Political infighting, competing interests and the current federal government’s refusal to co-operate. Unfortunately, South Australia’s Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is stymied by the same problems as the river system itself.
Giving evidence to a Royal Commission is a tough gig. It’s like being in a court with swearing an oath, counsels, microphones and files of evidence, which can be quite intimidating. On the other hand, you have been called for a reason, and it’s a chance to have your view heard and taken into account. So it’s worth the discomfort of being put on the spot.
Such was my experience of appearing before South Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission this week. I travelled to Adelaide to give evidence and I was certainly kept on my toes. We covered a wide range of topics from threats to sell off our precious environmental water to the impact of elections on community consultation on contentious issues. I was given the opportunity to say what I thought and to put forward the views of Environment Victoria supporters. This is an incredibly valuable experience that has also been offered to a wide range of people, from Traditional Owners to eminent scientists.
It is really important that the Royal Commission is able to complete its work and make considered recommendations that can be respected by all parties. Unfortunately this is unlikely to be the case. The federal government has refused to co-operate and has applied for an injunction to prevent its bureaucrats and Murray-Darling Basin Authority staff from giving evidence.
The case, which involves states’ rights to call federal witnesses, is due to be heard by the High Court in October. But now the new SA Liberal government is refusing to give the Commissioner an extension of time beyond his February 2019 deadline. Which means that even if South Australia wins the court case and is able to call the federal witnesses, there won’t be enough time to process their evidence and include it in the Commission’s findings.
What a Royal shemozzle!
This stalling and sabotage reflects the lack of co-operation and unity that has bedevilled the entire Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Intended to return Australia’s most important river to health, the Plan has instead been a constant battleground of competing interests and political infighting. It is in crying need of some dispassionate analysis and strong recommendations for improvement.
In the absence of a federal judicial inquiry, which we have been calling for since ABC’s Four Corners first raised allegations of water theft and collusion in July 2017, the SA Royal Commission is our best hope. It must be allowed to do its work properly. That’s why it’s so disappointing to see the federal and South Australian Liberal governments deliberately blocking the flow of evidence – a sadly appropriate metaphor for the mismanagement of Australia’s largest and most important river system.