ALP takes control of Murray watchdog
THE federal government is considering forcing the removal of the entire board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in an attempt to seize back control of the political agenda on water reform.
The looming putsch against the board follows the appointment yesterday of the former NSW Labor minister Craig Knowles as the chairman, and the replacement over Christmas of the departmental deputy secretary responsible for water, James Horne.
A draft guide on water reform, published in October, recommended minimum cuts to irrigation along the basin of 3000 gigalitres, which caused widespread panic and anger among farmers and a political backlash, with claims that communities and livelihoods would be wiped out.
A senior source told the Herald there was a purge of anybody associated with the authority's draft guide.
Those being targeted included the board members.
The authority is an independent statutory body whose members cannot be sacked, but a withdrawal of government support would make their tenure untenable.
The Water Minister, Tony Burke, announced yesterday that Mr Knowles would replace Mike Taylor as chairman. Mr Taylor quit last month in acrimonious circumstances because he believed the Water Act, under which the authority operated, meant reforms had to put the environmental needs of the river system ahead of the social and economic interests of irrigators and communities.
Mr Knowles said yesterday he disagreed with Mr Taylor's interpretation of the act and that he would put the socio-economic interests of irrigation communities on the same level as the environment.
''The act is very clear,'' he said. ''It's about optimising the economic, environmental and social impacts in the basin. We have to send a clear message that this is about achieving that balance.''
Mr Knowles said the anger that accompanied the issue of the draft was understandable.
''There was not enough conversation and consultation,'' he said and vowed to spend as much time as possible on the ground.
Recent heavy rains have sparked calls for the reforms to be delayed but the government has promised to deliver changes by the end of the year. Mr Knowles said reform was inevitable and it was best to get on with it.
''Uncertainty is poison in this business,'' he said. ''I don't propose to delay anything, but I will do my job properly.''
His task will be to navigate a politically palatable path to enable the government to deliver on its promise.
While the federal and state oppositions criticised Mr Knowles's appointment as a job for a Labor mate, it was welcomed by irrigators and farmers. Mr Knowles, who left state politics in 2005, helped the Howard government set up the national water initiative in 2004 that allowed water to be traded.
The former federal National Party leader John Anderson said Mr Knowles understood the concerns of irrigators and recognised that water entitlements needed to be treated as property rights. ''He understands the issues. He will bring the right approach.''
Mr Anderson said the government's handling of the issue had been appalling. He said Mr Taylor had been unfairly treated, and he agreed the Water Act needed revising to ensure social and economic concerns received equal status with environmental needs.
Mr Burke said he wanted a reform plan that restored the health of rivers, supported communities and guaranteed food production.