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River Murray royal commissioner demands apology from Chapman

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The State Government’s relationship with its royal commissioner into the River Murray is in tatters today with inquiry boss Bret Walker demanding an apology from Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman over a statement he says is “wrong, discourteous and inappropriate”.

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Just days after attacking the cost of the royal commission including Walker’s daily fee, the State Government today declared the inquiry is “on track” and that Walker would drop a bid to compel Commonwealth witnesses to appear.

However, Walker immediately declared the statement from Chapman was wrong.

“The media release should be completely withdrawn,” he said in a letter to Chapman released today. “I am owed an apology.”

The Federal Government this year went to the High Court to seek an injunction against CSIRO and other Commonwealth witnesses being compelled to appear at the royal commission, which was established by the Weatherill Government last year with the support of the Liberals.

Today, Chapman said the High Court hearing date had been set for October, but with his report due in February “Mr Walker has explained there is insufficient time to enforce the summonses if the High Court challenge were successful”.

Chapman insisted Walker would be withdrawing his summonses.

“Mr Walker has advised that he is able to complete his report without pressing for the production of Commonwealth witnesses or documents, as he has received further evidence on which he can rely.”

She said while the action would leave some important constitutional questions unresolved, “I believe the priority here is for the Commission to get on with its work and report back to the people of South Australia”.

However, Walker says that Chapman has completely misunderstood a letter he sent to her this week outlining his concern about the timing of the High Court challenge and what that would mean for his reporting timeframes.

He says the High Court timing won’t be an issue if the State Government is open to extending the royal commission’s timeframes for reporting.

“I respectfully and urgently seek your statement whether or not there will definitely be an appropriate extension of reporting time if the High Court decides that the summonses can be enforced,” he writes.

“To be very clear, if you inform me that the Government has decided not to be definite about an extension, then I will withdraw the summonses. If you inform me that the Government has decided to be definite about an extension, then I will not withdraw the summonses and the High Court proceedings can continue.

“This is a decision for the Government and the Government alone. If you or those advising you choose to characterize my request to know the Government’s position as a kind of request for an extension of time, so be it. It would be quite wrong for anyone to proceed on the false basis that I would withdraw the summonses simply because I have not formally asked for an extension of time, in advance of knowing whether it would be necessary at all.

“Since reading your response and during my writing this reply, I have been informed of a public statement from your office about these matters. It is wrong, discourteous and inappropriate. In particular, it is wrong to anticipate the withdrawal of the summonses by me, when that would follow only if the Government’s position was not definitely to extend the reporting time to enable their fair enforcement. The media release should be completely withdrawn. I am owed an apology.”

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas questioned whether the “first law officer of a state” had ever been in such open conflict with a royal commissioner in Australia’s history.

“Vickie Chapman has been playing politics with an important issue in a way which has clearly offended the royal commissioner,” he told InDaily.

“It’s nothing short of completely extraordinary.”

He said Chapman should apologise and grant an extension so the royal commission can complete “its incredibly important work”.

Malinauskas said the only interpretation of the Government’s behaviour this week was that it was seeking to undermine the royal commission’s work to curry favour with its federal colleagues.

Earlier this week, state Treasurer Rob Lucas took the unusual step of criticising the cost of the royal commission, including the fee being paid to Walker.

The royal commission was announced by former Premier Jay Weatherill last year after the ABC aired explosive allegations that upstream irrigators were essentially stealing water from the Murray-Darling system.

The Liberal Party supported the establishment of the royal commission at the time.

InDaily has sought a response from Chapman about Walker’s criticisms.

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