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  • Rikki Lambert

Labor flush with promise for SA Murray - at what cost?

From left, Terri Butler, Louise Miller-Frost, Anthony Albanese, Peter Malinauskas, Dr Susan Close and Penny Wong

Visiting Adelaide to promote Labor's campaign to wrest the metropolitan seat of Boothby from Liberal hands, federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese and Queensland-based water minister Terri Butler declared Labor would deliver the promised 450 gigalitres to South Australia under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Labor's five-point plan for the Murray Darling Basin purports to support the triple-bottom line of the needs of local communities, farmers and the environment.

Announcing the plans alongside Boothby candidate Louise Miller-Frost, Ms Butler, newly elected SA Premier and Deputy Premier Peter Malinauskas and Dr Susan Close, and former federal water minister, serving SA senator Penny Wong, Mr Albanese declared in a statement on Friday morning:

"The future of the Murray Darling is too important to risk three more years of Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce.
"The Morrison-Joyce Government will never act because the Nationals won’t let them. The environment is hurting and Murray Darling Basin communities are paying the price.

South Australian Labor premier Peter Malinauskas told reporters:

"Since that 450 gigalitres was promised, we've seen two gigalitres come. Two gigalitres out of 450 that we were promised, that we know that the federal Coalition and the Liberal Party in South Australia have actively denied the river. Now, when rivers don't have environmental flows, they start to break down. We see the river dying from the bottom up, we cannot allow that to occur, which is why we desperately need in South Australia, a partner in the federal government."

In addition to the 450 gigalitre recommitment - on top of the 2,750 GL guaranteed to South Australia under the Murray Darling Basin Plan, Labor also committed:

  • $26 million to establish a National Water Commission to drive ongoing water reform, and future-proof Australia’s water resources, bringing national leadership and fairness into water policy.

  • broadening the National Water Grid Fund investment policy, to allow funding for a broader range of projects, including for essential town water supplies in regional and remote communities.

  • Increasing compliance across the Basin and, to support that compliance work, committing an additional $35 million for improved metering and monitoring.

  • Restoring integrity and confidence by working with stakeholders to implement relevant ACCC recommendations, and by making the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s modelling and data publicly available where possible.

  • Increasing First Nations ownership of water entitlements and participation in decision making.

  • Future-proofing the Basin Plan by updating the science, committing $8.5 million for the CSIRO Sustainable Yield study to inform the forthcoming review, committing $3.5 million for an independent study on climate change’s effect on Ramsar wetlands in the Basin and, if justified, considering whether to bring forward the commencement of the 2026 review.

Federal Water Minister and Queensland Nationals MP Keith Pitt responded:

"Anthony Albanese needs to explain where the water is coming from in his so-called plan for the Murray-Darling.
"Mr Albanese has all but confirmed Labor will re-introduce water buybacks that have been so damaging to Murray-Darling Basin communities.
"Each-way Albo is again saying one thing in one state then changing his position in another.
"He needs to stand up in towns like Shepparton and Deniliquin and explain how his plan will work. Mr Albanese needs to be honest with them about Labor’s plans for buybacks.
"A vote for an Anthony Albanese led Labor-Greens-independents alliance is a vote for weaker basin communities, less local jobs and more harmful water buybacks."

Labor federal shadow water minister Terri Butler told reporters in Adelaide on Friday:

"We do not have a policy of compulsory acquisition of water. But I want to make very clear that we are not ruling out any tools to uphold the Murray Darling Basin Plan. We will do what is needed to uphold the Murray Darling Basin Plan. All we're asking is that other stakeholders and other jurisdictions do what they committed to do 10 years ago, and that's to deliver on the plan.
"But I don't think it needs to come to it (buybacks). I think that we can all agree that if the jurisdictions work together, then they can avoid the need for any further discussion of this issue. They can avoid it, by working together in good faith to deliver on the water that was promised a decade ago."

South Australian Greens senator and environment spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young declared that the Greens in the Senate will ensure buybacks are restored to save the River Murray.

The Greens say a buyback scheme is critical to restoring water flows to the river and delivering 450GL to South Australia:

“The 450GL promised to SA cannot be delivered without restoring voluntary water buybacks. This is critical to ensuring the longevity of the Murray and those who rely on it.
“It is clear the Nationals cannot be trusted with water governance – we have seen our rivers suffer and corporate interests get rich at the expense of everyone else. The recent appointments of their Nationals mates and fossil fuel lobbyists onto Murray-Darling Basin review panels show that this is not going to change anytime soon.

South Australia’s peak environment body has strongly welcomed the commitment from Federal Labor to restore the National Water Commission and guarantee delivery of the 450GL in the Murray Darling Basin Plan negotiated by SA when the Plan was formed. Conservation SA Chief Executive Craig Wilkins.

“Federal Labor’s clear commitment to the full delivery of the 450GL for healthy flows by the Plan’s reconciliation date in 2024 is a welcome confirmation of this core part of the Plan.
“So far, less than 1% of that 450GL has been delivered, and time is fast running out.
“Ultimately it will be the Federal Water Minister who will be required to make up any shortfall in the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s full 3200 GL water delivery target if the water promised by NSW and Victoria doesn’t materialise.

The NSW Irrigators Council gave a 'four out of five' rating to the Labor plan, with CEO Clair Miller saying:

“The point we don’t agree with is delivering another 450 GL to South Australia, for the simple reason it is undeliverable on several fronts.
“We have learnt many valuable lessons from the Basin Plan’s implementation since 2012. Most importantly we have learnt the limitations of trying to force reality to fit the Plan’s flawed model.
“Water is so scarce and expensive now, and interest rates so low, that farmers find they are better off funding works themselves and benefiting from the water savings, rather than transferring entitlements to the environment in return for the Government funding."

Despite those claims, federal government agriculture forecasting agency ABARES said on Thursday that water allocation prices in the southern Murray–Darling Basin are likely to remain low for a third consecutive year, according to the latest ABARES Water Market Outlook.

ABARES Senior Economist Mihir Gupta said the report provides a range of possible allocation prices for 2022–23 in wet, average, dry and extreme dry scenarios:

“Based on the current climate outlook from the Bureau of Meteorology, ABARES considers the average scenario to be the most likely, with prices reaching $80 per ML,” Mr Gupta said.
“In the more favourable wet scenario, prices are forecast to fall further to $57 per ML.
“Substantial volumes of water are expected to be carried over into 2022–23, and with water storages near capacity in the southern Basin, favourable water supply conditions are likely in 2022–23.
“Most major entitlements are forecast to receive 100 per cent allocations under the wet, average, and dry scenarios."

The National Farmers Federation recently declared it opposed the 450 gigalitre water recovery target under the Basin Plan.

The Victorian Farmers Federation said on Friday afternoon that Labor’s five-point policy showed a total misunderstanding of the Basin Plan and a total disregard for jobs in regional communities. VFF President Emma Germano said:

“Mr Albanese’s plan for pushing on with the 450GL up-water target will result in buybacks and will suck more water out of irrigated agriculture. We know what this does because we’ve seen it before – it kills jobs and kills regional communities.”

VFF Water Council Chair Andrew Leahy said Mr Albanese and his team have shown they do not understand the Basin Plan and had failed to consult Basin communities:

“The recovery of the 450GL up-water target was never guaranteed in legislation and was always subject to socio-economic neutrality. This was later reaffirmed with the socio-economic test that was unanimously agreed by Basin state and federal governments at the 2018 Ministerial Council meeting. The 450GL can only be recovered if there are no negative social economic outcomes.”

Victorian Nationals MP for Mallee, Anne Webster, said on Friday afternoon:

"The Liberals and Nationals commitment to the 2.6 million Australian’s who call the Basin home is clear – no buybacks, regional strength, and keeping communities at the heart of the Basin Plan."


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