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June 2, 2023

Govt ignored independent watchdog over water management

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The latest report into government water mismanagement by the state’s independent watchdog has highlighted ‘strikingly similar’ issues to the ones the department found with previous investigations.

The NSW Ombudsman’s department says it’s their fourth investigation since 2007.

‘In 2007, we received a complaint that the department responsible for water management at the time had failed to take appropriate action in relation to unlawful farm dams allegedly constructed on a permanently flowing creek or river. The complainant, who owned the property downstream of the dams, had raised the issue with the department as early as 2003-04.’

Remarkably the conclusion reads, ‘Reports into the earlier investigations were not made public as we received assurances from the relevant department responsible for water regulation at the time that our concerns and recommendations would be considered and appropriate action taken.’

The report says, ‘…the underlying structural and systemic problems were either not properly addressed, or if addressed initially, the impetus was not maintained.’

These reasons include ‘chronic under-resourcing of the compliance and enforcement roles, the constant stream of restructures and transfers of water regulation responsibilities (seven times since 2007) that resulted in significant staff turnover, loss of corporate memory and poor staff morale, and ‘a clash of cultures between a customer service focus and enforcement obligations.’

‘The insights gained from our earlier investigations demonstrate that the effectiveness of carrying out compliance and enforcement functions has been compromised by a deep cultural clash between a strong focus on customer service to water users on the one hand and the compliance and enforcement activities necessary to maintain the viability and integrity of the water market on the other.’

Adequately funded

To avoid the failures of the past, the NSW Ombudsman’s report says it is ‘vital that any water compliance and enforcement effort is adequately funded and resourced and staffed by qualified experienced persons with investigative experience…’.

‘It is equally important that investigators are supported by, and have easy access to, water experts and legal officers experienced in water issues.’

‘That so many staff members are driven to approach an independent investigation body to bring forward concerns invites inquiry as to whether there is both a lack of trust between staff and management, and a perception by staff that internal reporting mechanisms are not effective. We have been impressed by the evidence of the complainants and their views find support in other documentary and oral evidence in this investigation.’

‘Each investigation report made recommendations and suggestions for change. Most of these were accepted by government and undertakings were given to improve compliance and enforcement administration. This did not always occur and implementation problems and new issues were uncovered in subsequent investigations.’

While the progress report ‘does not make findings,’ the Ombudsman’s department says, ‘Action is currently being taken by the NSW government to change the administrative structure for water management. Our investigation will also be continued by a new Ombudsman appointed to commence in December 2017.’

For more info visit www.ombo.nsw.gov.au.

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