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Murray Royal Commissioner forecasts "criticism of government conduct"

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UPDATED | Murray Darling Basin Royal Commissioner Bret Walker has expressed concerns about the Marshall Government’s plans for his final report when he delivers it within days, as he forecasts a scathing assessment of “many governmental decisions and processes”.

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Walker is due to hand in his findings to the Governor on February 1, although it’s understood he’s likely to do so earlier – on January 29.

But correspondence released today by the Commission reveals an ongoing stoush with the State Government, with the Commissioner urging its immediate publication – something Attorney-General Vickie Chapman today assured him would happen in a return letter.

“Criticism and justification of governmental conduct is peculiarly, in our society, best done openly,” Walker writes in a letter to Chapman, expressing his view that “the whole report should be published immediately” because “the public interest demands it”.

“There are no countervailing considerations such as national security or the administration of justice… to the contrary, the public expenditure on the Basin Plan (and this Commission) is such that the only legitimate expectation is that my findings, conclusions, recommendations and the reasons for them should all be available to be read, considered and criticised, once I have delivered the report,” he wrote.

Walker hints at a report highly critical of current government policy on the Murray Darling Basin, noting that “my conclusions include adverse assessments of many governmental decisions and processes”.

“The timelines in the Basin Plan, even if extended as recently contemplated, are so pressing that it is now essential that contributions like this report be widely and quickly available,” he noted.

“Governments need all the help they can get on these crucial issues, especially from those not inclined simply to agree with official thinking (such as it is).

“In my opinion the inherent and current significance of the inter-governmental arrangements by which South Australia seeks to secure and husband water down the Murray for irrigation, recreational, social and environmental purposes that are critical to the well-being of South Australians is enough on its own to mandate immediate and complete publication of the report.”

He also cited compelling “national implications of the report’s subject matter” as “a reason for the report to be made available for consideration and criticism without delay”.

His appeal was prompted by earlier correspondence from the Government, suggesting it intended to shut down his website and instead retain its contents in a library archive – a decision Chapman only today reversed.

In a return letter, dated today, the Attorney insisted that “the State Government believes the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission Report should be available to the public at the earliest opportunity and will ensure that occurs”.

She also sought advice from Walker “as to whether or not you have referred any matters [in respect of illegal take of water] to investigative or prosecutorial agencies… and, if so, whether there is any action the Government should be taking”.

However, she rejected an offer by Walker to extend his deadline and re-open his Commission’s hearings to take into consideration the recent scandal of mass-scale fish deaths across a 40-kilometre stretch of river at Menindee, near Broken Hill.

Viral video of the rotting Murray cod, which could number in the billions according to local farmers, have prompted warnings of lower native fish stocks in SA, Queensland and Victoria.

“You and your ministerial colleagues will have noted the recent news about fish kills in the Lower Darling and various political, official, expert and community responses in public discussion about them,” Walker wrote to Chapman.

“Some of those reported comments might be understood to blame these events on, among other things, the long-standing arrangements that seek to ensure certain minimum flows to South Australia.

“If the Government were interested to investigate these matters in relation to the proper concerns of South Australia in them, I would be willing to accept an appropriately tight, limited and economic extension of the time for a final report, so as to encompass these recent events in my work.”

But Chapman shot down that suggestion, writing: “The Government respectfully declines your offer to extend the time for your final report to conduct further work.”

“I note that the cost to date of the Commission is $5.017 million,” she writes.

“Extending the Royal Commission would be an unfair burden on South Australian taxpayers given the sum already spent.”

Related correspondence released by the Commission show a to-and-fro exchange with Attorney-General’s Department boss Caroline Mealor about the Government’s intentions for release of the final report.

The Commissioner made clear he assumed the report would be available for publication on the Commission’s own website, “consistent with the practice of recent other Royal Commissions in SA”.

However, Mealor responded that she had “sought instructions from the Attorney General” on the matter.

“The practice of previous Royal Commissions is noted however this Government’s preference is for the final report to be made available on the website for the Department for Environment and Water,” she responded.

She also advised that the Commission’s website – which features extensive transcripts of hearings, exhibits, and other documents Walker says will be referred to in the final report – will be “shut down” at the end of March, with its contents to remain archived by the National Library.

In a public statement today, Walker insisted the site should “remain available to the public for a year after release of the report to provide key background information and permit full understanding of the Commission’s report”.

“Any critical reader of my report really needs to be able to check my reasoning by his or her own understanding of the materials I will be reporting on as justifying my conclusions,” he wrote to Chapman.

In her response to Walker today, Chapman agreed to his demand.

“I note that you take issue with the Government’s intended approach to public access to the report and related materials, as outlined in the letter from my department’s Chief Executive,” she wrote.

“While I maintain that those arrangements will be transparent, given how strongly you have expressed the need for the Commission’s website to remain operative for some time, I do not propose to quibble about the matter.”

A Labor spokesman had earlier expressed “our concern that the Government may try and bury the report, at least until after the New South Wales election”.

They said the Opposition “supports the Royal Commissioner’s view on the publication of the report, and the extension of the time available for the public to access it”.

The Commission, established by the former Weatherill Government after the ABC’s Four Corners revealed allegations of water theft upstream, has been at loggerheads with both the Federal Government, which sought to prevent Commonwealth public servants giving evidence, and the Marshall administration, which criticised its cost as a “massive financial challenge the former Labor government has left to clean up”.

Walker has also publicly rebuked Chapman for claiming the inquiry was “on track” and that he had dropped his bid to compel Commonwealth witnesses, calling her comments “wrong, discourteous and inappropriate”, and declaring: “I am owed an apology.”

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