Former Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Mick Keelty was appointed as the Northern Basin Commissioner in 2018, a position expanded to Basin (interim) Inspector General in 2019. In early December 2019, his first annual report was published. The report fails to even mention some of the most pressing issues in the northern Basin.
- The report makes no mention of floodplain harvesting, an issue described by the SA Royal Commission as “one of the most significant threats to water security in the Northern Murray-Darling Basin to both licence holders and downstream states.”
- The report contains no clear discussion of the water efficiency program despite billions spent, decades of controversy and the Department of Agriculture’s own auditor noting “instances where project documentation could not be located or was not readily available”.
- While some mention was made of water purchases that have cost taxpayers into the hundreds of millions, the report mainly notes that these deals have been referred to the Australian National Audit Office. There is no investigation of topics the Auditors will not examine, such as the links of vendors to politicians and other well-connected Basin stakeholders.
A major controversary facing the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is the draining of Menindee Lakes in 2016-17. That decision has contributed to the 2018-19 fish kills, brought forward the end of irrigated horticulture in the Lower Darling/Baaka and denied water to irrigators in the Murray. The Keelty report appears to accept the MDBA’s justification without seeking alternate views. Instead the Keelty report concerns itself with the social media and PR strategies of water agencies at the time of the fish kills.
The report includes no discussion of the half-billion dollar Broken Hill Pipeline, with its long-hidden business case focused on benefits to northern cotton growers and mining companies.
The Inspector General role has been presented as an alternative to a Royal Commission. Governments and irrigation lobby groups that have opposed a Royal Commission now advocate for Mr Keelty to be given the powers of a Royal Commission. The support of these groups for Mr Keelty and his position, juxtaposed with Mr Keelty’s lack of engagement with their critics should gives little confidence that the Basin’s problems will be seriously addressed.