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Published: 01 February 2019   •   Opinion pieces

As Chief Executive of the Murray–Daring Basin Authority (MDBA), I strongly reject some of the key criticism contained in the final report of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray–Darling Basin.

The full 756 pages of the report will take some time to read and fully digest. The MDBA will respond to the report and its recommendations comprehensively.

But Commissioner Bret Walker has made it clear he believes the MDBA is guilty of maladministration and of acting unlawfully.

On behalf of the MDBA, I reject those conclusions in the strongest possible terms. We haven’t broken the law.

In the three years I’ve been head of the MDBA, I can say the 280 staff who work with me have worked diligently and with integrity.

The accusations in relation to acting unlawfully appear to stem from a difference in opinion about the policy intent of this critically important water reform.

The Commissioner has one view and the Commonwealth has another. The Commonwealth legal advice that the MDBA took in 2012, and which remains current, is that the 2007 Water Act and the 2012 Basin Plan are both legal and Constitutional.

I stand by the submission we made to the Royal Commission which made it clear that the MDBA believes the Basin Plan to be legal, and to be working in the interests of all Australians.

From an initial reading of the Commission’s findings and recommendations, some of the most interesting aspects are what is not mentioned.

There are no findings of direct misconduct or illegality directed at any single person. If anyone has any information, I urge them to contact authorities, or the Public Service Commissioner. As a result I believe that to bring into question the work of the Authority and its staff on this basis cannot be justified.

And while the Commissioner has called for an overhaul of the Plan and its environmental targets, he does not call for the Plan to be abandoned.

The findings of maladministration relate to the work of the Authority in setting Sustainable Diversion Limits, that is the amount of water that may be used by communities and agriculture. Those decisions were made at the time the Basin Plan legislated and received bipartisan support and the support of five State and territory governments. The figures were based on best available science and scientific advice.

The Basin Plan is a world-class policy. It will take 12-years to fully implement and  aims to share the limited water resources in the Basin fairly between all interests – the environment, agriculture, industry, Aboriginal communities and the 2.6 million people who live in its towns and communities.

The Basin Plan also represents a policy and political compact between the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments. As recently as December 2018 all governments reiterated their strong support and commitment to the Basin Plan and its implementation.

Since the Royal Commission all governments have reiterated their commitment to the current Plan. The MDBA will continue to implement the Plan within the model of co-operative Federalism with our government partners.

Getting bipartisan agreement across the Parliaments of four Basin States, one territory, and the Commonwealth Government is no small achievement. Yet the agreement has stayed in place despite changes of government at all levels, with $13 billion of funding to back it.

In the three years I’ve been in this job I haven’t met anyone who actually likes the Plan in its entirety. Every side of the Basin water debate has had to make compromises and sacrifices, and every aspect of the Plan remains the subject of vigorous debate, just as it was when the Plan was being developed.

One point of agreement stands out. Nobody wants to go back where we were prior to 2012. We all agree that we need a plan.

The Royal Commission accuses the MDBA of ignoring climate change, and of dismissing climate advice from the CISRO.

Again, I reject that accusation. The MDBA has always considered the impacts of climate change, and has been guided by the best possible advice from the CSIRO.

As the Basin Plan was being developed, the MDBA used climate data going back 112 years, which covered the full range of the climate changes modelled by the CSIRO.

The MDBA recognises that more work is needed to improve understanding of how climate change risks will affect the Basin, and the Basin Plan can and will be adapted to meet those challenges.

This Basin Plan is a world-leading opportunity to protect our iconic rivers, and maintain our nation’s food bowl, which provides 40 per cent of Australia’s food and fibre, and to ensure the Basin’s water is managed sustainably for current and future generations.

We are half-way into implementing the plan. We can’t overturn the impacts of 100 years of water overuse in a few short years.

Phillip Glyde, Chief Executive, Murray–Darling Basin Authority

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