“A fraud on the environment” is how lawyers for the Royal Commission framed it. Cronyism, cover-ups, deception, secrecy, scientists “leaned on”. The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission report is to be handed down in little over a month and the outcome, for Australia’s water authorities, will not be pretty. Triskele reports – in a tragi-comedy in three acts – on the extraordinary events surrounding Australia’s most critical inland water system.
EDO NSW, on behalf of its client the Inland Rivers Network, has commenced civil enforcement proceedings in the NSW Land and Environment Court in relation to allegations of unlawful water pumping by a large-scale irrigator on the Barwon-Darling River.
This case is listed for hearing on 30 November 2018.
Critics of the handling of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan say the final submission to the South Australian Royal Commission vindicates their concerns of corrupted implementation.
A significant element of the evidence before the royal commission has been the lack of scientific backing for the MDBA’s modelling that showed 2,750 gigalitres of water could be recovered for the environment under the plan. All the scientific evidence presented to the royal commission said the modelling was ‘not science’, Beasley said.
A new report looking at how the $13bn for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is being spent has found that big agribusiness is being compensated for giving up access to water while communities, graziers, small irrigators and native title holders are having to wear the often harsh effects of the plan.
“There is no doubt that everyone in the Lower Darling will be affected by the Menindee project, including through economic loss. The Webster deal has set a precedent for compensation to be paid to all stakeholders: Barkandji, graziers, Menindee businesses and property owners and irrigators,” TAI’s senior water researcher, Maryanne Slattery, said.
A funding pool of $1.5 billion is on offer for water recovery projects across the Murray Darling Basin and the Federal Water Department is starting to splash out.
The Murray-Darling Basin Water Infrastructure Program is open to tenders from all Basin urban, industrial and water metering projects.
The Water Infrastructure Program is responsible for recovering the 450 gigalitre bucket of so-called ‘upwater’, which is a particular tranche of the Basin Plan to return consumptive use to the environment. Upwater can only be recovered if it has no negative socio-economic impacts.
The federal and SA governments are now being accused of working together to nobble the commission, which is examining how the Murray–Darling Basin plan was drafted and implemented. Whether any laws have been – or are being – broken is central.
It is fairly standard for royal commissions to seek an extension.
It is equally standard for governments, if asked, to grant them.
SA Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick, whose party was formerly the Nick Xenophon Team, has condemned the refusal to assist.
Patrick won support from Labor and the Greens on Wednesday to have the Senate issue its own demand for the documents. Unlike the state-based royal commission, the Commonwealth parliament’s power to make such an order is not in dispute.
Mal Peters, former director of the National Farmers’ Federation, a highly regarded figure in rural politics, says authority’s ‘direction changed’ when Joyce became agriculture minister.
When I started as chair, I had the impression that the MDBA was motivated by finding a balance between competing environmental, social and economic outcomes,” he said.
“However, it was my observation and impression that the MDBA’s direction changed when Barnaby Joyce became minister for agriculture and water resources. At that time it appeared to me that the MBDA [sic] shifted its approach further towards irrigation interests.”
When officials were tasked with designing the national plan to manage the flows of the Murray–Darling Basin, they were supposed to use the best available science to calculate how much water would need to be diverted from irrigators’ allowances to support the environment.
But according to one who was involved, the method used to determine how many thousand billion litres should be recovered was far from scientific. They joked about basing the first four digits of the figure on a random NSW postcode.
Speaking to the Murray–Darling Basin Royal Commission, former Murray–Darling Basin Authority official David Bell said this was because there was a “very clear understanding” coming from the board and management that whatever the figure was, it had to begin “with a number two”.