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Time to act

Saturday, 2nd February, 2019

By Craig Brealey

The findings against the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and governments, state and federal, were very welcome but something had to come of them, a Darling River landholder said yesterday.

Katharine McBride and husband Rob were among the 70 witnesses who gave evidence to the South Australian Royal Commission’s inquiry into the river system last year.

The couple, from Tolarno Station, below Menindee, have been at the forefront of the long campaign to bring to national attention the destruction of the river and the Menindee Lakes.

On Thursday, Commissioner Bret Walker SC released his findings of unlawfulness, secrecy and maladministration by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

“We are encouraged by the report and now we want to see immediate action on implementing its recommendations,” Mrs McBride said yesterday.

“Until we see action that addresses the serious issues killing the Darling River we won’t be happy,” she said.

“But we have little confidence that either the NSW or Federal governments will take real or timely action on this.”

Yesterday, Mrs McBride’s suspicion was confirmed when the NSW Government dismissed calls for the Basin Plan to be overhauled, and the federal government refused to hold urgent meetings with the Basin states to discuss the Royal Commissioner’s findings.

NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair also said the contentious Menindee Lakes Water Saving Project would go ahead, despite the Commissioner finding that the project was illegal.

This week the Deputy NSW Premier, John Barilaro, stated his support for a Federal Royal Commission but Mrs McBride said she made little of it because the NSW and federal governments were desperate to avoid more thorough scrutiny.

Mr Barilaro pledged his support before a crowd of furious locals at a meeting in Maiden’s Hotel in Menindee on Thursday as news of the Royal Commission’s findings was breaking.

Undoubtedly the Minister for Regional NSW had panicked before such a hostile audience, Mrs McBride said.  

“I think he said it in a moment of desperation and probably didn’t really know what he was saying,” she said.

The Australia Institute, which has been investigating and reporting on the scandals involving the river system for the past 18 months, said if remedial action was not taken now it would be too late to save the rivers. 

“It is important to remember this is a $13 billion plan,” said the Institute’s senior water researcher Maryanne Slattery.

“This is a once-in-multiple-generation opportunity to reverse a decline in our ecosystems and return water back to the environment,” Ms Slattery said. 

“We still have about $4 to $5 billion left to spend. We should take this opportunity to have a pause, really address those recommendations seriously, and rethink how the rest of that money is spent before it is too late, because we are not going to get another opportunity to fix it, in this generation, anyway.” 

Ms Slattery, a former Director of Environmental Water Policy with the MDBA, said the Authority still had staff with the expertise to make the Basin Plan work if they were allowed to do their job.

“There are a lot of good scientists, good environmental water managers, both in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and in the broader water scientific community,” she said. 

“The Commissioner’s findings are quite clear they are being ignored and that science is being hidden. 

“There is no transparency around that science and decisions are being made for political purposes, rather than based on science. 

“It is really important that we go back to the really good underpinning of science that we have in the next phase of trying to get this thing back on track and implementing the Basin Plan properly to get better environmental outcomes.”

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