The major parties have rejected a proposal from South Australian independent Senator Rex Patrick to hand sole responsibility for the Murray Darling Basin to the commonwealth through a constitutional amendment.
A Senate inquiry into Patrick’s bill, which would have put the question of control of Australia’s biggest river system to the Australian people through a referendum at the next election, found that while there were “frustrations” from many stakeholders, “it is not clear that the commonwealth is better placed than the states to manage the basin.”
“On the contrary, there is good evidence to suggest that states are better attuned to local needs on the ground, while the commonwealth is best placed to coordinate and oversight the implementation of the plan,” most of the committee, comprised of Liberal, Nationals and Labor MPs, said.
The rejection of Patrick’s bold plan is a blow to the South Australian senator, who said the inquiry had missed an opportunity to avoid a “slow-motion disaster”.
The plan is largely administered by the four basin states – Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, with the ACT, which have responsibility for meeting state targets on water savings, licensing water and enforcing the plan.
The commonwealth, through the Murray Darling Basin Authority has an oversight role and administers some of the environmental water in the system, but it has been roundly criticised for not taking a more strident approach to ensuring the states meet their obligations.
“The committee, in a pervasive environment of political timidity, has produced a policy mouse, not the lion’s roar required to make governments and vested interests sit up and take notice,” Patrick said.
He warned the Murray Darling Basin could become Australia’s version of the Aral Sea, devoid of water, fish life and heavily degraded if not managed properly.
The Aral Sea, between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan is a dreadful case of mismanagement of a waterway. Since the 1960s, when the former Soviet union diverted water flows for agriculture, the lake has shrunk and is now nearly dry.
The Greens issued a dissenting report, saying there is still an urgent need for a royal commission to examine all of the issues affecting the Murray Darling Basin.
“A truly independent commission is required to properly examine issues including mismanagement, corporate greed, water theft, flood plain harvesting, environmental flows, changes to Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs), Indigenous ownership and cultural flows, and climate change,” Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.
“Right now it is incredibly difficult to see how the plan will be delivered in full and on time. While this is the case, the entire river system is at risk,” she said.
The Nationals on the committee also put in additional comments calling for significant changes to the plan, including winding back part of the plan that requires 450GL to be found for the environment on top of the 2750GL in water savings via the main part of the plan. This was the pre-condition for South Australia signing on, after the original water savings target was progressively reduced below the minimum scientists said was needed to restore the rivers’ health.
The Nationals want the 450GL figure to be achieved through efficiency savings dropped. Only 2GL has been achieved over the last 10 years.
They also want to change the reconciliation process in 2024 at the end of the plan and the threat of further buybacks removed if states fail to deliver savings via water saving projects.
However, the majority report does identify some important changes that could be made to administration while also acknowledging the eye-glazing complexity of the plan.
It says the commonwealth and basin states should create a detailed, clearly set-out roadmap of the Murray-Darling Basin’s governance framework which clarifies decision-making and accountability between levels of governments.
It also says there is a need to improve transparency in the management and implementation of the Basin Plan.
“One concern raised during the inquiry was whether government water accounts fully reflect the reality of water in the landscape, particularly given the distribution of information across jurisdictions, and potential inconsistencies in accounting methods and modelling by each jurisdiction,” the report said.
“To this end, the committee recommends commissioning an independent audit of the underlying systems and processes of governments’ water accounts to provide a basin-wide perspective,” it said.