Critics of the handling of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan say the final submission to the South Australian Royal Commission vindicates their concerns of corrupted implementation.
Senior counsel assisting the inquiry, Richard Beasley, gave the final summation of the evidence last week, saying the plan at conception was ground-breaking but its implementation had been “marred by maladministration and mismanagement” mostly in federal agencies, including the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
“By that, I mean mismanagement by those in charge … and the consequent mismanagement of a huge amount of public funds.
“Responsibility for that falls on current executives and the board.”
The environment and economies of the affected state and territory parties will all suffer, “but the state that will suffer the most is the state at the end of the system, South Australia,” he said.
Science of flow quantities still contentious
A significant element of the evidence before the royal commission has been the lack of scientific backing for the MDBA’s modelling that showed 2,750 gigalitres of water could be recovered for the environment under the plan. All the scientific evidence presented to the royal commission said the modelling was ‘not science’, Beasley said.
The royal commission did not hear evidence from the senior officials involved, who declined to participate.
However, the MDBA’s executive director Phillip Glyde has written in The Mandarin today that at the time the Basin Plan was drafted, the agency had a reasonable understanding of return flows from decades of prior work on managing salinity and water quality.
With increased irrigation efficiency possibly reducing those return flows, and more information available about how water can be recovered for the environment, the agency felt it was the right time for an independent expert review of the risk to the Basin’s water resources. That review was led by the University of Melbourne, and published last month.
Glyde adds that changes take years or decades to have an impact on rivers, and his agency is continuously looking to improve its knowledge and tools to delver on its sustainability aim.
The royal commissioner, Bret Walker, is due to report by February next year. A time extension was denied by the Marshall government, leading Walker to give up on trying to compel MDBA staff to appear, and the federal government to drop a High Court challenge to his powers in turn.
The Productivity Commission is still conducting its own inquiry into the plan’s implementation. A draft report was published last month, revealing the plan was set for failure unless urgent changes were made. The PC’s final report due to government in December.
‘Without transparency or accountability’
Meanwhile, critics have not held back. Here’s Maryanne Slattery, a former senior employee of the MDBA who is now a researcher at The Australia Institute:
“[Beasley]’s evidence was a vindication for all of the critics who have been calling out the corrupted implementation of the Basin Plan.
“Our research has demonstrated systematic mismanagement, cover up and maladministration that has undermined the proper implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“This is a clear example of good policy going disastrously wrong. From the construction of the Basin Plan through to nearly every aspect of its implementation, it has been fundamentally flawed.
“Implementing the Plan for political expediency, without transparency or accountability by the Murray Darling Basin Authority, has resulted in a fraud of a Basin Plan. It has benefited big irrigators, at the expense of everyone else, including Aboriginal people, regional communities, floodplain graziers, small irrigators and the environment.
“The Basin Plan was a once in a generation chance at reform to return our water use to sustainable levels while avoiding environmental collapse and the subsequent damage to our regional communities and economies. Its implementation has been a betrayal to all Australians, who deserve to be angry.”