Secret advice revealed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) under Freedom of Information laws shows that Government-imposed delays mean timelines required under the Water Act for finalisation of the controversial Basin Plan cannot be achieved.
The Incoming Minister’s Brief provided by the MDBA to Water Minister Tony Burke following his appointment in September this year shows the MDBA planned to release the proposed Basin Plan this month.
In separate advice to Mr Burke, Michael Taylor, who recently resigned as MDBA Chair, stated that “… given the processes prescribed in the Act, the proposed Basin Plan must be released in early 2011 at the very latest”.  Even then the Incoming Minister’s Brief states that the MDBA would face a “challenging deadline”.
Yet last Friday Tony Burke asked the MDBA to defer release of the proposed Plan until after it had taken into account the findings of the current House of Representatives inquiry chaired by Tony Windsor, which is due to report on 31 May 2011.
Allowing time to consider the findings of Mr Windsor’s committee, integrate them into their work and publish the proposed Basin Plan, it would seem impossible for the MDBA to release the document until well into the second half of next year.
The MDBA, in their brief to the Minister, state that processes following release of the proposed Basin Plan “… could take in the order of 40-50 weeks, if there’s a reasonable level of agreement to the Plan, and much longer if there is significant disagreement at the Ministerial Council level”.
Finalisation of the Basin Plan will clearly not be possible, on the MDBA’s own advice, until the second half of 2012 at best.
The Incoming Minister’s Brief also informed Tony Burke that the states’ development of their water sharing plans “have commencement dates legislated for in schedule 4 of the Water Act, based on the assumption of a 2011 Basin Plan”.
It is clear that Labor’s mishandling of this reform process is likely to see the states in breach of the Water Act through no fault of their own.  This entire process has descended into a state of chaos and confusion as a result of the Gillard Government’s bungling.
Obviously this advice suggests that Minister Burke and Prime Minister Gillard knew their recent promises of keeping to the timelines in the Act are likely to be impossible.
Tony Burke was clearly ignoring the advice of his own agencies when he announced the Windsor inquiry and claimed there would be no need for delays.
He was clearly ignoring that advice again when last Friday he imposed a delay of at least six months on the immediate work of the MDBA, yet pretended it would have no impact on final timelines.
These documents reveal the MDBA believes the Government now has them working to impossible timelines, which can only lead to more mistakes and jeopardise the entire reform process.
Australians have spent more than a century arguing over the Murray-Darling.  Thanks to the bungling of the Government these arguments look set to continue as its crisis ridden process faces ever more delays of their own making.
The MDBA also believe the delays imposed on them will lead to inevitable amendments to the timelines in the Water Act.  How Tony Burke and Julia Gillard can deny any possible need to alter the Act in the face of such ckear advice from the MDBA about the impact of their decisions on timing is baffling.
It’s time for some openness and transparency in this reform process.  The only way the Government can restore trust in river communities is to start being honest about the timelines surrounding basin planning and to be open with all of the advice provided to them.