South Australian royal commission into Murray-Darling Basin water theft announced

Inquiry: The South Australian government will establish a royal commission into water theft and mismanagement in the Murray-Darling Basin. Image: Jay Weatherill/Twitter.

Inquiry: The South Australian government will establish a royal commission into water theft and mismanagement in the Murray-Darling Basin. Image: Jay Weatherill/Twitter.

A South Australian royal commission will investigate claims of water theft across the Murray-Darling Basin after a national report left the state government wanting more.

Premier Jay Weatherill had been calling for a more serious investigation into allegations of water theft in the upstream states since they were aired on the ABC in July; now, four months later, he has granted his own wish.

Mr Weatherill said only a royal commission, with the power to summon witnesses and seize evidence, could properly investigate the allegations.

"We now have mounting evidence upstream states agreed to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with no intention of implementing it, and they've been free to flout the rules while the federal government and MDBA (Murray-Darling Basin Authority) have turned a blind eye," he said.

"But ... there are still many unanswered questions.

"The River Murray scandal is an absolute disgrace, and the state government will not rest until South Australia gets every drop of water we're entitled to receive."

He listed half a dozen examples of wrongdoing that had come to light since the ABC's Four Corners alleged irrigators and New South Wales authorities were conspiring to enable water theft in that state.

Among them were remarks reportedly made by former Water Minister Barnaby Joyce in a Shepparton pub, that the National Party had taken the water portfolio to stop "greenies" from running the show; and suggestions more Murray-Darling water, not less, had been used in New South Wales since the basin plan came in.

State, federal Liberals split on proposal

Despite the pointed references to his party’s federal coalition partners, Liberal Member for Hammond Adrian Pederick said the state Opposition would support the royal commission.

"The seriousness of the allegations and the importance of the River Murray for South Australia are such that a royal commission warrants bipartisan support," he said.

He said the Liberals had written to Mr Weatherill, asking to be involved in the selection of a commissioner and formulation of his or her terms of reference.

They had also asked for clarification that a South Australian royal commission would be able to compel witnesses from interstate to come and give evidence.

The royal commission also attracted support from the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team, whose Member for Mayo Rebekah Sharkie said she would continue to push for a federal commission to put any jurisdictional questions beyond doubt.

But federal Liberal MP Tony Pasin said Mr Weatherill was simply playing politics, and risked undermining the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

“I can’t see how a South Australian royal commission will achieve anything more than what can be achieved off the back of the investigations already in place,” he said.

“This is nothing more than a waste of South Australian taxpayers’ money in an attempt to gain votes.

“Mr Weatherill should be focused on cooperating with the federal government and other states in seeing the plan implemented on time and in full.”

MDBA promises to improve

Mr Weatherill's announcement followed the release on Saturday of the MDBA's findings about regulatory complience across the basin.

The MDBA's review found New South Wales and Queensland, in particular, needed to do more to increase the "robustness, transparency and consistency" of the policies they used to ensure irrigators were complying with water use rules, and to enforce action against those who failed to do so.

MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde said the many irrigators who did the right thing deserved to have confidence that their commitment to the rules was not being undermined by law-breakers, and said his organisation – and state-based regulators – needed be more assertive in combating water theft.

"This starts today," he said.

"We're committed to acting on all of the recommendations and actions in the review that are within our remit."

For example, he said, a "no meter, no pump" policy would be introduced across the basin for any entity which used more than 100 megalitres of water per year.

"All Australians must be able to trust and have confidence in the MDBA ... so we will be more transparent and consistent in how we handle allegations of non-compliance," Mr Glyde said.

But Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young questioned the MDBA's decision to release its findings on the day of a state election in Queensland.

"The only reason we know there is such a widespread problem is because of brave whistleblowers, former authority staff and dedicated members of river communities who have had enough of the secrecy and the cover-up," she said.

In the days following the original Four Corners report, the federal government made it clear it would leave any investigation to the New South Wales government and the MDBA.

Mr Weatherill had publicly called out Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – currently acting as Agriculture and Water Minister while Mr Joyce faces a by-election – at every opportunity.