ELECTION MODE: Deputy PM and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack was in Mildura last week meeting with candidate for Mallee Dr Anne Webster and stakeholders in the region ahead of the Federal election expected to be held in May. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

WHEN Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack visited Mildura last week to meet with National’s candidate for Mallee, Dr Anne Webster, together they engaged with irrigators and local business owners to discuss the issues of the day – notably water.

The Nationals’ leader’s arrival in Mildura came amid the damaging accusations emerging from the South Australian Murray Darling Basin (MDB) Royal Commission’s 756-page report, which was released last week, sparking much controversy.

In its report, the MDB Royal Commission cited “gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions by Commonwealth officials” as among a number of failures under its multi-billion dollar plan to improve the health of Australia’s largest river system.

Scathing in its language, the report accuses the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) of negligence and being “incapable of acting lawfully”. The report also claimed that the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) ignored potentially catastrophic risks of climate change.

As a result, Commissioner Bret Walker SC has recommended the Plan’s complete overhaul, including reallocating more water from irrigation to the environment.

In answer to some of Mr Walker’s accusations, Mr McCormack said that the Royal Commission was a State-based, State-biased report, that used “highly emotive language”.

“Well it was very emotive, and you don’t usually expect or usually see Royal Commissions being so emotive, and I say again, it is a State-based and State-biased raft of recommendations that have been brought down,” he said.

“Of course South Australia is going to call for more water and be critical of the Plan,” he said. “The fact is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a bipartisan document.

“It’s an agreement reached between all sides of politics and indeed all States. Right now it’s very dry, we are in a drought, which in some parts of the catchment has been running for more than seven years – so there is a water shortage in the system.

“No-one wants to see a situation like the Menindee Lakes occur, that’s why David Littleproud, the Federal Agriculture Minister, has $5million on the table for a fish management recovery strategy, and he has commissioned an inquiry which will report back to Government in March.” 

According to the Commissioner Walker, the Water Act required the MDBA to draft a Basin Plan that ensured Australia met its environmental obligations, including setting a Basin-wide Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) that restored the environment. 

Mr Walker said the inquiry found that the MDBA ignored this requirement, instead adopting a “triple bottom line” policy concept giving undue weight to economic and social outcomes.

It found that contrary to legal requirements, “The MDBA failed to act on the best available scientific knowledge”, and that “politics rather than science” ultimately drove the setting of the Basin-wide SDL and the recovery figure of 2750 gigalitres.

Shortcomings revealed

The Commissioner also found the MDBA’s failure to incorporate climate science was “negligent, indefensible and unlawful,” ignoring the best available scientific knowledge arising from CSIRO’s Sustainable Yields Project, and the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative – something the MDBA refutes.

Mr Walker said that a ‘High-Level Review Panel’ for the MDBP, which he was a member of, stated that, “The driving value of the Act is that a triple-bottom-line approach (environment, economic, social) is replaced by one in which environment becomes the overriding objective, with the social and economic spheres required “to do the best they can” with whatever is left once environmental needs are addressed.

“This interpretation was also very clearly and reasonably, in my view, the interpretation taken by the board and management of the MDBA in developing the Guide to the Basin Plan,” Mr Walker said.

“This was transmitted unambiguously to the members of the High-Level Review Panel for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.”

Mr McCormack was keen to make the point that in his view, farmers are getting a ‘bad wrap’ at the moment.

“Our farmers grow the very best food and fibre, and what you have to understand is that cotton growers in the north, and indeed rice growers in the south around Deniliquin and parts, have not had a water allocation,” he said.

“They have had zero allocation, and so it’s a bit unfair to blame the farmers who haven’t had any water to grow their crops, to grow their produce, to grow their fibre.

“They’re getting a bad wrap from people, who, quite frankly, have never been over the great dividing range – they are ‘muddle-headed wombats’ at best.

“They get on Twitter and on Facebook and make ridiculous comments about a topic that they know nothing about. They see photographs that have been doctored – they see photographs that have had tints put over them.

“I’ve seen in the last 24 hours pictures of the water in the system which looked green, looked brown, looked pink, looked blue and some of those photos quite frankly have been doctored.”

Mr McCormack’s colleague, Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, also responded to the Royal Commissions findings, saying the Government had made significant inroads in delivering water back to the Murray-Darling Basin.

‘The recent Productivity Commission review found nearly all the 20 percent of productive water which needed to be recovered for the environment has been,” Mr Littleproud said.

“We’ve also taken big steps forward on compliance, which was indeed an issue in the Basin. Nobody who is doing the right thing has anything to fear from compliance. NSW has taken the issue seriously and real progress is being made. 

“Last year, for the first time, we used satellite tracking to make sure environmental flows made its way down the river – a great result achieved through modern technology.

“For the first time we have bipartisan agreement…on how to return water to the Basin. This has come about through leadership and goodwill – not through fighting.” 

Victorian Minister for Water, Lisa Neville, said the State is on track to meet its obligations under the Basin Plan, already delivering, or contracted to deliver, 800 gigalitres for recovery out of the State’s 1075-gigalitre target to improve the health of rivers and land in the Basin.

“If a much larger recovery target was implemented, many towns in Victoria would be under grave threat,” she said. “At the last Ministerial Council meeting, agreement was reached on a way forward to continue water recovery above the 2750-gigalitre target in the Plan, but not at the expense of our communities.”

Review promised

Ms Neville said her Government would review the report and recommendations from the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, but she dismissed accusations that the MBDA had acted unlawfully.

Member for Murray Austin Evans also weighed into the debate in the aftermath of the report’s release last week. 

“The Royal Commission was set-up to examine water theft, but has instead decided to unpick the Murray-Darling Basin Plan itself,” he said. “Water is the lifeblood of this region, and the negative campaign against our irrigators, who put food in the stomach and fibre on the back of countless Australians, needs to stop.

“But this isn’t just about irrigators. It’s about the communities in this electorate who will be left behind – they’re the people who will suffer.

“In particular, Mr Walker’s recommendation that increased water buybacks will not impact communities is ridiculous, and I challenge Bret Walker to come out to my electorate to see the damage water buybacks have caused.

“It’s easy to sit in an ivory tower and make recommendations when the South Australian Lower Lakes are sitting at 94 percent capacity.”

Following the fish kills at Menindee, Minister Littleproud announced that the Government was setting up an independent panel to assess the deaths of fish in the Lower Darling. 

The independent panel will be chaired by University of Melbourne Professor Rob Vertessy, who is also Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s independent Advisory Committee on Social, Economic and Environmental Sciences. 

Mr Littleproud said the panel would aim to identify causes of the fish deaths and make recommendations within the framework of the historic MDBP and Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.  

The panel is due to deliver its report to the Government in March this year.