Community concerns regarding the damage that could be caused by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan have again fallen on deaf ears.
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Less than a week after Riverina communities simultaneously rallied against proposed changes to the water recovery section of the plan, the Federal Labor Government has struck a deal which could further decimate basin communities.
The agreement with the Australian Greens reportedly includes a commitment in law that an extra 450GL of environmental water for the southern basin, to boost flows to South Australia, will be recovered by 2027.
While extending the deadline beyond 2024, it also removes a cap on buybacks that was introduced by the previous government.
Environmental groups have said “the proposed amendments will give basin rivers a chance of restoration after years of delay tactics”, but local stakeholders are up in arms.
As chair of the community-based Speak Up Campaign, Shelley Scoullar said the deal highlights a failure to understand basic principles of managing water across large parts of our continent.
She also said recent commentary from some of the major political parties shows we need a renewed focus on common sense water policy, and how this precious resource is managed.
“We acknowledge that a large part of what is happening revolves around politics and winning votes. But it appears there is also a failure of politicians to be appropriately educated before making decisions, and unfortunately livelihoods and rural communities are being caught in the crossfire,” Mrs Scoullar said.
She says it is not surprising that federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek is struggling with this portfolio.
“Water is a very complex area, perhaps more so than previous portfolios held by Ms Plibersek.
“Additionally, she is inner-city born and bred and as such has had very limited experience with farming, rural life and the broader national environment in general.
“As country people we respect that, though it is disappointing that we do not seem to be getting the same respect in return.”
Federal Shadow Minister for Water and Deniliquin-based Nationals Senator Perin Davey said the Labor Greens deal leaves “basin communities dry”.
She said the agreement reached removes the last remaining protections for communities by removing the cap on water buybacks and removing the socio-economic impact test.
“This is a total betrayal of regional communities by a government that promised no-one would be left behind,” Senator Davey said.
“The deal with the Greens shows us who is really controlling water policy in this country, and it’s not Tanya Plibersek.
“The Opposition was negotiating in good faith with the government to come to a deal that struck a balance between the environment and communities.
“We have always stayed firm to the agreement reached with Labor’s Tony Burke in 2012 to have social and economic impacts tested against water recovery, and if the impact was negative, the project could not proceed.
“This represents an abandonment of the long-standing bipartisan commitment to the Basin Plan.
“By removing that test, the minister has admitted that buybacks will cause social and economic harm to basin communities, but she doesn’t care. When you take water away from farming communities, we all pay the price.”
The NSW Farmers Association has used this latest development to appeal to NSW premier Chris Minns to stand up and “distance himself from the Albanese Government” on this issue.
NSW Farmers Water Taskforce chair Richard Bootle, who also lives in a basin community, said too many policy issues were being dictated by inner city politics rather than the realities on the ground.
“The New South Wales Government is supporting this by agreeing to the scraps being thrown their way in extending deadlines for water recovery, while being blindsided at the same time with massive changes to the past protections for farmers and regional communities,” Mr Bootle said.
“Politicians have failed to listen to locals who have been warning them about the detriments of water buybacks.
“Unfortunately for Labor, this is a decision they’ll one day regret. It’s just a pity that regional communities will suffer.
“Now’s the time for the Minns Government to see the writing on the wall and draw a line in the sand. They should be publicly announcing they don’t support water buybacks or they too will suffer when people’s grocery bills soar even further.
“New South Wales cannot stand by and be part of an agreement where they are tacit to the destruction of farming families and the flow on impacts to rural towns and communities.”