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Murray-Darling royal commission: injunctions will not stop flow of information

The federal government is seeking to prevent bureaucrats testifying but there are plenty of others determined to have their say

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the Darling river



Scientists, former bureaucrats, farmers and environmental groups are lining up to take part in South Australia’s royal commission into the Murray-Darling.
Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

In our interconnected world, where state and federal governments rely on co-operation to tackle the major challenges of our time – environmental degradation, climate change, privacy, cybercrime and issues that cross borders – it seems churlish for the federal government to bar its bureaucrats from giving evidence at the South Australian royal commission into the Murray-Darling.

The federal government filed in the high court on Tuesday seeking injunctions and declarations that the South Australian royal commissioner, Bret Walker SC, did not have the power to compel testimony from federal bureaucrats.

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It’s an untested area of law and if the commonwealth is successful, the boycott will weaken the information before the inquiry, because the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is the repository of key information about the basin plan.

But it won’t stop it. Scientists, former bureaucrats, farmers and environmental groups are lining up to take part and it means there will be little to balance the criticism.

The scientific consensus is the plan was the bare minimum to save the river system when it was agreed to in 2012 – and since then changes have eroded its objectives.

There are also a several former staff from the MDBA, the commonwealth environmental water holder’s office and advisory committees who have watched with growing concern as the plan has been eroded.

South Australia, at the end of the river system arguably has the highest stakes if the Murray-Darling Basin plan fails.

There are already signs that one key basin objective – having flows sufficient to keep the mouth of Murray open to the sea 90% of the time – is not being achieved. Dredging has been occurring more or less continuously since the plan was signed.

Challenging the powers of a state royal commission in order to curtail scrutiny is a dramatic step with long-term consequences – both in terms of precedent and the signals it sends about co-operative federalism.

NSW said it was considering its position.

A spokesman for the agriculture minister, David Littleproud said the federal government had taken the case because otherwise “states could effectively stop the commonwealth from governing by requiring staff to appear at royal commissions into any policy they didn’t like”.

First, the truth about state royal commissions. Most states hold about one or two a decade.

The last one in NSW was the Wood royal commission into NSW police corruption in 1994-1997, though Wood also chaired a special commission into child abuse in 2008.

Victoria and Queensland have also used them sparingly. Victoria held one into the scourge of family violence in 2015 and another into the Victorian bushfires in 2009.

South Australia has used them more often, to investigate issues from the nuclear fuel cycle to child protection and indigenous matters. But its still only three or four a decade.

The commonwealth’s attitude to participation in state inquiries is ad hoc.

The former federal minister for industry and science, Ian Macfarlane, actually encouraged the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to participate in the SA royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle in 2015.

He issued a statement of expectations to ANSTO , dated 4 June 2015, saying: “I also encourage ANSTO’s active engagement with the South Australian royal commission in the provision of factual information and analysis.”

The federal government let the spy agency, Asio, defence force personnel and the federal police participate in the Lindt Cafe siege inquiry, a NSW coronial inquiry.

But that was then. Now we are in the era when governments appear to have forgotten the “public” in public service and regard the information as owned by them.

A fact-free environment contributes to the dumbing down of public debate. Usually the media is blamed, but blame lies equally at the feet of government.

Presciently, Walker, the SA commission chair, gave the Whitlam Oration last week and touched on this very subject.

“Communication needs sensible content, as media magnates know,” he told his audience. “If our use, exercise and enjoyment of a guaranteed freedom of political communication is to mean anything, we must have serious subject-matter, not merely propaganda or tribal barracking.”

“If we must use the term “a national conversation”, at least let it have substance. “Without proper disclosure of critical matters known only to government, how can we – why should we – discuss anything about the topic in question with them? “

“Explanation and persuasion, two elements of the reform task, crucially depend on the flow of information from government to the people and, at least as importantly, from the people to government.”

The royal commission begins hearings on Monday in Adelaide.

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