Constitution Amendment (Water Accountability and Transparency) Bill 2020

17th June 2020

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (10:56:06): I contribute to debate on the Constitution Amendment (Water Accountability and Transparency) Bill 2020. I note the Minister is present in the Chamber. I support the intention of the bill, which is to strengthen the transparency around decisions taken by members of the House or Ministers and strengthen accountability measures. I note that there is significant interest in this issue by members of this House, which has been heightened by the inclusion, at the last election, of the member for Murray. That is not to say that there has not been considerable appropriate interest shown by the Minister; however it is now at a heightened state.

The bill in isolation is an important step, but in terms of the overall challenge of properly managing our domestic, agricultural and environmental water needs, it is surely only a modest step. It is absolutely essential that the people of New South Wales have faith in how their State is governed and that decisions are made by people without conflicts of interest, personal involvement or financial incentives. It is not just about doing the right thing, it is about being seen to do the right thing. I agree that I do not have the knowledge of the issue that many regional members or those who are or have served as Ministers would have. That was alluded to by the member for Coffs Harbour. That said, I have a real concern with the whole idea of saleable or tradable water rights. My personal view is that water belongs to everyone and that successive Federal and State governments have failed to properly supply or regulate our water resources.

The very notion that they cannot manage what the environment provides has clearly brought us to the problems with the Murray-Darling. It is a diabolical mess that has stripped rights from family farms and channelled them to large corporations. Water licences or assets should be included on asset registers/pecuniary interest registers. I was surprised to learn that they were not already a declarable interest for members of this House. We declare real estate, business interests, shares and other assets, so why would we not include valuable water assets?

The bill will require members to disclose, both in a primary return and in an ordinary return, a water access licence number, details of the share components in that licence or a right to receive a water entitlement from an irrigation corporation. It will also require members to declare an interest in a business that has water access entitlements or licences. Those are all good things. But I have several concerns about the original bill, in particular as it relates to trusts and/or spouses. This has been raised, in particular by the member for Cessnock. We know how trusts operate—or we think we do—and they generally operate in anything but a transparent way. That has the capacity to significantly undermine public confidence in how things are done, how decisions are made and why.

Trusts are not something we see in great use by the general public and, while, as the member for Coffs Harbour stated, there will be practical reasons for some farmers to use them, they are disproportionately used by the wealthy, not the income or asset poor. The bill should be extended to include requirements for a member to declare an interest in water access rights, entitlements or trades, if those assets are held in a trust. The bill should also be extended to include the spouse of a member, in the same way that other assets are declared. This is a question of transparency and accountability. While I accept that the bill goes a long way towards achieving that, there are loopholes that we must close. I thank the Minister for bringing the bill before the House and commend it to the House, recognising its inherent limitations.

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