NSW LIBERAL Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm says he has “no concerns” about conducting a “good” Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin Plan, if it helps to end that state’s “whinging” about water use.
And the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has urged Basin governments to focus on strengthening the Basin Plan, rather than pulling it down, in the wake of the SA government’s decision to forge ahead with its own Commission inquiry, focussed on allegations of water theft and compliance flaws, in upstream jurisdictions.
Senator Leyonhjelm - who chaired a Senate inquiry into the Basin Plan in the previous parliament - said SA was “broke and spending probably tens of millions of dollars on a Royal Commission seems to me to be an insult to South Australia's hard working taxpayers".
But he said, "That said, I have no concerns about a good Royal Commission".
"The fact is, the existing Murray Darling Basin Plan benefits South Australia enormously, to the point where something like 900 gigalitres of fresh water evaporates from Lake Alexandrina," he said.
"That fresh water has been taken from the other states and sent to South Australia, whereas it could just as easily be salty water if the mouth of the Murray was not artificially blocked.
"Now if the Royal Commission identifies that fact and says to South Australia, 'you really are doing extremely well out of this plan and if I were you I'd shut up about it', then it can't be all bad.
"I do I think it's a misuse of South Australian taxpayers' money. But if it's a good Royal Commission it will come to the conclusion that South Australia is whinging without justification."
Senator Leyonhjelm said too many inquiries into the Basin Plan were already underway, following the allegations of water theft raised earlier this year on ABC television.
"At the end of the day all they're arguing about is a limited amount of water in the context of an overriding assumption that there's something brilliant about the Murray Darling Basin Plan," he said.
"And yet the Murray Darling Basin Plan is a very imperfect plan.
"Even if there were irrigators in NSW who were helping themselves to water that they weren't entitled to - and I'm not saying that's definitely true - it's irrelevant to South Australia.
"They're talking about the Darling River - SA's water all comes down the Murray. Only about 6 per cent of the water which flows down the Darling River ever makes it to SA. Quite frankly, what happens in the Darling is not relevant to South Australia.
"If they were huffing and puffing about the Murray then perhaps it would be a bit more understandable, but that's not the case."
Senator Leyonhjelm agreed with Assistant Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Anne Ruston that the SA government was merely playing politics with the Basin Plan around a state election, by calling for the Royal Commission.
"They're trying to convince South Australians that if the other states don't give up heaps of water they won't have enough, but that's an outright lie," he said.,
"The Murray Darling Basin Plan in fact guarantees a large amount of water for South Australia and even in a drought year they'd have more than they need."
NFF: “shameful political grandstanding”.
NFF vice-president and water taskforce chair Les Gordon said ongoing comments from politicians questioning the Basin Plan's future were “highly disappointing and not productive”.
He said calls for a Royal Commission, exaggerations of non-compliance and threats to boycott established Basin processes were “nothing but shameful political grandstanding”.
“It beggars belief that the South Australian Premier would use the fortunes of farmers, regional communities and the environment, in a poorly veiled exercise to promote his own political endeavours,” he said.
“Basin stakeholders see through it and frankly, deserve better.”
Mr Gordon said ongoing allegations of widespread non-compliance were unfortunately tarring irrigators with a label they were “not deserving of”.
He said irrigators were “aggrieved” that the reputation of their sector was being called into question by, “unsubstantiated allegations against a few and the showmanship of certain individuals for political point scoring”.
“Let me be clear, the farm sector has zero tolerance for non-compliance for illegal water take,” he said.
“Illegal take is theft from all other water users, basin communities, taxpayers and the environment.
“Irrigators pay a considerable charge as part of their licence fees to fund compliance activities and in return, they expect effective compliance to be the carried out."
Mr Gordon said the challenge for all Basin stakeholders now was to engage, where appropriate, with the remaining inquiries and, following their release, to consider the recommendations for action.
He said the Basin Plan was a complex, evolving instrument that required “clear, calm heads” to oversee its implementation and to ensure that it delivers on its objectives.
"As a nation, I have every faith, we can achieve just this,” he said.
The NFF also pointed to the Murray Darling Basin Authority's (MDBA) release of a review of water compliance issues on Saturday, saying it raised issues warranting “careful consideration but was not cause for the questioning of the Plan itself”.
Mr Gordon said the practices of the majority of Basin irrigators “comply fully” with the regulations governing the acquisition of water.
“This isn’t a subjective statement but one based on fact,” he said.
“In parts of the Basin where water is most highly regulated, state-of-the-art technology measures the extraction of water for irrigation in a fully compliant way."
But he said the review highlighted issues with the management of water from ‘unregulated rivers’ which was an ongoing challenge.
“Farmers, governments and local communities will need to commit to continue to work together to maximise economic, environmental and social outcomes, as outlined in the Northern Basin Review,” he said.
“We are seeing the positive environmental outcomes that are achieved from the deployment of environmental water, as managed by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and his state partners.
“Proof that the historic Murray Darling Basin Plan, is achieving what it was established to do.”