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  • The Commonwealth Government’s response to the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission poses a problem for ‘cooperative federalism’.
  • According to Commissioner Bret Walker SC, the Basin Plan has been created and implemented ‘unlawfully’, with ‘maladministration’, ‘negligence’ and ‘indefensible’ and ‘incomprehensible’ decision-making.
  • The Basin Plan needs to be ‘rebooted’. Greater respect for the environment is needed to save and restore the Basin’s rivers and ecosystems.

Before white people arrived in this country, a management plan for the rivers and watercourses of the Murray-Darling Basin was already in existence. Don’t be greedy was its central tenet. Don’t take more than you need. Respect everything around you. As Ngarrindjeri Elder, Mr Tom Trevorrow (now deceased) laments in the Acknowledgment to the Basin Plan, this is such a ‘simple’ notion, ‘but so hard for people to carry out’.

If there’s a lesson from the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission (‘MDBRC’), it is this: it’s still hard for white people not to be greedy; too hard for them to respect the environment that’s around them.

A million dead fish in the lower Darling this year is one testament to this.

The Water Act and the Basin Plan

The Commonwealth Water Act 2007 is a wonderful thing. As Commissioner Walker noted in the Overview section of his Commission Report, its drafters, and legislators, deserve ‘admiring praise’.

As if channelling Tom Trevorrow and other Aboriginal elders, s 21(2) of the Water Act in effect not only acknowledges white people’s greed, it legislates it as a fact. This is a big, red and brown land. It may be surrounded by endless seawater, but there’s very little freshwater that runs through it. This precious ‘resource’ has been, and still is, overused and over-allocated.

Overuse has caused something else that the Water Act makes law of. The degradation of our environment. Too much water, for too long, has been taken for irrigation. Our rivers, our wetlands – entire ecosystems – are suffering as a result. They are dying. 

The environment needs water returned to it. The big question – the $13 billion question – is how much? How much water does the environment need to have returned to it in order to be saved? The Water Act gave this task to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (‘MDBA’). It is the fundamental component of the Basin Plan. It is not a task that the MDBA could afford to get wrong. As Commissioner Walker found in his Report, regrettably, they did.

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