Water Minister Tony Burke must rule out interfering in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA’s) decision making surrounding last year’s release of its Guide to the proposed Basin Plan or else explain why he did interfere, Senator Simon Birmingham said today.
It follows revelations in Senate Additional Estimates this morning that the Authority only decided after the election, and subsequent change of Minister, to present a range of suggested reductions in diversions rather than a single proposed figure.
The Guide released on 8 October 2010 outlined three scenarios for reducing the amount of water currently taken from the Basin, namely 3000, 3500 and 4000 gigalitres (GL).
Authority Chief Executive Rob Freeman today confirmed the Authority had settled as early as June 2010 on 3500 GL as the exact amount to be recommended.
Mr Freeman this morning confirmed that an Authority written briefing of 14 September 2010 to Minister Burke stated that a Basin-wide reduction of 3500 GL was “the value which the Authority proposes for setting the surface water SDLs [sustainable diversion limits], as set out in the Guide”.
“Having been agreed on an exact reduction of 3500 GL for around three months the MDBA miraculously changed its mind sometime in the three weeks leading up to the release of the Guide, just after it informed the new Water Minister of its proposal,” Senator Birmingham said.
Under questioning from Senator Birmingham, Mr Freeman was unable to say who had first proposed changing the approach:
Senator Birmingham: “Do you recall whether the suggestion was made by the Chair or by other members of the Authority?”
Mr Freeman: “I don’t recall…. I can’t recall exactly who promoted the range versus the position.”
Senate Additional Estimates, 22 February 2011
Stephen Conroy, the Minister representing Tony Burke in Senate Estimates this morning, then intervened and prevented any opportunity for Mr Freeman to rule out Ministerial influence in the Authority’s decision
“It is hard to believe that the Authority would be working on the basis of a single proposed figure for months before the Guide’s release, brief the Minister on that figure, and then change direction of its own accord at the absolute last minute.
“Tony Burke must rule out having interfered in the decision making of the independent Authority, or else explain why he did.”