Senior judicial figures have called for the establishment of a federal anti-corruption watchdog to investigate dubiously large sums of money paid to irrigators by the federal government.
The New Daily can exclusively reveal that senior judicial figures from across the country have a sent a letter to Attorney-General Christian Porter asking for the ‘Strategic Water Purchases’ of Tandou, Warrego, Condamine-Balonne and Murrumbidgee, be referred to a federal version of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
This letter, which asks for an investigation into how millions of taxpayer dollars may have been misspent, referred to revelations the federal government paid way above the market price to individual cotton operators for water that it may not be able to use.
Among those calling for a Federal ICAC is former NSW Public Prosecutor Nick Cowdery, who said the flood of media investigations exposing ongoing corruption of the $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan provided a compelling argument for such a body.
“The media investigations have painted a clear picture of mismanagement and maladministration of the Murray Darling waters, but the persistent media exposure seems to have been ignored by authorities, if not peremptorily dismissed by them,” he said.
“That raises the question: Why?” he said.
Cowdery has lobbied for a Federal ICAC as a member of a group that includes several former judges and and senior barristers (QCs) from different states.
Since allegations of large-scale water theft were aired by the ABC’s Four Corners in 2017, more than 100 TV, newspaper and online reports have revealed the extent of the government’s failure to restore Australia’s once-great Murray Darling River system to health.
Dodgy water deals, allegations of major fraud, political cover-ups and unlawful amendments, irrigators flouting the laws and state governments not bothering to police them are among the rorts and alleged criminal behaviours exposed by investigative journalists over the past year.
A spokesman for the Attorney-General told The New Daily the government was carefully investigating current anti-corruption arrangements and how they could be best improved.
Policy think tank The Australia Institute has compiled a dossier of more than 100 investigations published by mainstream media outlets, in a damning new report, The Basin Files – Maladministration of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“It reads like a guide in how to waste public money while enriching a small group of irrigators” the report’s author and senior water researcher Maryanne Slattery said.
“Given the incessant reporting of scandals, it’s hard to know what would persuade our parliamentarians to demand a full, independent audit,” she added.
Mr Cowdery told The New Daily: “The report is impressive. The issues of corruption and official incompetence straddle three states and it is unreasonable to expect a single-state ICAC to embark on what could only be a partial and unproductive examination of the issues. A federal ICAC is needed for such matters.”
Already the South Australian government has launched a royal commission to investigate the administration of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
But significantly, both the federal government and the Murray Darling Basin Authority have sought an injunction from the High Court to prevent their staff giving evidence.
Staff have been directed to not to respond to summons and not to hand over documents.
Labor’s NSW Shadow Minister for Water Chris Minns told The New Daily the Australia Institute report was proof governments were ignoring clear evidence of corruption.
“What is perhaps most shocking about this avalanche of scandal is the extensive media reporting into deals, cover-ups and secrecy by the NSW government,” he said.
“We need no further proof that the administration of water in NSW is in crisis and will not be fixed by a combination of the Nationals in charge both in NSW and Canberra.”
Reports by the ABC and Guardian Australia revealed the alleged fraudulent misappropriation of at least $25 million in Murray Darling taxpayer funds, by one of Queensland’s biggest irrigated cotton operations, Norman Farming.
In Queensland, the Major Fraud Squad has been investigating alleged water-related fraud by Norman Farming since September 2017.