Basin process branded a 'farce'

Irrigators branded the consultation process on the Murray-Darling basin rescue plan a farce yesterday after it emerged ''Mickey Mouse'' is among the names to have lodged submissions with the independent basin authority.

The Disney cartoon character's name appears next to a submission calling for changes to the basin draft plan ''so there is more water to keep the river alive''.

Critics say it shows there is no guarantee the public consultation reflects genuine community feelings.

The claims came as Victorian Water Minister Peter Walsh stepped up his criticism of the draft plan to save the river system, saying the state government ''cannot accept'' elements of the plan.

With the public consultation period set to finish on Monday, it has emerged the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which has developed the draft basin plan, is not verifying the identities of people who lodge public submissions.

The submission attributed to Mickey Mouse was lodged through the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper, which is campaigning against the current plan. It allows readers of its website to make submissions anonymously by clicking on a link and signing any name and email address to a form letter. This information is posted on the authority's website as public submissions. Others include very little detail about names, with one simply signed, ''L''.


Under the authority's draft plan, an extra 2750 billion litres of water would be returned to the river system for environmental purposes, mostly by buying up irrigators' water rights. The authority will finalise its plan this year for consideration by federal parliament.

National Irrigators Council chief Tom Chesson said one person could click repeatedly to lodge multiple submissions, creating the appearance of a groundswell of public support for a particular viewpoint. ''The fact that there is no way of knowing if submissions are genuine, and are not simply created by the same person clicking a mouse button on a newspaper automated submission service over and over again, has turned the entire process into high farce,'' he said.

A spokeswoman for the authority said it was not feasible to verify the identities of people lodging submissions, ''no matter how seemingly strange the name might appear''. She said the authority would base its final plan on issues.

Chief of the NSW Irrigators Council, Andrew Gregson, said the group had repeatedly lobbied against allowing such ''one-click'' submissions but had finally begun using the practice itself so it wouldn't be disadvantaged.

''It's not relevant, it's not detailed, it's not useful, but we had no choice … since [authority chairman] Craig Knowles wanted to turn it into a numbers game.

''The fact that a submission has been made by a fictional character shows we were right all along.''

Mr Walsh, meanwhile, blasted the authority for failing to explain clearly what environmental improvements it was trying to achieve, and neglecting to explore ways to boost the environment with less irrigation water and therefore less impact on farming communities.