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Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Page: 4129

Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (14:16): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Minister Canavan. Minister, the South Australian royal commission is today hearing from a former CSIRO scientist who alleges that the MDBA actively suppressed the CSIRO's evidence that the Basin Plan target of 2,750 gigalitres would fail to secure the future of the river. Your government is going to the High Court to avoid appearing before the royal commission and answering questions. You're hiding departmental officials and MDBA officials past and present, and hiding documents, and now we're seeing the CSIRO being asked to hide as well. When is this government going to give the people of South Australia the respect they deserve, stop hiding and tell the truth?

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandMinister for Resources and Northern Australia) (14:17): I thank Senator Hanson-Young for her question. As has been expressed by the government, the government is willing to assist the South Australian royal commission in its inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. However, there is no jurisdiction for a state based royal commission to use coercive powers against the Commonwealth, including its agencies and employees. That's why, a couple of weeks ago, the Commonwealth and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority did initiate action in the High Court seeking an order to set aside the summonses for the production of privileged legal information held by the Commonwealth and for the appearance of Commonwealth officers at the royal commission.

The Commonwealth argues that the use of summonses against the Commonwealth is a coercive power outside the remit of the royal commission established under the state's Royal Commissions Act. A couple of weeks ago, on 13 June, the South Australian royal commissioner, Bret Walker SC, suspended the requirement for the Commonwealth, its agencies and employees to comply with the summonses until the issue has been decided by the High Court in the near future. No hearing date has yet been set down by the court.

The Commonwealth government have informed the South Australian government that we are willing to assist the royal commission in its inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and we will cooperate as far as we legally can, having regard to the preservation of the Commonwealth's jurisdiction and the limits of the state's Royal Commissions Act in relation to the Commonwealth and its agencies, such as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Hanson-Young, a supplementary question.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (14:19): Minister, the royal commission has brought to light allegations of the MDBA suppressing research, doctoring reports and ignoring its legal obligation to the 'best available science'. The MDBA has 29 media advisers. Why is it that the only thing they have to say South Australians is: 'No comment'?

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandMinister for Resources and Northern Australia) (14:19): I, of course, can't comment on the evidence or proceedings of the South Australian royal commission in a detailed way, but I defend the integrity of Australian public servants who work for a range of organisations, including the department. I think staff employed under the Murray-Darling Basin Authority legislation do a remarkably good job for our Commonwealth and our nation.

The Greens have previously expressed support for the staff of the MDBA and the great work that they do. I do take the advice of the MDBA seriously, as does the government, and that is why we are fully implementing the basin plan. That's why the government has put aside $13 billion to help improve the environmental health of the Murray-Darling Basin—while making sure we protect basin communities, and the jobs and investment that flow from them. That is why we are willing to assist the South Australian royal commission. But I will defend the integrity of the MDBA and the job they have been doing, which the government fully supports.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Hanson-Young, a final supplementary question.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (14:20): Minister, is it true that the coalition's candidate for Mayo, Georgina Downer, also supports the Turnbull government's hiding of the truth from the South Australian people and the voters of Mayo? You're covering up, here in Canberra, and she agrees with you. Can you confirm it?

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandMinister for Resources and Northern Australia) (14:20): What I can confirm is that the continuing election of a Liberal-National government will help deliver the basin plan for this country. We are the government that is delivering this basin plan. It was a Liberal-National government that established the funds to deliver the basin plan. And it is a Liberal-National government that is now delivering this plan, including through the passage of legislation this week to help ensure that we deliver the plan in full. We will be delivering a plan that improves the environmental performance of the river, that helps deliver more water to South Australia but that also helps protect the food producers of this country and what they produce, what they deliver, for our nation. The jobs they produce, the food we eat, the clothes we wear—all of these things are important.

We will continue to deliver the plan in full. It's only a Liberal-National Party government that has been proven to successfully deliver that. I definitely hope that Ms Downer is successful, because that will mean we can continue this plan and we can continue to deliver for the Australian people.