Transcript: Response to SA Murray Darling Royal Commission

featuring Rod Campbell and Maryanne Slattery


31 January 2019, Parliament House, 2.30PM

Rod Campbell, Research Director, The Australia Institute
Maryanne Slattery, Senior Water Researcher, The Australia Institute

Rod Campbell: Three things are clear from the Royal Commission’s report today. The first is that we need more water in the Murray-Darling Basin. Our rivers need more water. A million dead fish can’t be wrong and a million dead fish are saying that we need more water returned to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. The second key thing to take from the Royal Commission is that we need a new plan. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, or at least the way it’s been implemented to date, is not working. We need a major overhaul of the plan, or at least the way it’s being implemented. The last thing that is very clear from the Royal Commission’s report is that heads need to roll at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It is clear that the way that our basin is managed, and the institutions that have been charged with managing it, are failing.

This is a massive failure that is costing taxpayers dearly and is costing the environmental health of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Looking at the recommendations of the Royal Commission, one of the key recommendations is that, perhaps unsurprisingly, our policies should be based on science. The Royal Commissioner is clear that the amount of water that has been taken from our rivers needs to be scientifically determined and not compromised by the vested interests that have had an enormous influence on the way that the basin has been managed to date.

A second key recommendation is around legality and there are questions about the legality of the basin plan itself, or certainly aspects of it. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has watched Australian water politics over the last year. The Australian Institute and others have warned that changes to the sustainable diversion limits that went through the Senate last year were probably unlawful and now one of Australia’s most eminent lawyers has agreed with us. So the legality of the plan and the way water management runs in the basin is certainly under question.

Thirdly, among these recommendations, there is a call for real transparency in the way that we manage the Murray-Darling Basin. The Royal Commission has described ‘an unfathomable culture of secrecy’ that goes on within the Basin’s management organisations and there is no better demonstration of that than the fact that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the Federal Government and other federal agencies did everything they possibly could to avoid turning up to the Royal Commission and answering its questions. So there is a real need to end the culture of secrecy and have real transparency in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. I’ll hand over to Maryanne Slattery, who might like to say a couple of things, and then we will take a couple of questions.

Maryanne Slattery: It is important to remember this is a $13 billion plan. This is a once-in-multiple-generation opportunity to reverse a decline in our ecosystems and return water back to the environment. It is clearly failing. It is clearly failing in the implementation and the Royal Commissioner couldn’t have been more clear about the multiple and systemic levels of failure with that opportunity.

We still have about $4 to $5 billion left to spend. With should take this opportunity to have a pause, really address those recommendations seriously, and rethink how the rest of that money is spent before it is too late, because we are not going to get another opportunity to fix it – in this generation, anyway.

The second point I would like to make is there are a lot of good scientists, good environmental water managers, both in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and in the broader water scientific community. The Commissioner’s findings are quite clear they are being ignored and that science is being hidden. There is no transparency around that science and decisions are being made for political purposes, rather than based on science. It is really important that we go back to the really good underpinning of science that we have in the next phase of trying to get this thing back on track and implementing the basin plan properly to get better environmental outcomes.

REPORTER: I just wanted to ask you guys. We are in a situation, a rare political consensus between the major parties at the moment. Did you risk blowing up the plan if you did suggest such a major overhaul?

Rod Campbell: I think political consensus amongst the major parties has been part of the problem. A lot of the powers-that-be in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin have worked very hard to silence critics and to not apply normal scientific questioning to the way that the Basin Plan is being implemented. I think it is great at last we are starting to see some difference between the major parties. We have seen Tony Burke go out and visit Menindee and Bill Shorten being concerned about the plight of the Lower Darling. It is about time we had high-level political attention on the Murray-Darling Basin and that has been lacking for some time. The fact that the management of the Murray-Darling Basin has been able to take place in back rooms, far from the attention of people in the major cities or here in Canberra, is part of the reason that we are in the difficulties that we are in today.

I hope the Royal Commission’s report shakes the political apathy of the major parties around exactly how this major reform has been working and has been managed.