ACCC water report validates concerns

By Jamie Salter

The competition watchdog's interim report into the Murray-Darling Basin water market has been welcomed by irrigators, but they say it must be backed up with action.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission report highlighted a variety of concerns about the water market, including transparency, the conflict of interest for unregulated brokers, the manipulation of water prices, corporate entities gaining unfair advantage over family farms and the different regimes in the basin states.

Victorian Farmers Federation Water Council chair Richard Anderson said the 544-page report showed a need for a comprehensive reform.

The report said that the operation of inter-valley trades on a ‘first come, first served’ basis had led to a “technological ‘arms race’” between a limited number of market participants who use technology to help ensure they are at the ‘head of the queue’ and able to capture the majority of benefits from inter-valley trading opportunities.

“Some professionals are more sophisticated and get on them earlier when they open and don’t give the average irrigator a chance, so it’s good they touched on that,” Mr Anderson said.

The report found the integrity of the inter-valley trade system could be improved by removing the current exemption for ‘grandfathered tags’, a point welcomed by Mr Anderson.

“Grandfathered tag trades have got an unfair advantage and we should be looking at phasing those out, they can still get the water out even when the IVT is closed,” he said.

But irrigator groups continue to call for better regulation and transparency.

Northern Victorian Irrigation Communities president Dudley Bryant said it was time for greater transparency across the basin and it was key that irrigators knew how much water was owned by corporations and individuals.

He said nothing surprised him about the report but he complemented former Federal Water Minister David Littleproud for calling for the ACCC’s input.

“(David) Littleproud should be complimented for calling for the report because in my opinion it is very damning of both current and past governments.”

Positive steps were made according to SRI chief executive officer Sophie Baldwin who said it was positive to see the ACCC publicly acknowledge some regions have experienced adverse consequences due to the water market.

“The mention of re-consideration of accountancy around conveyance losses and whether transmission loss factors should be applied to trades and delivery of water, along with an investigation into the under-developed state of trading rules for unregulated systems in northern NSW, including floodplain-harvesting, are two major issues SRI had been advocating for change,” she said.

But Speak Up Campaign chair Shelley Scoullar said another report pointing out the issues with the plan was unnecessary.

“When are we going to see action from our Federal Government to bring balance back to the management of our most precious resource?” Mrs Scoullar said.

“When will the MDBA stop telling everyone how great a job they are doing and be the independent umpire they were employed to be?”

Further regulation would be welcomed by Tallygaroopna dairy farmer Natalie Akers, who said she was glad to see the ACCC acknowledge there was work to be done.

“I think the ACCC is telling us regulatory frameworks aren't good enough, so water users need better information,” she said.

“They are talking about regulation of brokers — they talk about real estate agents, stock agents and stock brokers and how there isn’t a regulator and I think we will see a change there, which is a positive step.”

Submissions to the interim report close on Friday, August 28.

To make a submission, visit: consultation.accc.gov.au/agriculture/murray-darling-basin-inquiry-interim-report