IF SOUTH Australians want their government to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on a Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin instead of schools and hospitals then that’s up to them.
That’s the view of the National Irrigators Council (NIC) after SA Premier Jay Weatherill announced his state would commence a state Royal Commission next year.
It comes after the Murray Darling Basin Authority released a report into compliance flaws in the Basin Plan yesterday recommending tougher oversight measures and pinpointing issues in upstream states.
It was one of seven inquiries instigated following revelations earlier this year of alleged theft of environmental water in the Barwon Darling section of the complex river system, in NSW.
“What we need to see is a forensic inquiry into all of the allegations of water theft and of improper dealings and taking the water out of this river that should not have been taken,” Mr Weatherill was quoted as saying on the ABC.
“Until we find out the cause, we won't know what steps need to be taken to remedy it.”
But NIC CEO Steve Whan said irrigators had “nothing to hide and nothing to fear” from the SA government’s move to conduct a Royal Commission.
“As long as it doesn’t prevent those of us who want to get the basin plan implemented getting on with the job,” he said.
“If South Australian taxpayers want millions of dollars of their money spent on a Royal Commission instead of schools and hospitals then that’s up to them.”
Assistant Agriculture and Water Resources and SA Senator Anne Ruston said the Royal Commission was just another political “re-election stunt” by the SA Premier and Water Minister Ian Hunter that would “jeopardise” the Basin Plan.
“I’d say I’m extremely disappointed but not overly surprised that the SA Labor party is prepared to jeopardise a once in a life time opportunity to fix the Murray Darling Basin for future generations and they’re prepared to use this Royal Commission as a political tool for some re-election stunt,” she said.
“It’s extremely disappointing and I’d call on them to rethink whether they’re prepared to jeopardise this plan for their own political self-interests.
“You have to keep it in context there’s been some very serious allegations and nobody’s moving away from that and anybody whose broken the law should feel the full weight of the law brought down on them and charged accordingly.
“But to suggest that every irrigator and every river community in the Basin is somehow complicit in behaving inappropriately, badly or illegally is just mischievous at best.”
Senator Ruston said release of the MDBA’s report yesterday did not support the SA government’s move to establish a Royal Commission and the Chief Executive of Mr Hunter’s Environment Department had headed up the independent panel which reviewed compliance issues in the Basin Plan’s water flow targets.
“The independent review found a number of things that needed to be corrected in terms of compliance and metering and things we can improve,” she said.
“But it also came out with six very clear recommendations that the federal government, under the pen of the Water Minister, the Prime Minister, have said that we will accept and we will implement, that will fix the problems.
“All Jay Weatherill and Ian Hunter are doing today is seeking, for their own political purposes, to just have another inquiry and to keep re-hashing the same themes.
“I think yesterday’s review gave us a pathway to fix it and a quick and expedient pathway to get back on track to making sure we deliver the plan.”
NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair also rejected the Royal Commission saying his government was committed to the Basin Plan and “strongly believes” it is the most effective way to manage precious water resources across all of the Basin jurisdictions.
“We need everyone at the table working constructively to make these plans work,” he said.
“The NSW government has taken these matters extremely seriously - we have already commissioned an independent report and last week passed legislation to implement the recommendations of this report.
“We have referred the issues to ICAC and the NSW Ombudsman, both of which have similar powers to a Royal Commission.
“A Royal Commission would take years and would cost hundreds of millions of dollars which would be better spent on protecting and improving water management rather than lawyers and consultants.”
Senator Ruston said the federal government had indicated it would cooperate with the Royal Commission should the SA government “choose to continue with this stunt”.
“We have nothing to hide but we are certainly not going to put federal taxpayers’ money into undertaking another inquiry, where we don’t even know if it’s going to investigate anything that’s not already being investigated,” she said.
“It’s just a duplication of what’s already happening and we’ve got to spend our money on fixing the problems and getting on with delivering the plan.
“Now the South Australian Liberals have clearly indicated that they too want to deliver the plan and I could sense (SA Liberal leader) Steven Marshall’s frustrations with this stunt, at his press conference today.
“It is an outrage.
“But the most important thing is to deliver this plan and South Australia stands to gain the most from it.
“The question has to be asked; are they prepared to go all the way to the wall on this and blow up the plan; blow up the (SDL (Sustainable Diversion Limits) adjustment mechanism that’s to go before the parliament: and blow up the Northern Basin review?
“Are the prepared to actually go all the way and destroy the plan over this?”
Mixed support for Royal Commission
The Nick Xenophon Team said it welcomed a Royal Commission into the Basin Plan and “water theft and other serious rorts” but it queried how effective it would be in the absence of cooperation of the other states and the Commonwealth government.
“Anything that shines a light on the rorting of the $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan is welcome, but unless the other States cooperate, my fear is it won’t deliver the answers and action that South Australians deserve,” said NXT leader Nick Xenophon.
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) welcomed the Royal Commission saying “a full-blooded investigation into the problems on the river is long overdue”, while the Australian Greens supported its broad ranging powers.
The Green’s Murray Darling Basin spokesperson and SA Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said people in her home state were “sick and tired of the lack of action from Canberra on the scandalous quagmire that is the Murray Darling Basin Plan”.
“The Federal government has been completely absent when it comes to taking action on the widespread rorting of the plan and theft of water from what is the most important river system in our nation,” she said in a statement.
“There is now serious questions over the independence of the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which released its damning report quietly on a Saturday afternoon while one of the implicated states was going to the polls.
“They have not acted on damning information of greedy corporate irrigators stealing water from the Basin and done little to ensure compliance.
“Of course river communities, and South Australians, feel ripped off.
“As whistleblowers continue to speak up it is becoming clearer that the Murray Darling Basin Authority has become hoodwinked by the corporate and political interests of upstream states and big irrigators.
“It’s ironic that in the MDBA’s own report they’ve said upstream states have shown a ‘notable lack of transparency’, yet the only reason we know there is such a widespread problem is because of brave whistle blowers, former Authority staff, and dedicated members of river communities who have had enough of the secrecy and the coverup.
“It’s a great shame that the plan which was supposed to have the states working together to ensure the environment and river communities had the water they needed first and foremost, has been splintered by theft, non-compliance, apathy and cover-up, but something must be done.”
But Mr Whan said “we do need to keep this in perspective” in regards to the MDBA’s report.
He said irrigators had “zero tolerance” for water theft and supported strong action but the report does not, as the Mr Weatherill had claimed, show ‘documented theft’.
Mr Whan said according to the ABS, there are 9200 irrigators in the Murray Darling Basin and the MDBA’s report detailed five unresolved complaints.
“It shows the overwhelming majority of environmental water goes where it is intended,” he said.
“The vast bulk of that water is in the Southern Basin; Southern NSW, Northern Victoria and South Australia and while the report recommends improvements it does not indicate major problems in those areas.
“The report highlights challenges in unregulated rivers.
“These rivers are in the Northern Basin but, again, it’s not all the rivers.
“Most Northern Basin catchments are also regulated.
“Challenges in unregulated rivers are very real and there will need to be a lot of hard work, consultation and respect for legal property rights as a solution is found.
“It does not justify South Australia’s attempt to stop the plan by reneging on its agreement to a process that includes the Northern Basin Review and Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment.
“Blocking these measures would cost hundreds of jobs in rural communities, including in the South Australian Riverlands.”
Mr Whan said the report highlighted issues at government level but “it doesn’t justify attacks on the 99.9pc of hard working law-abiding irrigators who grow the food we eat and the fibre we wear”.
“It certainly does not seem at all fair to punish rural communities,” he said.
Mr Whan said working through the detail and implementing the Basin Plan would be made much harder if “hysterical exaggeration dominates, rather than the painstaking discussion and understanding that is needed to make such a complicated plan work”.
“NIC acknowledges that this review, along with the Matthews Review in NSW, raises real problems with resourcing and transparency of compliance operations,” he said.
““Irrigators pay for compliance in NSW and we expect those millions of dollars to be spent on compliance.
“The report focuses on using technological solutions but we would emphasise that we need to see people on the ground.
“Officers who understand the rivers they are managing and know the people they are dealing with.
“Clearly, this report poses challenges for the incoming Queensland government as well.”
ACF Director of Campaigns, Dr Paul Sinclair said it was “a long overdue step towards understanding what is going wrong on our rivers and why some powerful vested interests are being allowed to undermine their health of the Murray-Darling”.
“It is disappointing that it has been left to a state government to convene such an inquiry,” he said.
“The Turnbull government should have commissioned an independent national judicial inquiry into the Murry Darling allegations and it raises the question about why they are avoiding public scrutiny.
“The Royal Commission must allow the thousands of concerned community members to have their voice heard.
“We must break the strangle-hold powerful vested interests seemingly have on the regulators who guard the health of our rivers.
“With the right terms of reference and a steady hand to lead this inquiry the South Australian Royal Commission could be a strong step in rebuilding community confidence in the Basin Plan.”
Asked about federal Labor’s stance, Senator Ruston said every discussion she’d had with federal Shadow Water Minister Tony Burke, and her understanding of discussions others have had with him, he’d indicated “an absolute willingness to continue to work in a bipartisan way to deliver the Basin Plan”.
“At every stage of our discussions as far as I’m aware, the ones I’ve had with Tony Burke, all of us are absolutely committed to delivery of the Basin Plan, in full and on time,” she said.
“We are looking forward to continuing to work with Tony Burke.
“This is a plan that was bipartisan and has never been anything else but bipartisan and I‘d be surprised if Tony Burke was not prepared to continue to work with what’s in the best interests of the Basin.
“Tony Burke has never once, as far as I’m aware, been anything but totally supportive of the progress and delivery of the plan.”