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Cabinet backed decision slammed by River Murray inquiry

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Premier Steven Marshall says his Environment Minister had the full support of Cabinet when he agreed to new rules for irrigators last year – a move described by the Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission as so contrary to South Australia’s interests that it was likely to be a breach of the ministerial code of conduct.

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In his final report, released yesterday, Commissioner Bret Walker SC savaged David Speirs’ decision to accept changes to socioeconomic criteria for water irrigation efficiency measures during a ministerial council meeting in December last year.

Walker wrote that the decision was “so contrary to the interests of South Australians that the decision by the Minister responsible (Speirs) is almost certainly a breach … of the South Australian Ministerial Code of Conduct”.

The report continues: “no Minister acting reasonably could consider these changes to the criteria to be anything but totally antipathetic to the interests of South Australia, and the South Australian environment.”

“The South Australian Government’s agreement to changes to the socio-economic criteria for efficiency measures should not merely be described as ill-advised. It is nothing short of a capitulation to the interests of the current Commonwealth Government, and those of Victoria and New South Wales.”

But speaking on ABC Radio Adelaide this morning, Marshall said Speirs’ decision brought Victoria and New South Wales back to the negotiating table on the Murray Darling Basin Plan – effectively saving it from collapse – and that the strategy had the full support of Cabinet.

“David Speirs (had) the support of Cabinet to go and get … the upstream states back at the table,” said Marshall.

“What David Speirs negotiated was … a pathway to deliver the 450 gigalitres (of water) which we so desperately need in South Australia, in addition to that $70 million for the Coorong.

“It was a position supported by Cabinet and it was the right decision.”

Speirs also appeared on the ABC’s Riverland station this morning, stressing that Walker’s excoriation of his actions in the report was merely “commentary”, rather than “findings” or “recommendations”.

“It wasn’t a recommendation or a finding – and I want to make sure that that record is fully corrected,” he told the radio program.

And he defended his decision to accept the new socioeconomic criteria, arguing that by doing so he had secured a “pathway” towards having 450 gigalitres of water returned to the environment.

“(Walker) has made commentary (that), in agreeing to a socioeconomic test for projects that could deliver that 450 gigalitres of extra water, I somehow sold out South Australia.

“I reject that fully. I went into those negotiations needing to keep New South Wales and Victoria at the table.”

He argued that the former State Labor Government had “screamed from the sidelines, they tipped over the table, they didn’t negotiate and they got not one extra drop of water”.

“We now have a pathway, because of my negotiations … to 450gl of water which will flow over the border and through the river, sustaining healthy flows.

“We didn’t have a pathway before.”

The Royal Commissioner didn’t accept this view, saying in his report that it was “not cynical to take the view that these far more onerous and expansive criteria signal the death of any reasonable prospects of recovering probably any of the extra 450gl of so-called upwater”.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas argued that the Weatherill Government’s assertiveness had been the best strategy for South Australia in negotiations over the Murray – and that Speirs had failed to “hold the line”.

“We’ve been at loggerheads with those states for some time now,” Malinauskas told ABC Riverland.

“South Australia under Labor held the line. This report has found that minister Speirs hasn’t held the line.”

Marshall said that the former Government had prioritised “good politics” over water outcomes for South Australia.

“Whilst that was probably good politics for them … getting on your soapbox and screaming at other states didn’t deliver any more water for South Australia,” said the Premier.

“Victoria and New South Wales, in particular, were threatening to get up and completely leave the (Murray Darling Basin) Plan, where does that leave South Australia?

“You can get on your high horse but what we’re concerned about in the Liberal Party is delivering practical outcomes for the people of our state.”

Malinauskas hit back, paraphrasing Walker’s report to say that: “The criteria (to which Speirs agreed) signalled the death of any reasonable prospects of recovering probably any of the extra 450 gigalitres of … water that South Australia was entitled to”.

“The only thing that South Australia had going for us over the last few years is that we have a state Environment and Water Minister willing to hold the line, willing to make sure that South Australia’s interests were represented at the table.”

Marshall said Walker had taken a “very legalistic” interpretation of the Water Act, “and said quite clearly that paramount must be the environment”.

“(That) wasn’t the position that those that negotiated the Murray Darling Basin Plan took, that wasn’t their interpretation, it was Bret Walker’s.

“Those that negotiated were the State Labor Government and the Federal Labor Government.”

Water buybacks a “last resort”: Speirs

A key, substantive conclusion of Walker’s report was that efficiency measures for Murray Darling Basin irrigators had been a favoured means of securing environmental water flows, despite being ineffective and expensive – whereas the economic benefits of water buybacks had been ignored, while their disadvantages had been “exaggerated” or “mythical”.

But Speirs told the regional radio program buybacks were only acceptable as a “last resort”.

“It’s fair to say that buybacks sit uncomfortably with me,” said the Minister.

“The impact of buy-backs I have seen first-hand in the Riverland communities where you have vineyards and paddocks sitting empty or withered, where there used to be fruitful economic outcomes and those were taken away by buybacks.

“I’ve spoken to other Cabinet colleagues including the Premier and it’s quite clear that buybacks sit uncomfortably with many of them as well.”

The release of the Commission’s report coincided with the news – revealed by InDaily yesterday – that the new CEO of the Department of Environment and Water had written to staff this week warning of job cuts and budget cuts at what would become a “new agency”.

In an emailed staff bulletin, chief executive John Schutz wrote: “We are an economic development agency.”

“We balance environmental protection with economic development – this means we contribute to our state’s economy by driving sustainable economic development, and unlocking the potential of our natural and heritage resources.”

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