Can the High Court Save the Murray River?

John Williams and Adam Webster examine the question that all South Australians would like answered – can the High Court save the Murray River?

On 28 May 2012, Premier Jay Weatherill described the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s Revised Basin Plan as ‘unacceptable’ and argued that ‘it does not return enough water to provide for a healthy river’ (see the Premier’s press release here).  If the South Australian Premier cannot convince the Commonwealth Water Minister to increase the amount of water released back in to the River a High Court challenge seems likely.  The Premier warned, ‘I have instructed our lawyers to draft a legal challenge to this plan – so that if this plan is made law, we will be ready to fight it in court.’ 

Will a High Court challenge result in an increase in water for the Murray River? In an article published in the Environment and Planning Law Journal this month, Adam Webster and John Williams explore some of the issues that need to be resolved in answering that question:

Since before Federation, South Australian politicians have claimed that their colony (and later State) has a legal right to a share of the water from the Murray River. Recently, South Australian Premiers have said that, should current negotiations fail to produce a satisfactory outcome for the State, they may challenge the Basin Plan in the High Court to assert South Australia’s legal claim to a share of the waters of the Murray. This article explores the role that the High Court has played in resolving disputes in times of crisis, and examines whether the High Court of Australia would have jurisdiction over an interstate water dispute. Finally, the article considers the legal basis for South Australia’s claim to a “fair share” of the waters of the Murray River.

Abstract from Adam Webster and John M Williams, ‘Can the High Court Save the Murray River?’ (2012) 29 Environmental and Planning Law Journal 281.

The July edition of the Environmental and Planning Law Journal also features a number of papers presented at the Water Law and Policy 2011: Optimising the Future of the Murray-Darling Basin (ANU, 1 December 2011). 

Professor John Williams is Dean of Law at the University of Adelaide. Adam Webster is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide and 2012 Fulbright Scholar.

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