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16 Aug 2018 3:31
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  •   Home > News > International

    State Government and Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commissioner at odds over legal stoush

    Public servants will not be compelled to give evidence about the Murray-Darling Basin according to South Australia's Attorney-General. But the government-appointed commissioner has other ideas.

    Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commissioner Bret Walker SC has called on South Australia's Attorney-General Vickie Chapman to apologise over a public statement that he was dropping a legal push to compel commonwealth public servants to give evidence to his inquiry.

    In a letter to Ms Chapman, Mr Walker said a media release from her office was "wrong, discourteous and inappropriate" and called for it to be "completely withdrawn".

    The stoush has emerged regarding the future of the High Court's action — that is stopping former and current Murray-Darling Basin Authority staff from appearing before the commission.

    The Federal Government took the action, arguing state royal commissions did not have jurisdiction to compel federal authorities.

    Ms Chapman this morning claimed Mr Walker had written to the State Government arguing that even if the state was successful in the High Court, he would not have enough time to enforce the summonses.

    She said Mr Walker told the Government he had further evidence he could rely on, and could complete his report without the federal witnesses.

    Following questions from the ABC, Mr Walker said the statement was in every particular way "wrong" and the Attorney-General's office had been told so.

    Ms Chapman said she expected the High Court proceedings to be discontinued.

    "This will leave some important constitutional questions unresolved, but I believe the priority here is for the commission to get on with its work and report back to the people of South Australia," she said.

    "Mr Walker has advised that he expects to provide his report by February 1, 2019 as scheduled."

    But in a letter to Ms Chapman, Mr Walker said he still wanted to go ahead with the court action, but would need an extension of reporting time to do it.

    "That material and evidence, I stress, is regarded by me as highly desirable to be considered by my commission, in the interests of everyone, including South Australia and South Australian, affected by the Basin Plan," he wrote.

    The royal commission was initiated under former premier Jay Weatherill after the ABC's Four Corners program revealed allegations of water theft in New South Wales.

    At the time, it had the backing of Steven Marshall's Liberal government.

    This week it was revealed by Treasurer Rob Lucas that the commissioner was being paid $10,000 a day.

    But Mr Lucas said that did not mean the royal commission did not have his support.

    "The fact that the royal commission is budgeted to cost $8.5 million, I would have thought, is information that should be in the public arena and part of the public interest," Mr Lucas said.

    "That doesn't indicate one way or another that the Government's withdrawing support for the royal commission."

    Federal Government previously said it would cooperate

    When the public inquiry was announced last November, Federal Assistant Water Resources Minister and SA Senator Anne Ruston said the commonwealth would not stand in its way, and neither should NSW or Victoria.

    "I'd like to think they'd cooperate, certainly the commonwealth will cooperate, we haven't got anything to hide," she said.

    In June, the Federal Government began its push to prevent the royal commission from compelling testimony and documents from bureaucrats including Murray-Darling Basin Authority staff.

    The commonwealth and the authority filed documents in the High Court seeking an injunction to prevent current and former federal staff from being compelled to testify.

    In June the High Court agreed to hear a challenge by the commonwealth aimed at preventing a South Australian royal commission compelling staff from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority giving evidence.

    The hearing was expected to start in September.

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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