A fortnight ago, I reported that a new Chair, former NSW Water Minister Craig Knowles, had been appointed to the besieged Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).
Since then, one MDBA director (or ‘members’ as they are quaintly known) has already resigned and the remaining directors are under siege from Knowles, and Federal Water Minister, Tony Burke.
On Monday night, Australia’s premier current affairs program ‘Four Corners’ interviewed both Knowles and Burke. Both made it clear that the remaining directors should “consider their positions” – thinly veiled code indicating they should resign.
Knowles went as far as to say that the current MDBA directors were “…..so much perceived as being part of the problem that they couldn’t be part of the successful future”, yet stopped short of actually calling for their resignations.
At the heart of the latest polemic are, yet again, questions about the ‘appropriateness’ of the Water ACT 2007, the act of parliament that turned the former MDB Commission from a State and Federal jointly managed entity into a solely federally-controlled authority, and also set up the MDB Planning process I have written about often over recent months.
Arguments centre on whether the Water Act forces the MDBA to consider the water needs of the environment first, and then optimise what is left for irrigators and regional communities, or whether a triple-bottom line assessment, balancing environmental, economic and social outcomes, is called for.
Most people, the MDBA and myself included, read the Act as requiring the environment to come first. Knowles and Minister Burke say they have legal advice to the contrary.
International water ‘heavy weight’ John Briscoe (former World Bank water head and now Harvard University don) has waded into the debate in recent weeks with an invited submission to an Australian Senate committee enquiry. Briscoe, who was a member of the international review panel for the MDB Plan ‘Guide’ released late last year, believes the Act, established in the dying days of the former Howard conservative federal government, was “…founded on a political act of deception and that (this) ‘original sin’ is responsible for most of the detour on which Australian water management now finds itself”.
On Four Corners, Minister Burke made it clear that changes to the Water Act were not on his agenda, going on to say “I won’t tolerate any more delays”.
Whether or not Burke gets his way will depend on his and Knowles’ political acumen to crack a water deal that is acceptable to MDB irrigators and environmental groups, while remaining consistent with the current act.
No one in government wants to end up in court over this. Unlike the US, Aussies don’t typically take their disputes with government to the courts, preferring politically negotiated solutions. It will be a heroic effort if Burke and Knowles can do all this without changing the Water Act, and not find themselves standing before the High Court in a couple of years time!