Department uses fake images on Murray-Darling ad

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The Murray-Darling advertisement, now revised, which has attracted controversy.

An image taken in Turkey and shots from Sydney were used in a $14 million taxpayer-funded ad campaign about water shortages in the Murray-Darling Basin.

The Federal Government is under fire over what some senators have called an expensive, emotional scare campaign suggesting critical rivers could run dry in the next drought.

Senior bureaucrats have admitted that some imagery used in the advertisement and awareness campaign about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was not taken in the basin.

One image was shot in an orange grove in Turkey and others are from Cronulla in Sydney, with complaints forcing their removal.

Liberal Senator Dave Sharma said $14 million seemed a bit steep.

But the secretary of the federal environment department, David Fredericks, said it was value for money.

Mr Fredericks also defended the campaign's integrity, despite the use of visuals from outside the basin and a computer-generated image Senator Sharma called "apocalyptic", depicting what a dry basin might look like.

"It was a legitimate attempt, an honest attempt by the department and by the creative (agency) to give a sense of what a dry Murray-Darling Basin looks like," the secretary said.

"That was the purpose of the ad. We're honest. Such an image right now — if we go out to the basin — isn't available to us so we did the next best thing."

Senator Perin Davey suggested the $14 million advertising campaign could have been better spent on addressing fish passages or riparian health.

Nationals Senator Perin Davey said the campaign had concerned many people and noted that during the last drought "we did not see anywhere as devastated as the imagery in that TV campaign".

Ms Anita Agett, Communications and Media Branch Head of the department, admitted “there is one image where CGI was used to show a potential future scenario”.

From the advertisement: “If we don't act it could threaten our iconic Aussie plants and animals, our food supply, and affect the drinking water of more than three million Australians".

Liberal Senator Ann Ruston and Senator Davey pointed out that under the plan being implemented by the Federal Government, water will be taken from productive uses (that is, food production) and transferred to the environment.

From the advertisement: “We have to make sure there’s enough water, otherwise the rivers may run dry”.

Senator Davey pointed out that during the millennial drought the Murray River remained flowing from the mountains to the Lower Lakes.

However, she also pointed out that the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, in full, could not guarantee that rivers in the northern basin did not run dry.

“If there’s no rain, there’s no rain.”

Senator Davey pressed the department officials for an explanation of why the image was chosen to shock viewers.

“Mr Fredericks you said you thought it was an honest and genuine attempt to show what the basin may look like if it were dry,” she said.

“I am keen to understand where you draw the line in terms of, like, and anecdotal interpretation as opposed to actually using hard evidence to actually, to do that?”

Federal Assistant Climate Change Minister Jenny McAllister said some of Senator Davey's assertions were inaccurate.

She quoted from the ad's script, which warned: "If we don't act it could threaten our iconic Aussie plants and animals, our food supply, and affect the drinking water of more than three million Australians".

"That is an important issue," Senator McAllister said, adding there had long been bipartisan support to ensure the future of food and fibre industries, towns and ecological assets that rely on water in the basin.

A department official, initially questioned by Senator Sharma as to whether all the images used in the advertisement were all from the Murray-Darling Basin and not by artificial intelligence, that they were genuine.

The official responded that “yes they are.” Then a few seconds later: “There is one image created by CGI that was used to show a future potential scenario.”

Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek recently published an article warning of the danger of “deep fakes” in created imagery.

“AI is a game changer for everything — from how we deliver medical care to how we complete menial administrative tasks,” Ms Plibersek said.

“It's crucial that we harness the power of this technology. But we also have to recognise and rein it in when it can do harm.”

– With AAP