Numurkah Leader, 21 February: THE Victorian Farmers Federation is calling for a depoliticisation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan after a vote in Canberra last week blocked changes proposed by the Basin Authority and prompted threats by Victoria and NSW to pull out of the $13 billion scheme.
Victorian Farmers Federation Water Chair Richard Anderson told the Leader the result of the vote was disappointing but that abandoning the Plan, as threatened by Victorian and NSW water ministers, would create more uncertainty for irrigators and regional communities.
“We’ve got to try and work our way through it,” Mr Anderson said. “I think it’s time everyone threw the politics out the door and got on with what’s meant to be done in delivering the Plan.”
On February 14 federal Labor joined the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Australian Conservatives Senator Cory Bernardi to vote against an increase in the water available to communities in the Northern Basin under the Plan.
The adjustment of the original “sustainable diversion limit” – the amount of water that can be extracted from the river system – was recommended by the Murray Darling Basin Authority following a four-year review of the Northern Basin.
The change was described by Basin Authority chief executive Phillip Glyde as striking a sensible balance between social, economic and environmental interests, and was conditional on the Queensland, New South Wales and federal governments agreeing to implement a series of initiatives for improved water management.
The Murray Darling Basin Plan provides for changes to be made to water extraction limits but the process involves amending federal legislation so the changes have to pass the Parliament.
According to the Basin Authority, the extra 70 gigalitres to be made available in Queensland and NSW would save around 200 jobs in irrigation-dependent communities without significantly reducing environmental outcomes.
But Labor, Greens and other senators voting against the change expressed a lack of confidence in state and federal water compliance management, pointing to investigations into allegations of water rorting and corruption on the river system underway in four states.
“Until this government demonstrates it is serious about tackling the allegations of theft and corruption in the Basin, we are not in a position to support the northern basin proposal,” Labor Senator Penny Wong told the Parliament.
Richard Anderson said he believed compliance was a separate issue to the setting of sustainable diversion limits and in any case would have been taken into account by the Basin Authority’s four-year review.
Australian Dairy Farmers’ National Council representative and Murray-Darling Basin Task Force Chair Daryl Hoey shares that view.
“Some people are trying to link too many separate parts of the Basin Plan and even things not part of the Basin Plan. All these things should be assessed individually on their merit,” he told the Leader.
Also feeding into the political climate around the vote last week was a declaration by a group of academics who said that the Murray Darling Basin Plan wasn’t working.
Their Murray Darling Declaration, released earlier this month, called for a freeze on irrigation infrastructure spending, an audit of all water targets and environmental outcomes, and the establishment of an independent scientific advisory body.
Daryl Toey believes their perspective is short-term and short-sighted.
“That group of academics have never taken into account the social and economic impacts an adverse Basin Plan will have on the communities, and even more frustrating is their simplistic view of what an environmental outcome is. No-one ever said when the Basin Plan was brought into legislation that all the environmental benefits had to be achieved within the first few years,” Mr Toey said.
Labor’s support for a Greens motion disallowing the Northern Basin adjustment has been widely viewed as motivated by the politics of the upcoming South Australian election, to be held on March 18.
The move was slammed by Goulburn Valley political representatives at both federal and state levels of government.
“Federal Labor has walked away from a core element of the Plan they helped design, the Plan which has already forced much hardship on irrigation-dependent economies in the Basin, including the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District,” federal member for Murray Damian Drum said in a statement.
The state member for Shepparton, indpendent Suzanna Sheed, described the vote as a “political stunt” and “a significant blow to all Basin communities”.
The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), however, released a statement welcoming the vote, which it described as “a chance to reset the Basin Plan for the better”.
“Aboriginal organisations consistently opposed any further cuts to water recovery in the Northern Basin throughout the Northern Basin Review process,” the organisation’s chair, Mr Rene Woods said in the statement. “Water for the environment is critical to support our cultural traditions, health and wellbeing. We know that many people across the Basin, and Australia, share our concerns and aspirations.”
Last week’s vote has increased concern in Victoria about the 605 gigalitre increase in the extraction limit proposed by the Authority for the Southern Basin.
The reduction, which is contingent on an extensive program of water saving initiatives being implemented, would mean no new water buybacks would be needed in Victoria.
“If that gets rejected and the commonwealth go back into the marketplace to purchase that 605 gigalitres, that will have serious ramifications for the viability of this region,” Mr Toey said.
But if the Parliament were to reject the adjustment, Mr Toey believes NSW and Victoria would likely strike a side deal with the Commonwealth to make it happen.
The Senate isn’t due to vote on the Southern Basin adjustment until May 8 – after the South Australian election.
(Feature image Collarenebri, NSW, courtesy of C Goodwin)