A bid by the Federal Government to stop employees of Murray-Darling Basin Authority from giving evidence will not stop a full investigation into water use by a South Australian royal commission, the commissioner says.
Bret Walker SC said while it was not his place to comment on the High Court action by the government, the commission would fulfil its terms of reference.
‘‘They will nonetheless not prevent me and my commission staff from addressing all the terms of reference and all of them in a substantial manner,’’ Mr Walker said as he opened his first public hearings in Adelaide last Monday.
‘‘Any failure by the Commonwealth, by the basin authority, to participate in the proceedings of this royal commission does nothing to remove that question from public controversy.’’
Mr Walker has already consulted with communities across the river system, has visited key basin sites and has received more than 100 written submissions.
The Federal Government and the authority have previously argued in court that the commission does not have the power to compel witnesses to appear.
A lawyer assisting the commission, Richard Beasley SC, told the first day of hearings that the Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) adjustment mechanism projects, which aim to return 605Gl to the consumptive pool through 36 efficiency projects, constituted a ‘‘fraud on the environment’’ and could not be guaranteed to work.
‘‘And then it’s said, ‘well, we are going to put in these supply measures, they might take six years, we don’t know what outcome they will have, but we are going to take that water from the environment now’,’’ he said.
‘‘That, in my submission, Commissioner, is a policy that’s a fraud on the environment. Not a fraud in the criminal sense, but a fraud as a policy in the sense that it deprives the environment of 605billion litres of water that is part of what has been determined is needed for it to reach an environmentally sustainable level of take.’’
A spokesperson said the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had no further comment on the South Australian royal commission at this time.
The commission was established in January 2018 to inquire into the operations and effectiveness of the basin plan after widespread reports of water theft.
A number of hearings will be held this week, with a final report due by February next year.