The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission has found Commonwealth officials committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions in drawing up the multi-billion-dollar deal to save Australia’s largest river system.
- The royal commission was called after ABC revealed NSW irrigators were taking water earmarked for the environment
- Royal Commissioner Bret Walker said the authority in charge of the basin plan was “unwilling or incapable of acting lawfully”
- He accused the original architects of the plan of being driven by “politics rather than science”
Commissioner Bret Walker SC recommended a complete overhaul of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, including reallocating more water from irrigation to the environment.
The report found the original plan ignored potentially “catastrophic” risks of climate change.
The investigation into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, prompted by allegations of water theft by NSW cotton farmers which first aired on the ABC in 2017, recommended major reform including resetting water saving limits, repealing the outcome of the Northern Basin Review and new measurements for water on floodplains.
The plan, signed into law in 2012 by basin states and the federal government, aimed to remove 2,750 gigalitres (GL) of water through irrigated agriculture and return it to the river system to help the environment.
Commissioner Walker accused the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), the body responsible for implementing the reforms, of failing to do so.
“Regrettably, from prior to the time of the enactment of the basin plan, the MDBA has shown itself to be unwilling or incapable of acting lawfully,” the report found.
“That state of affairs exists today, and is the principal reason why there are serious doubts whether the current senior management, and board, of the MDBA are capable of fulfilling their statutory obligations and functions.”
Commissioner Walker said the MDBA failed to act on “the best available science” when it was determining how much water could be returned to the environment in the first place.
When explaining the process for approving business cases for water infrastructure projects, designed to help return more water to the river, the Commissioner also accused the MDBA of being secretive.
“The reasons given for this secrecy have no substance,” he said.
“The business cases involve the functions of government, not private enterprise. There is no aspect of commercial-in-confidence — whatever that term is intended to mean — about them.
“Not only is this attitude towards disclosure condescending, it neatly encapsulates the habit of the MDBA, amongst other government entities, to keep matters that should properly be disclosed to the public, secret.”
The South Australian Government released the report today, after it was handed to Governor Hieu Van Le on Monday.
Politics, not science driving plan
Commissioner Walker accused the original architects of the multi-billion-dollar plan of being influenced by politics, with the report finding “politics rather than science” drove the setting of the “Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) and the recovery figure of 2,750 GL”.
“The [water] recovery amount had to start with a ‘two’,” he said.
“This was not a scientific determination, but one made by senior management and the board of the MDBA.
“It is an unlawful approach. It is maladministration.
“Science, as that term should be understood, was not used. The MDBA has failed to disclose key matters, such as its modelling.
“Science is open, available, and can be critiqued and checked. It can be validated or invalidated.”
More to come.