New law to end water secrecy introduced to NSW Parliament

10 March, 2020
New law to end water secrecy introduced to NSW Parliament  Image

On Thursday 27 February, I introduced the first ever bill in Australian history that would force politicians to declare their water ownership; and allow members of the public to search online the water holdings of corporations (foreign and domestic), as well as government departments.

The Bill will be debated and voted on in the coming weeks. Have a read of my speech introducing and explaining it.

If you can think of any reason to vote NO to this, let me know:

INTRODUCTION SPEECH

It is my pleasure to introduce this extremely overdue bill to Parliament.

Secrecy is the mother of corruption and mismanagement.

I believe the toxic level of secrecy surrounding water ownership across New South Wales is one of the major reasons why we find ourselves in the mess that we are in today regarding water.

We all know that the drought in Australia has caused misery and hardship for many, but do members know that it has also been extremely profitable for a select few?

We do not always know who because it is impossible to find out who owns water in New South Wales or how much they own.

There is no online register where I can type the name of a person, a company or, indeed, a government department to find out.

When I was elected I did not even have to declare the amount of water I own on my pecuniary interest form. Anyone—foreign or Australian—can buy vast quantities of our most precious natural resource whilst concealing their identity.

You might ask: Who? Politicians, foreign companies, perhaps foreign governments or Sydney traders can all own water, manipulate the price and make millions off the back of the misery of struggling farmers.

The purpose of the bill is to end the secrecy on water ownership across the State.

Put simply, the bill does three things.

First, it changes the pecuniary interest form for New South Wales MPs so they have to declare their water ownership.

Secondly, it changes the application process for getting a water licence so people cannot hide their identity when they apply for the licence.

Thirdly, it changes the online New South Wales water register to allow people to search for the water holdings of people, companies and government departments.

Those changes are long overdue. I cannot believe that after so many years of the problems we have had, nobody else in the State Parliament or Federal Parliament has tried to address this issue adequately.

We have a register of property and land where we can all find out who owns what and where, so why on earth do we keep water secret?

Since water was separated from land and became an individual property right, there have been many issues around registering and providing public transparency on water ownership.

At present it is very difficult for ordinary members of the public to find out who has an entitlement to New South Wales river water, groundwater and floodplain harvesting water.

While the New South Wales government authority—WaterNSW—maintains an online water register, the limited information contained in that register and restrictive search functions blocks transparency.

It is not possible to search for the water access licences, known as the WALs, by an individual person's name; a company name and Australian Business Number [ABN]; a government department name; or even an irrigation scheme name. Instead, the register allows us to search for a water access licence number or earthworks approval to find out details of water entitlements.

We can only search by the number, not the name. How the hell would we know the access licence number of a person? It is impossible.

At present the water register is deliberately complex and difficult to use.

Moreover, getting a water licence is easier than opening a bank account. It is possible for corporate entities to obtain a licence without disclosing the names of major shareholders, company owners, parent companies or other individuals who may directly benefit from water purchased.

As I mentioned, there is another big issue undermining transparency: Those of us in this Chamber—members of the New South Wales Parliament—are not required to disclose our water entitlements as part of our disclosures of pecuniary interests.

Members are required under legislation to disclose such things as their property ownership, gifts, income sources, debts and contributions to travel but there is no requirement to disclose water entitlements.

The bill I have introduced proposes a number of simple changes to enable a member of the public to search for water entitlements by the names of individual people, ABNs and government department names. The information is to be available either free of charge or for a small cost via an online database.

There is also a need to increase the amount of information a person or entity must provide to authorities to obtain or hold a water access licence.

It is not good enough for a company in the Cayman Islands to buy large quantities of water—which has happened—while keeping the names of the directors, board members and major shareholders a secret. That is disgraceful.

If a foreign or domestic corporation wants to own Australia's most valuable natural resource, then we, the Australian taxpayers, deserve to know something about them.

Under the bill, the following information will need to be provided when an application is made for a water licence: first, the registered address of the corporation; secondly, the corporation's Australian Company Number or Australian Registered Business Number, if applicable; thirdly, the position held by the person making the application on behalf of the corporation; fourthly, details of any other corporation related to the corporation; fifthly, the names of the directors of the corporation; and, finally, the name of any person entitled to 20 per cent or more of the voting shares in the corporation. That will not only apply to new applications.

Under the bill, current water licence holders will be given 12 months from the date the legislation is enacted to provide the information.

The bill also changes a key regulation for New South Wales MPs, which is long overdue. The disclosures of pecuniary interests filled out by members of this Parliament will be changed so they include the requirement for members to disclose their water entitlements. Water bureaucrats have also come under scrutiny over the past few years.

People have asked me if we can, in fact, trust them to manage a water register like this. The bill addresses that issue as it mandates an audit to be carried out on the operation of the water register by the Natural Resources Commission every 12 months.

The bill is absolutely vital. Water use in New South Wales has been subject to considerable controversy over the past 20 years. We only have to look at the past week or so and note what has been happening in the media. Allegations of corruption, mismanagement, insider trading, conflicts of interest, market manipulation, misuse of environmental allocations, water theft and over‑extraction have been made.

As a result drought conditions across the State have been made much worse than they needed to be, causing considerable hardship for people across western New South Wales. The long‑term future of river systems is under threat. The potentially disastrous consequences for the economy, health and welfare of regional New South Wales can be seen.

There is also increasing concern about the impact of speculators on water prices. Increasing transparency over who owns water is an important first step in addressing those problems. Several government departments have water entitlements but little public information is available on how they use that water or on what the outcomes are from that water use.

Rumours abound about individual politicians, political donors, celebrities, companies and foreign governments owning water. Allegations are often made about those groups manipulating the market, restricting water availability and keeping prices high for their own private benefit.

A better online water register containing more information on water licences and allowing people to identify water licence holders would increase public confidence and trust in our water system. It would also allow researchers and oversight bodies to better scrutinise water use and analyse how the allocation and trade of water could better meet the needs of agriculture, the environment and critical human need.

At present, there is less transparency over water ownership compared to other forms of ownership, such as land, property and company shares. It is possible for the general public to search for the names of people and companies who own a property or shares, albeit for a fee. Water is a scarce, valuable natural resource currently under threat and water ownership should be subject to more transparency than property and company share ownership, not less.

It is my pleasure today to welcome members of the community group Speak Up to the Chamber, which is made up of farmers and community members across the southern Riverina.

Later today I will be introducing the group's petition to the New South Wales Parliament. Speak Up's petition demands this Government lobby the Federal Government for a royal commission and a national water register. Some 11,000 people signed the petition in just five months. That shows how desperate farmers are to end this secrecy around water.

New South Wales is Australia's biggest State. We should be leading the way when it comes to water transparency. It is what the public demands and it is up to us as their representatives to address this issue. This legislation is an important first step towards fixing our water woes. It will send a message to the bush that we have turned the corner and are moving away from the darkness and secrecy towards progress and light. Unless you secretly own water and are making lots of money, I cannot see any possible reason for rejecting this sensible law change.

For the sake of our farmers, for the sake of our rural communities, I urge members to support the bill.

Debate adjourned.

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