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Inquiry visits Menindee

Monday, 11th February, 2019

By Craig Brealey

The chairman of an inquiry into the death of millions of fish in the Darling River says it has no power to recommend to the federal government that it hold a royal commission.

Professor Rob Vertessy said that was well outside the terms of reference set by the government.

It contradicts a claim by the Deputy Prime Minister that the inquiry could recommend a royal commission into the management of the Murray-Darling Basin.

On Thursday, Deputy PM Michael McCormack told a public meeting in Maiden’s Hotel in Menindee that the government was open to calling a royal commission if that was what the panel recommended.

“If that is one of the recommendations then certainly the government will consider it closely,” Mr McCormack said.

Professor Vertessy said the inquiry could not make such a call.

“It is very unlikely to call for a royal commission,” he told the BDT. “That is way beyond the fish kill event. 

“Our assessment is very much constructed around the fish kills, the events leading to that and how to avoid it happening again.

“We might point to some management issues that really require investigation but that is likely only to be relevant to what is going on with the fish kills.

“There is a much wider conversation about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and water management at large in the Basin.”

The federal government has for 18 months resisted pleas for a royal commission and took court action to stop Commonwealth employees from giving evidence to the royal commission held by the SA Government last year.

Last week the federal government named the panel of scientists that will conduct the “Independent Assessment of the 2018-19 fish deaths on the lower Darling”.

Prof. Vertessy said six members will visit Menindee this week.

“We’re still finalising the details, but mid-week,” he said.

“We will look at the river and meet various stakeholders. 

“The aim is to get a variety of stakeholders to fathom all perspectives.”

Among those the scientists will meet are irrigators, the Central Darling Shire Council and Aboriginal groups, said Prof. Vertessy.

He is a water scientist who once led the CSIRO’s Land and Water Division and is now the chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s independent Advisory Committee on Social, Economic and Environmental Sciences.

The panel, comprising experts in fish and freshwater ecology, will present a preliminary report to the Federal Water Minister on February 20.

The final report is due to go to the Minister, The Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Basin states by March 31.

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