A fight over Murray-Darling Basin water is near boiling point.
New South Wales and Victoria have vowed to pull out of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan if a Greens’ disallowance motion succeeds in the Senate today.
It would block the Federal Government’s attempt to reduce by 70 gigalitres the volume of water set aside for the environment in the northern Basin, as recommended by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in 2016.
We asked University of Adelaide professor and constitutional lawyer John Williams what it might mean for South Australia if eastern states withdraw.
Can states pull out of the plan?
Professor Williams said states have the option to pull out but still hold distinct lawmaking powers over water as a resource.
He said the Commonwealth would still hang onto powers of its own.
“The states could pull out of it, but in doing that the Commonwealth isn’t left on an island,” he said.
“The Commonwealth would still have obligations to fulfil parts of the plan, even though not all of the states are involved.
“The Commonwealth doesn’t necessarily require the states’ legal authority to implement [water buybacks].”
Even if a state pulled out, it would still need to comply with requirements set out in international conventions for environmental protection, Professor Williams said.
How could SA be affected?
“This just demonstrates how precarious it is to be at the end of the river,” Professor Williams said.
“For South Australia, we clearly want people to stick to the plan and the plan requires the return of certain environmental flows to this state.”
The constitutional lawyer said states would face an upside and downside if they withdrew.
“The states have to ask if they want the benefits of the agreement and if they’re still willing to take the down-sides,” he said.
“I think they run the risk of the resources — especially the financial support — dissipating.
“The complication would be achieving the ends of the plan without the means to do so.”
Could it all end up in the High Court?
SA Water Minister Ian Hunter is threatening to head there if eastern states retreat from the plan.
“We got this plan in the first place by South Australia threatening to take High Court action against the eastern states and the Commonwealth because of our constitutional rights to water,” he said.
“We still have those constitutional rights but now we’ve got a legislated agreement.”
Professor Williams said a legal fight would probably just worsen matters.
“Often these agreements are non-enforceable in the courts — that’s why they’re political agreements,” he said.
“There are always legal questions, but it is better to not litigate here.
“It’s better to negotiate and hold onto the agreement.”
Source: ABC News