News | 26th Oct, 2010

Minister queries report on Murray-Darling

Tuesday, 26 October 2010
Tom Arup and Peter Ker, The Age

Federal Water Minister Tony Burke has turned up the heat on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, questioning the basis of its proposals to revive the river system, and insisting that it fully consider the social and economic impacts of reform.

Amid an outcry in rural communities over the authority’s draft proposals to slash water use by farmers, the minister yesterday declined to express full confidence in authority chairman Mike Taylor.

Mr Burke released legal advice which he used to challenge public statements by Mr Taylor over the degree to which the authority was required under the Water Act to consider the social, economic and environment impacts of its plans.

Mr Burke said the advice from the Solicitor-General confirmed that the Water Act required all three factors — economic, social and environmental — to be ‘‘optimised’’ in devising a plan for the Murray-Darling Basin.

He cast doubt on whether Mr Taylor and the authority had all three factors in mind.

‘‘Some of the comments that have come out would imply that they’ve weighted it very differently,’’ he said.

‘‘Now, I’m not critical of the authority for that. There was doubt from different people as to what interpretation was right.’’

Asked whether he had confidence in Mr Taylor, Mr Burke said he wanted to see how the authority responded to the legal advice. ‘‘I’m not at the stage at the moment of showing any lack of confidence, but I do want to see how they respond,’’ he said.

‘‘The issues should now be settled and what matters now is how does the Murray-Darling Basin Authority respond to the advice that I’ve now tabled.’’

The authority has proposed cuts of between 27 and 37 per cent to how much water farmers can take from the river to ensure the environment gets a greater share. The proposals have upset irrigator groups, and sparked angry public meetings across the region, amid claims rural communities will be devastated.

Mr Burke told The Age last night that, given the legal advice he had received on the Water Act, he would not move to amend it, as was suggested last week. He signalled, instead, he would be prepared to change the final design of the basin plan when it is handed to him next year, to ensure it is not disallowed by Parliament.

Opposition Murray-Darling spokesman Simon Birmingham called on the authority to respond to the legal advice. He said the government’s handling of the Murray process had become a shambles.

Calls to Mr Taylor and the authority last night for comment went unanswered.

In April Mr Taylor told The Age the authority had taken its own legal advice to back its decisions in setting cuts to water extraction, to ensure it had the ‘‘proper interpretation’’ of the Water Act.

The authority has since commissioned a ‘‘region by region’’ economic and social analysis of the proposed cuts to water extraction, which will be included in a full draft of the basin plan when it is released in March.

When the basin authority released a ‘‘guide’’ to the draft plan earlier this month, it found that between 3000 and 7600 billion litres needed to be returned to the river. But the authority immediately said that no more than 4000 billion litres should be returned to the environment, because any more than that would be unacceptable on social and economic grounds.

Australian Conservation Foundation spokeswoman Arlene Harriss-Buchan said this proved the authority had strongly considered social and economic impacts.

‘‘If the authority really were of the view that the environment was paramount and that social and economic factors didn’t matter, they would be looking at the 6000 to 7500 gigalitres of additional water for the environment, but they aren’t,’’ Ms Harriss-Buchan said.

‘‘They immediately tried to contract the discussion back to 3000 or 4000 because they were so focused on the social and economic outcomes.’’

Environment Victoria spokeswoman Juliet Le Feuvre said the Water Act clearly said the environmental needs had to be worked out first.

‘‘The Water Act is the first piece of legislation that actually does prioritise environmental water outcomes in the basin … you can’t have the economic and social outcomes without the environmental outcomes,’’ she said.

National Irrigators Council chief executive Danny O’Brien said last night that it was now incumbent on the authority to produce a revised basin plan that delivered a balance between the environment and food production.

‘‘If the authority can’t or won’t do that, then Minister Burke must use his powers to direct them to do it,’’ Mr O’Brien said.

National Farmers Federation president David Crombie said the advice to Mr Burke would confirm to basin communities they had ‘‘copped the brunt of a flawed process… Had the [authority] dealt with us upfront over the 18 months it took to come up with its flawed assumptions, we could have headed off this debacle and saved a lot of people undue fear and anxiety.’’