SA goes it alone on Murray-Darling Royal Commission

The Murray-Darling Basin (CSIRO)

South Australia will launch its own Royal Commission into the allocation of water under the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.

The moves follows a number of damning reports on allegations of water theft and mismanagement, and what the South Australian Government regards as a coverup by the Federal and NSW Government.

The issue has been brewing for some time, and came out into the open after the ABC’s Four Corners program in July aired serious allegations in July that large scale ‘water theft’ was occurring, and that a senior NSW agriculture bureaucrat were colluding with upstream water users to thwart the Agreement’s aims.

Subsequent investigations by the NSW Government revealed the truth of the allegations, and in September the deputy director-general of water at the NSW Department of Industry, Greg Hanlon, was forced to resign after an internal inquiry found that he had shared confidential government information with irrigators to help them lobby against the Plan.

“We now have widespread claims of water theft by upstream states,” SA Premier Jay Weatherill said, announcing the Royal Commission.

“This scandal is so extensive we need a rigorous, independent inquiry with the coercive powers of a Royal Commission. South Australia fought too hard to secure the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement to see our water stolen by greedy upstream irrigators.

“It’s clear some irrigators in upstream states have no regard for people who live and work downstream.”

There is no shortage of reports outlining the problems, but with the exception of Mr Hanlon’s resignation nothing has been done. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), the intergovernmental body set up to ensure that the Basin’s water resources are managed in an integrated and sustainable way, released a report on 25 November that found many issues with compliance with the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.

The MDBA report followed from a request for a review from the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who is also Minister for Water. It set up an Independent panel to report on the issues, including the MDBA’s own compliance role.

“There is a notable lack of transparency in NSW, Queensland and Victoria,” said the report. “Transparency is necessary for the community to have confidence the compliance system is doing its job.

“As well, by exposing the level, pattern and outcomes of compliance activity, transparency exerts a pressure on water agencies themselves to work effectively. The lack of transparency reflects not only a closed culture, but is also the result of many aspects of compliance not being codified and therefore not able to be published.

“Good data is critical to compliance. For NSW and Queensland, water compliance is bedevilled by patchy metering, the challenges of measuring unmetered take and the lack of real-time, accurate water accounts.”

In other words, no-one is watching whether people are stealing water or not.

There have been separate inquiries into water allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin in the last few years. All have them have said something needs to be done, but little has. Now South Australia has had enough.

Malcolm Turnbull said after the announcement of the Royal Commission that he would direct Federal public servants to cooperate with it, but also said it was a politically motivated waste of money. NSW remains non-committal on whether it will cooperate, and Victoria says there should be an inquiry.


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