A decade on, the same story on the Murray-Darling Basin


A decade ago the eminent Australian water scientist, the late Peter Cullen, lamented the declining technical expertise in water management in government agencies while highlighting the need for good science to underpin decision-making about the nation’s water resources.

In a 2007 Issues Paper for the SA Centre for Economic Studies (SACES), published shortly before his death, Professor Cullen wrote that “agencies have cut back on technical expertise and there is a real shortage of skilled professionals to do the detailed analysis we need in this situation”.

He added: “Governments have now outsourced so much expertise they seem to have outsourced critical thinking.”

And in a prescient comment, Professor Cullen wrote: “Where we do collect data, we often keep it inaccessible from those who could benefit from it.”

While his frame of reference was the 2004 National Water Initiative, a Federal-State policy document that predated the signing of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in 2012, one can imagine that Professor Cullen would have been utterly dismayed to have read the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission Report, published last month.

In a scathing report, Royal Commissioner Bret Walker SC attacked the Plan regulator, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), over a lack of due process and effective governance arrangements.

“The governance structure (of the Plan) is flawed insofar as it has permitted what is, in effect, a small group of MDBA Board members, staff and others, to engage in a secretive exercise in respect of scientifically-based decisions,” the report says.

It adds: “Only after the full science has been disclosed and debated, should the MDBA be exercising its statutory functions and powers in respect of matters of science.”

The MDBA challenged, in the High Court, the Royal Commission’s powers to summon MDBA witnesses. The resulting legal stoush was subsequently terminated by the Royal Commissioner because he was denied an extension of reporting time by the SA State Government to accommodate the High Court action.

Commissioner Walker said that the MDBA took its legal action “despite the fact that witnesses raised serious questions not just about the MDMA’s engagement and use of science, but about the integrity of aspects of its processes.”

Commissioner Walker added that objectives of the Basin Plan and the Water Act were unlikely to be achieved for a number of reasons “not the least of which is the MDBA’s aversion to proper disclosure and its reluctance to foster scientific scrutiny – such as its conduct to restrict the extent of such scrutiny, or the result of it”.

“That is an unacceptable way for a publicly-funded Commonwealth science-based authority to act,” he said.

In its initial response to the Royal Commission’s report, the MDBA said it “rejects any assertion by the Commission that it has acted improperly or unlawfully in any way.”

The Productivity Commission, in its Murray-Darling Basin Plan: Five-year Assessment, published last month, also commented on the merits of the governance arrangements in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The Productivity Commission found that the responsibility for implementing the Plan lacked strategic leadership and that the MDBA had conflicted roles in performing service delivery functions on behalf of governments and as an independent and credible regulator. It recommended splitting those roles.

The Productivity Commission says “key deficiencies in institutional and governance arrangements” have led to, (amongst other effects), “a lack of transparency and accountability, ineffective processes for intergovernmental collaboration, and stakeholders who are confused and frustrated by the efforts made to engage them due to a perceived lack of responsiveness”.

“The shortcomings in institutional and governance arrangements pose a significant risk to the next phase of implementation of the Basin Plan,” the Productivity Commission says.

To date, $8.5 billion has been outlaid under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on water buybacks, infrastructure and environmental measures, with a further $4.5 billion of spending on water-saving infrastructure projects pending.

With a total price tag of $13 billion, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been one of Australia’s major environmental initiatives. The public could reasonably have expected it to be a defining investment for one of Australia’s most important waterways, guided by sound science and good governance.

Professor Cullen may not have been surprised by the outcomes to date. In his 2007 paper for SACES, Professor Cullen posed the question: “So how will we sabotage ourselves?” Among the answers he gave were to experience a shortage of technical skills to undertake good analysis, “blame others as an excuse for inaction”, “waste money and time on ill-considered infrastructure projects”, and “fly blind” by being secretive with important water data.

More than ten years on, Peter Cullen’s comments have a familiar ring to them.

Peter Cullen passed away on the 13 March 2008.

A copy of his Issue Paper is available here.

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