The South Australian Government will fight a High Court injunction that it says aims to gag public servants from giving evidence in its Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin.
The inquiry, to begin next week, will look at how water is being used and whether the states are honouring the basin plan.
Now, the Federal Government wants to prevent the Royal Commission from compelling testimony and documents from bureaucrats including Murray-Darling Basin Authority staff.
On Tuesday, the Commonwealth and the authority filed documents in the High Court seeking an injunction to prevent current and former federal staff from being compelled to testify.
South Australian Attorney-General Vickie Chapman she said she hoped other states would join SA in opposing the injunction.
“This is such an important issue for the enforceability and capacity to inquire when we are a party,” Ms Chapman said.
“The Royal Commission work will continue in the meantime with other witnesses with other witnesses who are not compelled and who are waiting lined up to give evidence.”
The inquiry wants to hear from the authority about its methods and obligations regarding water plans.
The Royal Commission’s first hearings will be held on Monday.
Ms Chapman said the proposed injunction raised the question of whether the state had the capacity to effectively conduct its own inquiry.
“If we can’t both investigate it ourselves… and have the capacity to enforce it, then it raises the bigger picture as it whether it is going to be a viable option for dealing with water in the future,” she said.
Federal Government previously said it would cooperate
When the public inquiry was announced last November, Federal Assistant Water Resources Minister and SA Senator Anne Ruston said the Commonwealth would not stand in its way, and neither should NSW or Victoria.
“I’d like to think they’d cooperate, certainly the Commonwealth will cooperate, we haven’t got anything to hide,” she said.
SA Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said it begged the question about what there was to hide now.
“We know that there’s been corruption, we know that there’s been water theft and we know, for those of us living in the bottom of the river system here in South Australia, that the environment just isn’t getting the benefits from the reform that we’re meant to,” Ms Hanson-Young said.
SA Best state MP Frank Pangallo said Premier Steven Marshall should tell Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and SA Federal Cabinet MPs Christopher Pyne and Simon Birmingham to get the Commonwealth to start talking.
“They said they would, now suddenly there’s this amazing backflip,” Mr Pangallo said.
“What don’t they want us to know what was going on with that plan and what was going on upstream and to get to the bottom of all those rorting allegations.”
Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said it was maintaining a “long-standing legal precedence”.
“I understand that the Agriculture Minister has indicated that they will give every cooperation,” Mr Porter said.
“Now that may manifest in voluntary presentation of evidence whether it’s written or oral.
“That question would need to be directed to the minister who is more intimately aware of the issues at play here.
“But this is simply the maintenance of a long-standing legal precedence that state royal commissions — state-generated royal commissions — do not have a jurisdiction to compel Commonwealth authorities.”
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority declined to comment.