A “misunderstanding” has emerged between the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and the state government about whether High Court proceedings against the federal government would be discontinued.
MDB royal commissioner Bret Walker has requested an apology from Attorney-General Vickie Chapman, calling a statement from her office “wrong, discourteous and inappropriate”.
The clash came about after Mr Walker wrote to Ms Chapman yesterday to inform her about some “important implications” of the date of the High Court hearing.
This follows the federal government initiating High Court proceedings to avoid having staff in federal bodies, such as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the CSIRO and other Commonwealth bodies, being compelled to appear before the state-based commission, after summonses were issued earlier this year.
“The purpose of the summonses was to obtain material that I may use to respond to the terms of reference, upon which I am required to report,” Mr Walker wrote in his letter to Ms Chapman.
He indicated the October date of the High Court hearing could create a problems in adhering to the report’s due date of February 1, 2019.
He said “procedural fairness” would mean if the High Court did compel the witnesses to attend the commission, they would require “a decent period of notice to attend … (and) sufficient time at hearings” as well as time for any follow-up questions.
“The date fixed for the full court hearing produces, I think, on my estimate of a reasonable timetable, the practical impossibility of enforcing summonses to the MDBA and Commonwealth,” he said.
Mr Walker said it would be “possible to report without the benefit of the material and evidence sought by the summonses in question” because of submissions from other people but he would prefer to obtain the material directly.
“I would much prefer to report having had the benefit of receiving evidence from not only the scientists and others who have already given evidence to the commission, but from relevant people at the MDBA and other Commonwealth agencies, such as the CSIRO,” he said.
“I would prefer to hear directly from relevant people before drawing inferences about their conduct.”
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He said a decision on the need for an extension was in the hands of the state government, and he would decide whether to continue with the summonses, based on that decision.
“The question of whether the stipulated date for me to report should be extended is entirely a matter the government,” he said.
“If the government were to decide that an appropriate extension will definitely be made so as to permit fair use to be made of the material and evidence sought under the summonses in question, I regard it as completely proper for the proceedings to continue.”
In response, Ms Chapman noted that Mr Walker had not requested any extension of time and that he considered himself able to complete the report without the benefit of the material in the summonses.
Ms Chapman also released a statement to the media today, which said the report would be issued in February and the summonses would be dropped.
“With his report due in February, Mr Walker has explained there is insufficient time to enforce the summonses if the High Court challenge were successful,” the statement read.
“However, Mr Walker has advised that he is able to complete his report without pressing for the production of Commonwealth witnesses or documents, as he has received further evidence on which he can rely.
“He will be withdrawing the summonses.”
Ms Chapman said the decision would leave some constitutional questions unanswered.
“We expect the High Court proceedings to be discontinued,” she said.
"This will leave some important constitutional questions unresolved, but I believe the priority here is for the Commission to get on with its work and report back to the people of SA.”
This led to Mr Walker hitting back, saying there had been “some misunderstanding” that needed to be “cleared up as soon as possible”.
“Although I can make what I hope would be a useful report without the benefit of the material and evidence sought by the summonses, I would much prefer to obtain that benefit,” he said.
Again, he reiterated that the decision to extend or not extend the report date was in the hands of the state government.
“It would be quite wrong for anyone to proceed on the false basis that I would withdraw the summonses simply because I have not formally asked for an extension of time, in advance of knowing whether it would be necessary at all,” he said.
Ms Chapman’s office has been contacted for comment.