MDBA challenges royal commission

By Country News

Attempts to compel Murray-Darling Basin Authority staff to testify at a South Australian royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan are being challenged in the High Court.

A number of high ranking staff at the authority, including chief executive Phillip Glyde, were issued with summons by the royal commission earlier this month, seeking to compel them to provide evidence at a series of public hearings which began on Monday.

The summons also require the authority to produce a number of specified documents to the royal commission.

In a document filed with the court last Tuesday, lawyers for the authority and Federal Government argued the South Australian royal commission had no authority to compel witnesses, claiming doing so was beyond the commission’s powers.

They argued the commission cannot compel public servants, former public servants of the Commonwealth or those who are a resident of a state other than South Australia to appear before the royal commission.

Individuals including the Secretary to the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, current and former staff and directors of the authority received summons to appear before the royal commission.

In a statement, commissioner Bret Walker QC said claims the royal commission would not be able to compel witnesses from other states to give evidence were ‘‘incorrect’’.

‘‘The production of documents and the attendance of witnesses to give evidence may be compelled, whether the process is to be served in South Australia or elsewhere throughout the Commonwealth of Australia,’’ the statement said.

The Australian Greens slammed the decision to challenge the summons, saying it promoted secrecy over transparency.

‘‘Applying to the High Court to seek an injunction to prevent officials from giving evidence at the South Australian royal commission is not how you restore public confidence in the plan,’’ Greens Murray-Darling Basin spokesperson and South Australian senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

‘‘We know there has been corruption, water theft and, for those of us at the bottom end of the river, we know that the environment is not getting the water it needs,’’ she said.

‘‘This does nothing to restore trust with river communities, or faith in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.’’

A MDBA spokesperson said the authority had no further comment on the South Australian royal commission at this time.