Axe Murray-Darling plan and start again: US expert
March 5, 2011
AUSTRALIA'S performance on reforming the Murray-Darling Basin has been savaged by one of the world's top water experts, who says the process is flawed by political deception and opportunism.
Harvard University professor John Briscoe - a former senior water adviser for the World Bank - has urged Australia to dump the work done on the plan and start again with a new act of parliament.
His comments follow months of controversy over whether the Water Act of 2007 had forced the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to prepare a reform plan that favoured the environment over social and economic concerns.
In a statement to a Senate inquiry, Professor Briscoe said there was no doubt the Water Act gave priority to the environment, and claims to the contrary were ''poppycock''.
Despite living abroad, Professor Briscoe is well acquainted with the basin plan as he was hired by the authority to participate as a foreign expert, and was asked to review the basin plan before it was released publicly in October.
The Water Act was created by Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull during the Howard government, and Professor Briscoe said the environment was given legal primacy in an act of political opportunism because it was one of the few ways the Commonwealth could constitutionally take control of water from the states.
''That original sin is responsible for most of the detour on which Australian water management now finds itself,'' he said. ''Australia cannot find its way in water management if this act is the guide.''
Professor Briscoe said his involvement with the basin plan was dogged by the most ''elaborate confidentiality'' measures he had ever seen, and he had urged authority chief executive Rob Freeman and former chairman Mike Taylor to tell the Labor government that the Water Act ''would not and could not work''.
''We were given to believe that there was no appetite for such a message at higher levels in the government in Canberra,'' he said.
The Gillard government has resisted calls to replace the Water Act in recent months, and has declared - unlike most observers - that the act is designed to treat environmental, social and economic factors equally.
Putting himself further at odds with the government, Professor Briscoe took a dim view of plans to spend taxpayers' money on the modernisation of irrigation infrastructure.
''This is a very expensive way to save water and many of the investments will be made in areas that will, sooner or later, go out of production,'' he said.
In a further blow to the authority's credibility, leading scientists have accused it of misusing their work in creating the basin plan.
The CSIRO cited several instances where its work was wrongly applied, including one occasion relating to illegal interception of water. ''CSIRO has some concerns with how the authority has interpreted or applied this work in the development of key aspects of the basin plan,'' it said.
The CSIRO asked the basin authority to correct certain references to CSIRO work in the final version of the plan.