Tues 26/10/2010 Gabrielle Dunlevy, The Age
Conservationists want the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to stick to its guns, with lawyers backing its first interpretation of how it should return life to the river system.
Water Minister Tony Burke has been putting even more distance between himself and the independent authority since he took legal advice on whether the Water Act 2007 gave enough weight to the social and economic effects of water reform.
The minister sought advice after an irate reaction to the authority's guide to proposed water reforms, which included cuts of 27 to 37 per cent on average in human water use across the basin.
The coalition said the release of the guide had damaged the government, with a Newspoll showing Labor trailing it 52-48 per cent following a big plunge in support outside the capital cities.
The advice from the commonwealth solicitor says the three factors must be optimised and the Water Act as it stands can achieve this.
Mr Burke on Tuesday told parliament he sought the opinion after his department and the authority had clashed over their understandings of the act.
Earlier, he told ABC Radio the guide presented one of the options available to the authority, which now had a wider scope based on his legal advice.
It's for them as an independent authority to work out where they want to go, he said.
Authority chair Mike Taylor said the independent organisation had acted on commonwealth legal advice right from the beginning.
But given the new refinements, he would have to re-examine the task.
Quite clearly, it means we will have to find less water for the environment, he told ABC Radio on Tuesday.
But the Environment Defenders Office's Nicola Rivers, who has also examined the legal advice, argues the authority was on the right track to start with.
Her independent team, which advises on environmental legal issues, has been concerned with the Water Act since its drafting.
Ms Rivers told AAP the advice did not say that social and economic factors were an on equal footing with environmental requirements – but that in achieving the environmental benefits for the rivers, the end point must be the best possible on all three counts.
She worried that a one-off opportunity to breathe new life into Australia's most important system was slipping away.
The reason for the act was that the (former) government realised the extractions from the system were unsustainable, Ms Rivers said.
The focus has shifted from the bigger picture of what it was trying to achieve.
The interpretation would quash questions over the legitimacy of the authority's guide, which even Mr Burke entertained on Monday.
Opposition water spokesman Barnaby Joyce has revelled in the confusion.
The minister saying one thing, the government solicitor saying something ambiguous and the authority saying something entirely different, he told reporters in Canberra.
Opposition Murray-Darling spokesman Simon Birmingham told the Senate Mr Taylor had flagged problems with the Water Act on his first meeting with Mr Burke, and likely with former water minister Penny Wong months ago.
He is demanding to know why the issue wasn't clarified sooner.
In allowing the authority to go down the wrong path, it is the Labor government that has jeopardised the success and the process of water reform, he said.