Relief at ACCC findings

By Zoe McMaugh

‘‘Water markets in the Murray-Darling Basin need major changes to allow for open, fair and efficient water trading that benefits water users, communities and the economy.’’

That is the opening line of a press released issued by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission yesterday.

The press release announced the release of the long awaited interim report for its Murray-Darling Basin Water Markets Inquiry, and the main finding has come as a huge relief for local irrigation industry advocated.

Speak Up Campaign chair Shelley Scoullar said, at first glance, the report echoes what irrigators have been trying to explain to relevant authorities for many years, and was a ‘‘weight off my shoulders’’.

‘‘To finally have a reputable authority saying exactly what we have been trying to say for years is such a relief,’’ Mrs Scoullar said.

‘‘But this is only step one — now we need the government to take action.

‘‘There is too much evidence which shows that we (NSW Murray irrigators) are being left in the lurch.

‘‘What more do governments need to know to take decisive action?

‘‘While it was such a relief to read the opening line of the ACCC press release, we know there is still a long way to go before we can actually implement change.

‘‘We cannot rest on our laurels.’’

The ACCC has found that the $1.5 billion-a-year basin water markets have outgrown the frameworks that govern them, and that change is needed for a market of this scale to operate efficiently and for the benefit of industries that depend on it.

The report sets out the ACCC’s preliminary views on the basin’s water markets, including the issues it has identified and potential options for addressing them.

Key findings identified include:

● Integrity of markets must be improved;

● Lack of transparency is compounding problems; and

● Trade rules may not reflect physical constraints.

‘‘Water trading has brought substantial benefits to water users across the Murray-Darling Basin, including by allowing irrigators to manage the amount of water they use, to earn income by selling excess water or their water rights, and to release capital to invest in their businesses,’’ ACCC deputy chair Mick Keogh said.

‘‘However, these markets have significant problems. In basic terms, there is overly fragmented or complex regulation in some areas, not enough regulation in others, and a concerning lack of regulatory oversight and robust enforcement in important areas.

‘‘This has led to a lack of trust in the markets among many water users and has undoubtedly reduced the benefits generated by those markets.

‘‘These problems exacerbate distrust when water is scarce or when demand is increasing. They make a difficult situation worse.’’

The ACCC has identified problems in several key areas, particularly with the current governance arrangements for the Basin’s water markets.

A significant issue is that a range of different bodies oversee water markets in the Basin under different legal frameworks. Roles and responsibilities overlap in some areas, while leaving significant gaps in others.

‘‘The basin’s water markets, and the bodies that oversee and interact with them, operate in a complex, fragmented and inconsistent system,’’ Mr Keogh said.

‘‘To make real and lasting improvements, we need to rethink how these water markets are governed.’’

The full interim report, including a list of options for feedback, is available at