Something fishy hidden in the bush

Your Right to Know: the questions that aren't being answered out in the bush

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Last summer's massive inland fish kill shocked Australia. Picture: Rob Gregory

Last summer's massive inland fish kill shocked Australia. Picture: Rob Gregory

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Supporting the media's campaign to protect public interest journalism for rural and regional Australia.

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It was the natural disaster that drew the national spotlight to our most iconic river system, when hundreds of thousands of native fish perished in an isolated pool of the lower Darling River in Far West NSW.

Last summer's catastrophic fish kill shocked Australia and spurred significant reform in state and federal governments.

But the public are still none the wiser about the river operators' decision to drain the brimming Menindee Lakes water storage into the Murray River, which ultimately left the Darling and its fish high and dry.

Like so many significant government decisions, the public's right to know the full story of the fish kill is under threat by an apparent reduction in press freedom in recent years.

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Creeping secrecy has spurred the fierce competitors in news media to put aside their rivalry and unite to protect public interest journalism.

The national campaign launched last week, focusing on the police raids of News Corp and the ABC were the catalyst for the media's warring factions to take up the cause for the public's right to know, but there are many issues in rural and regional Australia that also highlight a worrying lack of transparency in government decision making.

As reported previously, federal agency the Murray Darling Basin Authority and its co-river operators in state NSW, Victoria, and South Australia have explained their decision to drain the Menindee Lakes as an exercise in minimising evaporation losses from the hot, shallow water storage.

The public is none the wiser about the decision to drain the Menindee Lakes water storage into the Murray River, which ultimately left the Darling and its fish high and dry.

The public is none the wiser about the decision to drain the Menindee Lakes water storage into the Murray River, which ultimately left the Darling and its fish high and dry.

But dig a little deeper and you draw a blank on the big questions: why was virtually all the Menindee water released into the Murray River when the Murray was already in flood? What were the river operators' priorities at the time, and how can we be confident they have shifted to prevent future fish kills if we aren't privy to the decision-making process?

Australia Institute researcher Maryanne Slattery has requested information from the MDBA on the Menindee releases, and the Commonwealth spending regime for the entire $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan.

"On any big issue we've looked at they'll either deny access to information all-together, give you a mountain of peripheral information that requires expert analysis to make any sense of at all, or they supply reams and reams of pages but with all the information redacted," Ms Slattery said.

Another regional campaigner, Lock the Gate, has been frustrated in its requests for information about federal government's interaction with mining companies.

Lock the Gate national co-ordinator Carmel Flint asked for records of the Environment Minister's meetings with coal proponent Adani, as the miner prepared plans to manage impacts to water resources.

After the May 18 election the federal government replied rejecting her request, with the explanation that because the minister had changed in a Cabinet reshuffle the documents were not in "possession" of the new minster.

"I find this quite extraordinary. This means that a new Minister can entirely wipe the slate clean and prevent any public disclosure of relevant documents, even those requested under the previous minister," Ms Flint said.

The Foreign Investment Review board has declined to reveal why it approved the 2012 sale of 269,000 hectares of forestry land owned by Great Southern to Canadian superannuation fund Alberta Investment Management.

The Foreign Investment Review board has declined to reveal why it approved the 2012 sale of 269,000 hectares of forestry land owned by Great Southern to Canadian superannuation fund Alberta Investment Management.

The $10 billion Inland Rail project to link Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne ports is frustrating farmers who want to know if the proposed benefits stack up against the disruption to their land, and the cost to taxpayers.

They have campaigned for access to the decision making process the Australian Rail Track Authority used to select a greenfield rail corridor from Narromine to Narrabri, and why the option of using existing track along the same route was rejected.

But so far ARTC and government haven't budged.

Foreign ownership of farmland is another area lacking sunlight.

For example, the Foreign Investment Review board has declined to reveal the reasons why it approved the 2012 sale of 269,000 hectares of forestry land owned by Great Southern to Canadian superannuation fund Alberta Investment Management.

Government's approach mirrors a worrying trend in the growing trade of large scale corporate agribusiness sales, where foreign owners favour large corporate investors over local buyers.

A scene from TV commercials by Australia's Right to Know.

A scene from TV commercials by Australia's Right to Know.

In November last year US private equity firm Proterra Investment Partners accepted a $200 million bid from Canadian pension fund PSP, and overlooked a $270m offer from a consortium of local farmers.

There may have been additional elements to PSP's bid, but because the full details of the transaction weren't revealed local investors are effectively disadvantaged when it comes to competing for future agribusiness opportunities.

Australia's Right to Know, a coalition of leading media organisations and industry groups including Australian Community Media, has launched a website, yourrighttoknow.com.au, to show the dangers of increasing federal government secrecy, and to urge Australians to stand up for their right to know.

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