Senate Not Given Enough Information To Properly Vote On Murray-Darling Basin Plan Water Extraction

6 May 2018

This week the Senate will likely vote on whether to allow irrigators to legally extract an extra 605 billion litres of water from the Murray-Darling.

It appears as though the Government will have the numbers in the Senate to allow for the increased extraction.

But the Senate will make a wrong decision for the wrong reasons.

The increased extraction will be approved on the basis that 36 Commonwealth funded water-saving projects proposed by Victoria, NSW and SA and endorsed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) will achieve an equivalent level of environmental effect as the 605 billion litres that will be taken from the river.

The main problem for the Senate is that the 36 projects are mired in secrecy. Senators will vote on the expenditure of more than $1.5 billion ‘in the blind’.

The business cases for the projects detailing what they involve, how much each costs, and how much water each is supposedly going to save have not been made public.

The MDBA’s technical assessments, only disclosed after I obtained a ‘Senate subpoena’ requiring they be made public, were out of date and showed many of the projects had significant problems. That’s not my claim — that’s what the MDBA admitted in a letter they wrote me after the technical assessments were tabled in the Senate.

Unfortunately, based on the information that is now in the public domain, it isn’t possible for any Senator to vote in an informed way for a change to the Basin Plan.

And it’s not as though Senators have had private briefings on the proposed changes. I know this because I was informed by the Victorian and NSW water officials I met with in my own due diligence process that I am the only Senator that has visited them in relation to the proposed extraction changes.

With serious allegations that arose last year of rorting, water theft, dodgy water buybacks, a lack of compliance from some irrigators, a dearth of transparency from within the MDBA and new claims by highly esteemed NSW barrister and SA Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commissioner, Bret Walker SC, that the MDBA may have “fallen into legal error” in its operations, the proper execution of the Plan has well and truly fallen into error.

So why is it likely the Senate will approve these changes?

The answer is simple. Everyone is afraid that NSW and Victoria will walk away from the Plan unless the Senate agrees.

Despite the rhetoric of the state Ministers, I’m not convinced they will, and would not be that concerned if they did.

While Centre Alliance is fully supportive of the Plan being executed in full, it has to be implemented properly. A plan by name only is not very useful.

Centre Alliance’s informed view is that it is necessary to stop and take stock of the situation before making adjustments to the Plan. The Plan should be paused.

We need to wait for compliance and transparency measures proposed by both the states and the Commonwealth to take effect and for the legal situation to be properly examined. Centre Alliance cannot vote for the changes to water extraction at this time. And neither should anyone else.

The previous SA Government called for a judicial inquiry before establishing its own Royal Commission.

The Federal Government saw no merit in establishing a similar inquiry, but as the Banking Royal Commission has emphatically proved, you don’t know exactly what you will find until it’s in progress.

The Senate need not be too concerned about questionable threats from the states. There is a Plan B.

If the Plan falls over the Commonwealth could use a web of constitutional powers — external affairs powers (noting Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands), corporation powers, powers over interstate trade and even taxation powers to drive regulation and compliance — to take over control of the Murray-Darling Basin system.

In that event, the states would be dealt out of the equation completely.

That’s certainly not my preferred option. It would be a sad indictment of the states’ combined inability if they weren’t able to properly and fairly allocate a limited resource between themselves for economic, community and environmental purposes. But if they can’t do the right thing, then the Commonwealth should take full control — hopefully before it is too late.

This piece was published on The Advertiser website on 6 May 2018.

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