Murray Darling to get water theft sheriff

Former federal police commissioner Mick Keelty has been backed as Inspector-General to oversee the Murray Darling Basin as part of a government bid to crack down on water theft and other water use breaches. 

Water Resources Minister David Littleproud says he already has in-principal support from the states and territories to appoint a “tough cop” to manage the basin next year.

Mr Keelty, who also chaired the Australian Crime Commission and was appointed as inaugural Northern Basin Commissioner in 2018, will be the Acting Inspector-General, Mr Littleproud said, but the ultimate make-up of the office will be a matter for Cabinet.

Mick Keelty

“Mick Keelty is an eminently qualified Australian, and I hope that he considers his future in putting his hand up for this position because he has brought a lot of confidence back to the Northern Basin,” Mr Littleproud told reporters on Thursday.

He said it would be a national position accountable to the federal minister, the Australian parliament and Basin state ministers.

“This is about making sure that we have someone right across the Basin, not just in one state,” he said.

Authority to investigate and refer

The Inspector will have powers to investigate suspected water theft and other breaches of water use restrictions, collect evidence and supply it to authorities and refer issues to state or commonwealth integrity commissions.

Checking on water recovery and the delivery of water-saving projects, reporting annually to the Minister and engaging with the community on the Basin Plan are other responsibilities set to be taken on by the Inspector-General to boost integrity and trust.

The move, which is set to cost $8 million over four years, will also see the creation of offices across different states and the appointment of ten support staff.

“This is a new tough cop on the beat across the Murray-Darling, with the powers needed to ensure integrity in delivery of the Basin Plan,” Mr Littleproud said.

Mr Littleproud will ask State and Territory Ministers to endorse the plan at the Ministerial Council on Sunday.

The move comes after a string of new measures were introduced to tackle water misuse in the basin including the roll-out of water level sensors and cameras, the appointment of a Northern Basin Commissioner and the announcement of an ACCC investigation into the water market.

Mr Littleproud said his announcement didn’t amount to a rejection of a Productivity Commission’s recommendation last year to  split the Murray Darling Authority into a compliance agency.

“This is an evolution point towards that so we are not rejecting the PC comments around separation… We’ll continue to work towards the splitting of it as the PC recommended.”

Backing from NSW

The state government backed the proposed appointment, saying the appointment would bring greater scrutiny to water management.

“I support the Commonwealth’s actions to restore faith in the implementation of the Basin Plan and have the other states reach equitable transparency by meeting compliance measures across the country,” Minster for Water Melinda Pavey said.

The Greens on Thursday also responded to the news, urging the government to ensure the independence of the Inspector.

“Minister Littleproud’s announcement of an Inspector General highlights just how deep the rot in the Murray-Darling Basin runs. Basin communities, family farmers and the environment have suffered as a result of years of mismanagement and inaction,” Greens water spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

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