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Wednesday, 29 November 2017
Page: 9208

Murray-Darling Basin Plan

Senator PATRICK (South Australia) (14:30): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture and Water. Over the weekend, the South Australian Premier announced that a royal commission will be established into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, following well-publicised allegations that upstream irrigators are stealing water. With respect to jurisdiction and comity, is it within the power of or appropriate for a state-initiated royal commission to compel a Commonwealth minister, official or employee of a Commonwealth authority to appear before it, to subpoena Commonwealth documents, to enter and conduct inspections on Commonwealth property or to make recommendations relating to Commonwealth governance? Would royal assent of the South Australian Royal Commission (Application of Act) Amendment Bill, which is before the South Australian parliament, change that situation?

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandMinister for Resources and Northern Australia) (14:31): I thank Senator Patrick for his question and I also thank him for a short period of notification of this question. I note that the South Australian royal commission, which was announced on the weekend, has not come with terms of reference at this stage. So I'm unable, Senator Patrick, to provide specific advice or legal advice on the issues you have raised in your question, or precisely raised in your question. We, of course, will wait for more details from the South Australian government about how they intend to establish this inquiry. However, I can assure Senator Patrick that the Commonwealth government will cooperate with any inquiry that the South Australian government conducts, including a royal commission if it so chooses to go down that path. We are already cooperating with five different inquiries and another inquiry in Queensland as well—six in total—into various aspects of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

So the specific questions that Senator Patrick has asked will not be specifically enlivened in this case, because the Commonwealth will cooperate and make sure that we involve ourselves in any inquiries—because we have nothing to hide, Senator Patrick. We are committed to delivering the plan and we're committed to making sure that the plan is delivered in full and on time. We realise and recognise that we have to work with the basin jurisdictions to do that—we don't have all the powers or involvement to deliver the plan ourselves—and we're committing to doing that. That is why we are working with all the inquiries, including the two that we've established at the Commonwealth level, some at the New South Wales government level and one at the Queensland government level. If the South Australian government chooses to establish its own review and inquiry, we'll cooperate with that as well.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Patrick, a supplementary question.

Senator PATRICK (South Australia) (14:32): It has been reported through the media that the Commonwealth is willing to cooperate. Can you advise what communication the South Australian government have had with the Commonwealth and what request they have made to date?

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandMinister for Resources and Northern Australia) (14:33): Senator Patrick, I do not have that information on me at this stage—I'm sorry—but I'm happy to take that on notice. I would say that, while we are happy to cooperate, we would also ask that this inquiry is not turned into yet another stunt, which does often bedevil opportunities to unite the basin jurisdictions on these matters. From the involvement that I've had on these matters in the past, it is unfortunate that right across the basin there is a tendency to blame all the problems on another part of the basin and a witch-hunt often prevails. At the Commonwealth government level, we recognise that we have to work together to deliver the plan. That requires working together across all jurisdictions to make sure that we deliver the environmental, the economic and the social outcomes that are required under the plan to get this thing right. As I say, we are happy to cooperate, but I hope that this does not turn into another stunt where they blame each other and do not work together.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Patrick, a final supplementary question.

Senator PATRICK (South Australia) (14:34): Following on from your answer, Minister, there are numerous Murray-Darling inquiries running at the moment—in New South Wales, an ICAC investigation, an ombudsman review and the Matthews review; in Queensland, the metering review; now in South Australia, a royal commission; a Senate inquiry; a Murray-Darling Basin Authority review; and an Auditor-General review. This all seems very inefficient. Does the Commonwealth government concede that this could all have been avoided had a federal royal commission been established?

Senator CANAVAN (QueenslandMinister for Resources and Northern Australia) (14:34): No, Senator Patrick, the Commonwealth government does not support that view. The response from the Commonwealth government to the allegations that have arisen has been a measured one. Of course, it's important to try to resolve these matters as soon as possible, given the time frame for the Basin Plan's conclusion. I note that some of these reviews have already produced interim reports, as in the case of the Ken Matthews review in New South Wales, and/or have reported back to the Commonwealth government, including the MDBA compliance review over the weekend. That's allowed timely information to come back to the Commonwealth government so it can take the action that is necessary to rectify the issues that have emerged. The Commonwealth government's view is that a royal commission in this area would not be fit for purpose to respond to the issues that have arisen and to make sure we keep on track with the Basin Plan.