“Australians have been lied to” – Murray Darling Royal Commission

  Last updated April 1, 2019 at 12:21 pm


The Murray-Darling Royal Commission has handed down a damning finding of unlawful acts and ignoring climate change.

Local farmers walk along the banks of the Darling River. Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images

The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission has found Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) acted unlawfully and “completely ignored” climate change projections when determining water allocation.

The findings of the Commission were made public on Thursday and highlighted the complex web of issues threatening the Murray which are exemplified by the recent fish deaths in the Darling River and dry riverbeds at Walgett in NSW.

The report was particularly critical of the government’s failure to acknowledge scientist recommendations in the past and lack of openness when describing water management decision-making processes.

Experts highly critical of MBDA

The AusSMC asked Aussie experts for their take on the Commission findings in an Expert Reaction.

“If there were any doubt that Australians have been lied to and hoodwinked about water reform, this report is the evidence,” said ANU’s Professor Quentin Grafton, UNESCO’s Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance.

Professor Grafton said the Royal Commission has provided an “outstanding service to the nation”, cutting through empty phrases used all-too-often by political leaders.

In particular, the Royal Commission said there has been an “unfathomable predilection for secrecy. That is the bane of good science and an obstacle to the democratic and informed design and improvement of public policy”.

Professor Grafton says the Royal Commission places the Murray-Darling Basin Authority as the chief culprit.

Issues raised a year ago

Professor John Quiggin Australian Laureate Fellow in Economics at UQ agreed that secrecy was an issue. He said these findings are consistent with criticisms put forward a year ago by independent scientists and economists in the Murray Darling Declaration.

“The secretive and unaccountable processes associated with funding for water recovery projects have led to a massive waste of public money while doing little or nothing for the long-term sustainability of either irrigation or the environment,” he said.

One such unaccountable process is what the government called a “Triple Bottom Line” (TBL), where economic and social factors were considered, in addition to the environment.

The Commission described this as a “very unhelpful slogan” that was “probably conceived innocently [but] later morphed into a misleading and dangerous misunderstanding”.

Associate Professor Darla Hatton MacDonald from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics at the University of Tasmania said the TBL myth is an important Royal Commission highlight.

“The MDBA’s interpretation is that a TBL approach could be used to justify recovering less water if doing so would benefit farming, therefore the economy and therefore society.”

“Looking back, the Royal Commission suggests the point at which the MDBA erred was in reasoning the selection of scenarios should be from optimising social, economic and environmental outcomes,” she said.

River health should be priority, not political gain

One way to improve things that was offered by Professor Caroline Sullivan from Southern Cross University, would be to agree that managing rivers, for river health, should be the priority, rather than managing them for economic benefit or political gain.

Professor Michael Stewardson, an advisor to the Murray Darling Basin Authority and Professor at the University of Melbourne, defended the current Basin plan saying water reform is a “necessarily slow and incremental process.”

“The idea is that initial success builds support for further deeper reforms,” he said.

While applying the recommendations of the Royal Commission might take some time, researchers hope they will start significant changes in the management of the Murray-Darling water system.

Associate Professor of Hydrology and Catchment Management at the University of Sydney, Willem Vervoort, said: “Policy and science should work together in tandem to develop an improved plan and set of actions, even if we sometimes don’t like the future that science sets out.”

You can read the full Expert Reaction here.


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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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