SA pulls support for Murray-Darling Basin Plan changes, threatens royal commission

The Federal Government says it is “furious” at South Australia and accused it of playing “petty politics” following the State Government’s decision to challenge any changes to the $10 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

SA Water Minister Ian Hunter announced on Tuesday his Government will not sign off on any changes to the plan “until integrity in its delivery can be assured”.

“We are at the end of our patience, we have been operating in good faith with the Federal Government, but it turns out we are the only ones doing it and enough is enough.”

The surprise announcement has angered the Federal Assistant Water and Agriculture Minister Anne Ruston, who said until now Mr Hunter had been negotiating with her on the reforms in good faith.

“I have been told so many times that the South Australian Labor Party will blow up this plan for its own political self-interest,” she said.

Mr Hunter has been calling for an independent judicial inquiry since allegations were made on the ABC’s Four Corners program in July that cotton farmers in New South Wales stole water from the Barwon-Darling.

Those calls have been ignored, and Mr Hunter said he is now also considering a state-based royal commission.

“It is always something we have had in our back pocket, but in reality we want a Federal Government-led judicial inquiry,” Mr Hunter said.

Dismay at water meeting cancellation

Tensions boiled over this week following the cancellation of a meeting of Commonwealth and basin state water ministers.

South Australia was also frustrated by an announcement earlier this month that the Commonwealth would reduce the amount of water it was taking from the northern basin by 70 gigalitres.

In retaliation, Mr Hunter said South Australia would not sign off on a package of infrastructure projects designed to use environmental water more efficiently, expected to save 605GL across the basin.

He said he wanted a commitment from the Commonwealth and all basin states that an additional 450GL of water would be set aside for the environment, on top of the plan’s original 2750GL target.

“Either you deliver on the whole plan, or we won’t deliver on the [605GL] down-water,” he said.

Senator Ruston has questioned the trustworthiness of the South Australian Government and accused it of trying to score political points ahead of the state election on March 17.

“I was furious to find out somebody who I’d been working with (Mr Hunter) to deliver the best outcome for South Australia, which is the delivery of this plan in full on time, has gone back on his word,” she said.

“Can I not trust anything that Minister Hunter or the South Australian Labor Party says anymore?

Water and agriculture split

The water ministers also squared-off on a move by the South Australian Parliament to call on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to split the Federal water and agriculture portfolio.

Last week, the state Labor Party and Liberal opposition supported a motion by the SA Greens that will see the entire State Parliament formally request Mr Turnbull to uncouple the two portfolios.

The water portfolio was merged with agriculture in 2015 as part of a revised Coalition agreement and at the request of National Party leader Barnaby Joyce.

“The disparate power between the agriculture department and the environment and water department is phenomenal,” Mr Hunter said.

“You see what Barnaby Joyce does at a pub in Shepperton, where he boasts to the crowd that he has taken water out the hands of the greenies and the Environment Department and put it back into agriculture.”

However, Senator Ruston would not be drawn on whether Mr Turnbull will split the portfolios.

“I’m not sure that the South Australian Greens in the Upper House are in a position to dictate to another government, especially the Federal Government, how you put your portfolios together.

Senator Ruston said she was not angry that her state counterparts, the SA Liberals, supported the Greens’ motion.

“I certainly can see an immense sense of frustration from the state Liberal team that they are being wedged on the wording on these motions,” she said.

“Obviously all politics is local and I will accept what they have said and done.”