The Windsor Inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan handed down its results last week, calling for greater community engagement in creating the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But the government has already dismissed one key aspect of the inquiry and researchers are questioning the inquiry’s anti-buyback and pro-community engagement stance as the best way to establish a healthy river system.

The parliament inquiry was conducted by the Standing Committee on Regional Australia and headed by independent MP Tony Windsor. It examined the socio-economic aspects of the Murray Darling Basin Plan on the Basin communities and the full report can be read online here.

The results are hugely critical of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), noting that it has lost credibility with the communities it was supposed to engage with. An entire subsection of the Windsor Inquiry was on the reputation of the MDBA, stating:

“It is easy to see in the language and sentiments expressed in evidence that the reputation of the MDBA has clearly been damaged as a result of the Guide… These are strategic decisions for which the executive and Board of the MDBA should accept responsibility.”

Mike Taylor, who was chair of the MDBA during much of heated public outcry, resigned back in December, making him an easy target for much of the blame.

When asked what the MDBA thought of the results of the Windsor Inquiry this morning, Crikey was referred to a previous quote by current chair Craig Knowles, who said “We welcome the Windsor report and are looking at it closely. I don’t think there’ll be many surprises, as we’ve spoken to the same communities and interest groups”.

When asked what the MDBA thought of Tony Windsor saying the MDBA “hadn’t done a good in terms of discussing the issues with the community”, Crikey was referred to a quote by previous MDBA CEO Rob Freeman: “I think it’s fair to say we did get things wrong, I agree with that. I think the idea of being out talking in a town hall four days after you’ve released a document that’s some 233 pages is probably a flawed strategy. We need to give people time to understand. I think it’s fair to say we were having meetings where people hadn’t had an opportunity to read it, let alone to understand it.”

John Quiggin, an academic who has devoted more than 30 years of research to studying the Murray-Darling Basin, says the latest Windsor Inquiry made him swear off researching the Basin — at least for the foreseeable future, telling Crikey: “There’s not much point in analysing the economics as long as it’s going to [turn into a] political decision.”

Quiggin says in retrospect the Murray-Darling Basin would be better off without an overarching plan which everyone had to agree to. “The idea of a plan has turned out to be worse than useless”, said Quiggin, noting that if would be better for governments to be responsive and implementing policies and measures that individual communities need rather than trying to get over a million residents in the Basin to agree on one plan.

“You should blame John Howard rather than anyone else. The whole notion that the Commonwealth would do a better job than the states has proved to be false.”

Today the Victorian government announced an advisory group to advocate for north Victoria in the Basin plan negotiations. “First and foremost, the Coalition Government wants to make sure Victoria’s interests are strongly represented” said Victorian Water Minister Peter Walsh.

Walsh also noted that the Windsor report advocated community engagement on a catchment by catchment basis and therefore this group was being established to make sure Victorian interests are heard loud and clear.

MDBA chief Craig Knowles told Crikey about the community engagement changes contained in the next Basin Plan guide, such as a 16-week community consultation period following its release.

“I’m confident that the community is already realising that they’re dealing with a different Authority this time around, and that we are taking on board their local ideas and solutions,” said Knowles.

One of the most contentious measures advocated by the Windsor was a re-assessment of the voluntary buyback system, with recommendation 7 suggesting:

The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government immediately cease all non-strategic water purchase in the MurrayDarling Basin and take a strategic approach to water purchases that prioritises the lowest possible impact in communities.

Windsor’s suggestion to avoid buyback has already been ignored by the government, with federal agriculture and environment minister Tony Burke praising buybacks just this week.

“We cannot have reform without buyback,” Burke said, “There are tenders that have already been advertised that are open (today). They will open (today).”

Burke has a supporter in the Australian Conservation Foundation, with ACF’s healthy rivers campaigner Dr Arlene Harriss-Buchan saying voluntary buybacks are a success story that needs to continue. “Voluntary buybacks return real water to the environment and provide real benefits for taxpayers’ investment,” said Harriss-Buchan.

If the MDBA had been better at reassuring irrigators that buybacks would be voluntary, it wouldn’t be stuck in its current position with aggressive irrigators determining the direction of the plan, says Quiggin.

The next draft plan to the Murray Darling Basin will be released mid year this year, although no precise date has been given.

The MDBA also said that a decision has not yet been made over whether there will be an independent review of the new science and modelling being put forth by the MDBA.