A coalition of 22 environment, Indigenous and community groups from the Murray Darling Basin has asked the Commonwealth Government and the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) what they are trying to hide about the science behind the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

The question, in an open letter to Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull and Federal Water Minister David Littleproud, follows an injunction lodged in the high court by the Commonwealth and the MDBA seeking to prevent former and current staff from giving
evidence to, and producing documents for, the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin.

The open letter reads:

The passage of amendments to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan through the Parliament opens a new chapter in Basin Plan implementation and fresh opportunities to restore our great rivers to health. The Lifeblood Alliance of community, environment and indigenous groups is writing to you now to request that you act on your assurances of improved trust, transparency and compliance with the Basin Plan and that you base all decision making on sound science rather than political expediency.

The community called for the Turnbull government to hold a Royal Commission into the making and implementation of the Basin Plan. This was refused. The South Australian Government responded to requests from all sectors including affected communities. We understood the Commonwealth intended to co-operate with this process.

We question why an injunction has now been sought to prevent Commonwealth and MDBA staff from appearing and why promised co-operation with the South Australian Royal Commission has been withdrawn.

The public sees this as an admission of having something to hide.

The Basin Plan was created to fix the environmental degradation that has been caused by too much water being extracted from our rivers - yet the health and resilience of the rivers, wetlands and lakes in the Basin continue to degrade under the current governance structures.

By its own admission, the MDBA has not given sufficient attention to compliance, has not provided a clear statement of its compliance role, and has not dealt adequately with allegations of compliance breaches. By showing an unwillingness to appear at the South Australian Royal Commission, the Commonwealth and the MDBA are further increasing the lack of trust the public has in the Turnbull government and the authority to administer the Basin Plan, despite many assurances of improved transparency and compliance.

Improved transparency is in the public interest and the Royal Commission was set up in the absence of a Commonwealth response and following requests from all sectors including affected communities.

Only the best science should be used to establish the volumes of water that can sustainably be taken from our rivers by irrigation industries. Science is not a special interest group, it is fundamental to determining what our rivers need and the MDBA is required by the Commonwealth Water Act to ‘act on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge’. We need to know if the MDBA has complied with the Water Act.

We request that the Commonwealth co-operates fully with the South Australian Royal Commission and withdraws its injunction proceedings and allows DAWR and MDBA staff to give evidence to the Commission. Only then can the public be certain that there is nothing to hide.

Quotes from key spokespeople:

“The Turnbull government has spoken about restoring trust and transparency to the Basin Plan but is doing the opposite. Having refused to set up its own independent inquiry it's now refusing to take part in the Royal Commission. Who is it trying to protect?” Juliet Le Feuvre, Environment Victoria.

“The Turnbull Government is actively avoiding accountability through every trick in their book- dodging Royal Commissions, silencing advocacy groups with draconian laws and regulations and allegedly pressuring scientists to rubber stamp plans that benefit big business. The people have had enough. We need more transparency, not less. Our governments need more accountability, not less.” Kelly O’Shanassy, the Australian Conservation Foundation.

“As our rivers, wetlands and lakes lie parched and in some cases dying, the highest powers in the land are ducking and weaving for cover, proving they have even more to hide than the sickening litany of scandals that have already been exposed since Four Corners ‘Pumped’,” Melissa Gray, Healthy River Ambassador for the Macquarie and Castlereagh Rivers.

“The Turnbull government has doggedly refused the community a Federal Judicial inquiry and now lodges an injunction together with the MDBA seeking to prevent staff from giving evidence. Basin communities, promised increased transparency, deserve better.” said John Pettigrew President of the Goulburn Valley Environment Group.

"The Ministerial Council communique issued after the meeting of all state and federal water ministers on June 8 announced the Basin Compliance Compact as 'a significant milestone in securing a consistent and transparent approach to ensuring compliance with all Commonwealth and state laws applicable to water use in the Basin'. What is there now to hide?” Rosa Merlino-Hillam, River Lakes and Coorong Action Group asked.

"We need a working Basin Plan to revive the river, for which transparency and accountability are fundamental at all levels. What is Minister Littleproud trying to hide?" Megan Williams, River Country Spokesperson

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