Murray-Darling Basin Authority digs in against royal commission, full response weeks away

By Stephen Easton

Thursday February 7, 2019


The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s five current members have resolved to rally around agency head Phillip Glyde and continue denying the extremely serious findings of the South Australian royal commission, while they prepare a more comprehensive response.

The statutory authority, of which Glyde is a member while also leading its public service support agency, reports it considered royal commissioner Bret Walker’s damning findings among many other topics when it met in Canberra on Monday and Tuesday.

“Members rejected the Commission’s findings that the MDBA had been negligent or had acted improperly or unlawfully,” reports the official communique.

“The Authority reiterated its full confidence in Chief Executive Phillip Glyde and offered its full public support for his leadership of the MDBA and stewardship of the Basin Plan.”

‘Improperly pressured’

The federal body plans to release a longer response “in coming weeks” but, meanwhile, it also points to the CSIRO’s own brief denial of Walker’s finding that it was “improperly pressured” to alter one of its reports by the MDBA.

“This rendered parts of that report misleading, as they no longer reflected the views of, at the very least, Dr Matthew Colloff, who was one of the authors,” reported the royal commissioner, who concluded this was one of several examples of maladministration. “The CSIRO should not have agreed to the changes that were made.”

The research agency refutes this claim and says “robust governance and independent review processes” apply to all of its scientific output, including the work in question. “We strongly reject suggestions that CSIRO’s scientific integrity was compromised, its independence undermined, or that it acted in secrecy,” reads a brief statement.

MDBA members “expressed concern” about the current hot and dry weather conditions at the two-day meeting, noting it “took place against a backdrop of continuing drought conditions, low inflows and record January heat across the Basin” and the Bureau of Meteorology’s advice that the drought will continue.

The authority also discussed climate change, which the royal commissioner said it had largely failed to consider in its work — another claim Glyde has denied. The authority reports it “plans to engage more broadly with the climate science community and to deepen partnerships with the CSIRO and BoM” to better understand how global warming will affect the basin.

It also discussed the recent mass fish deaths and the importance of trying to reduce the likelihood of more through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and “recommitted” to supporting the inquiry launched by the minister, adding that its staff had “provided [a] detailed similar briefing” to the review undertaken by the Australian Academy of Science at the opposition’s request.

The Productivity Commission’s recent five-year review of the basin plan, which found serious risks ahead and recommended major reform, is “an important opportunity to examine what is working well and where improvements could be made” in the authority’s view.

Potential “water delivery shortfall risks” were also on the agenda at the meeting, much of which was devoted to moving ahead with the plan and briefing the authority members on efforts to strengthen compliance and enforcement. The communique states that a Water Trade Price Reporting Audit will be publicly released in weeks.

The meeting also marked the end of former Liberal MP Neil Andrew’s four-year term as chair of the MDBA, and he sat in as an observer.

The acting chair is Joanna Hewitt, a former secretary of the Department of Agriculture who was appointed a part-time MDBA member last May, until the minister appoints a permanent replacement.

The communique heaps praise on Andrew, a South Australian Liberal MP elected to federal parliament in 1983 who was speaker of the House of Representatives from 1998 to 2004, for his “great leadership, perseverance and energy” in the role, particularly “his exceptional ability to engage with people and interests across the Basin”.

Too much consideration of the views of various “people and interests” affected by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and not enough consideration of science, is the crux of the royal commissioner’s findings that the MDBA has acted unlawfully.

“Mr Andrew thanked the Authority and staff for their hard work and professionalism over the past four years,” according to the communique. “He highlighted the challenges of this complex reform and urged current Authority members to continue their commitment to transparency and community consultation.”

‘Serious lack of transparency’

According to the commissioner, a serious lack of transparency is one of the MDBA’s biggest failures.

The difference of opinion between Walker and the MDBA, which is operating on the basis of controversial legal advice from the Australian Government Solicitor that has been rejected by the royal commissioner and many other lawyers, is so great they appear to occupy alternate realities.

Politically, it is very difficult for the Commonwealth or the state governments involved in the plan to accept the eminent lawyer’s view of reality is broadly correct, because to do so would be to admit the emperor has no clothes.

Why does water administration require ASIO-like secrecy?
Murray-Darling plan a failure of evidence-based policy and co-operative federalism

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