Time for the People to Save the Murray-Darling: Centre Alliance to Push for a Constitutional Referendum on Water Resources

6 May 2019

Senator Rex Patrick, Senate candidate Skye Kakoschke-Moore and candidate for Barker Kelly Gladigau, today announced Centre Alliance’s intention to introduce legislation to amend the Australian Constitution to give the Commonwealth Parliament clear authority to manage Australia’s national water resources for the benefit of all Australians while protecting the environment. 

"The water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin and the Great Artesian Basin are of tremendous national importance and must be managed in the national interest," said Rex.

"We currently have different water rules in each state, different compliance measures in each state, different governments distributing money for different elements of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, different accountability measures and general opaqueness in the execution and oversight of the plan caused by its multi-jurisdictional nature."

"Little progress can be made while vested interests can exert an effective veto through their state governments. Every time changes to the Murray-Darling Basin plan are proposed state water ministers threaten to pull their state out of the Basin Plan."

"The Murray-Darling is a vital resource that cannot be managed on the basis of lowest common denominator agreements. We need a fully national framework that operates in the national interest."

"Nor can we neglect the Great Artesian Basin which should be similarly managed by our national government in the national interest," said Rex.

"The failure of federal and state governments to make a substantive response to the recommendations of South Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission has made clear the absolute bankruptcy of the current management of Australia’s most important river system, and a river of critical importance to my electorate," said Ms Gladigau.

"Effective national action has been stymied and side-tracked by parochial and vested interests. Our rivers are dying while our federal political system is gridlocked."

"Centre Alliance strongly supported the establishment of a federal Royal Commission to further investigate the failure and corruption of water management in the Murray-Darling Basin. A Royal Commission is important, but it is difficult to see how effective reform can be pursued without strengthening the ability of the Commonwealth Government to protect and preserve the ecosystems of the Murray-Darling Basin," said Kelly.

"The Commonwealth Water Act 2007, Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan all rest on a hodgepodge of constitutional powers including the necessary referral of power from the states. The legislative framework is as troubled as the river."

Centre Alliance’s proposed legislation seeks to put before the Australian people the question of whether the Constitution should be amended to give the Commonwealth Parliament the power to make laws to manage Australia’s national water resources on a consistent basis for the benefit of all Australians while ensuring protection of the environment. 

Such an amendment would put beyond doubt the power of the Commonwealth to legislate to manage the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin river system and the Great Artesian Basin without any reliance on the referral of power from state parliaments, and, if necessary, to replace or override state water management legislation.

Senator Patrick said the proposed constitutional amendment would further ensure that any Commonwealth law relating to water resources must not affect water resources in a way that has an overall detrimental effect on the environment.  

This requirement would apply to all laws relating to water resources made under the powers conferred on the Commonwealth Parliament by Section 51 of the Constitution.  

"The vital importance of protecting and preserving Australia’s major national water resources should be clearly recognised and entrenched in our Constitution," Ms Kakoschke-Moore said. "Our water resources, rivers and the environment must come first."

"This is not a new problem. In 1897 and 1898 parochial state interests blocked the federal constitutional conventions from adopting South Australian proposals that the new Commonwealth Parliament be given full power to control and regulate the River Murray and other interstate inland waterways," said Skye.

"120 years later the Australian people should be given the opportunity to fix this constitutional flaw."

"Our great river system the Murray-Darling, and the unique resource of the Great Artesian Basin, can’t wait any longer."

Exposure drafts of the bill and explanatory memorandum can be found here.

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