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SA's first River Murray commissioner named, but irrigators have questions over role

25 August 2022

The Murray River with cliffs to the left and a awn bank and gum trees on the right.
Appointing a River Murray commissioner was an election promise for Labor prior to this year's state election.(ABC News: Charles Brice)

The head of South Australia's peak Murray River irrigators group says the state's newly appointed commissioner for the waterway needs to push for real action in the Murray-Darling Basin. 

Key points:

  • Richard Beasley QC is the state's first River Murray commissioner
  • SA Murray Irrigators chair Caren Martin says the new role needs to tackle some large issues 
  • Mr Beasley says the state needs clarity on federal water legislation

Barrister and lead counsel for the 2019 South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray–Darling Basin, Richard Beasley SC, was named the inaugural Murray River commissioner on Tuesday. 

Creating the position was a key election promise from Labor ahead of March's state election, with Mr Beasley to liaise with other water ministers and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. 

But it remains to be seen what the role will deliver for river communities and what it means for South Australia's representation under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, as the June 2024 deadline looms. 

A man wearing a suit and tie gesticulates with microphone stands in front of him.
Richard Beasley SC will be South Australia's inaugural River Murray Commissioner. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

SA Murray Irrigators chair Caren Martin said she was hopeful the commissioner would reopen discussions around the 2019 SA Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission.

She said "legal black holes" highlighted within the royal commission report needed to be resolved to ensure a clear path moving forward.

"It's a solid, strong voice from the top that government can use to advocate their position and justify their actions, which is needed," she said.

"I hope this role looks to heal some of the wounds of the past, but also starts that conversation. Let's have it and let’s justify why SA holds the position it does."

Appointment comes at tense time

Ms Martin said much of the uncertainty stemmed back to the 2007 Water Act which allowed authorities to manage water using the triple-bottom principle. 

"The royal commission report brought up how legally enforceable that was," she said.

"The Water Act also states you must provide an independent view of what the minimum amount of environmental water and Indigenous water to be returned is, and that wasn't acted on either.

"There's lots of political arguments as to what's right or wrong and I don't think that's been put to bed."

Chairperson of the South Australian Murray Irrigators Caren Martin standing outside posing for a photo
Caren Martin says the new River Murray Commissioner role needs to deliver results for the state.(ABC Riverland: Jessica Schremmer )

Mr Beasley's appointment comes after a federal government-commissioned report found the 450GL of environmental water promised to SA under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan wouldn't be delivered on time. 

He agreed clarity needed to be provided around the act.

"We'll all be dead by the time the 450 gigalitres is recovered, or even a fraction of it, if we stay on the same path," he said.

"They've got to change the Water Act in the Commonwealth Parliament to enable water to be purchased, rather than recovered.

"The means they're choosing at the moment is using water more efficiently, which is a good thing, but it can't deliver water of those volumes."