood plain harvesting policy, said the email discussion showed that the Icac findings are just as relevant today as they have ever been.

“Minister Pavey’s claims that things have changed with water management in NSW and that the state is leading for transparency and accountability has been shown to be very hollow indeed,” he said.

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