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  • Rikki Lambert

Nationals senators pushing Murray-Darling Basin Plan changes

A picture posted by ALP SA senator Penny Wong on Monday's Basin vote

Nationals emboldened by the return as leader of Barnaby Joyce will push for major changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The Nationals have launched an audacious bid to dramatically shake up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with a new push to scrap 450 gigalitres of water earmarked for the environment.

In a Wednesday morning joint statement from northern Victorian federal MPs Anne Webster and Damian Drum, and Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, the trio advised the National Party would propose four key amendments to the Water Act (2007) and Basin Plan Act (2012):

  • Remove 450GL up water

  • Remove buybacks

  • Enable new offset projects

  • No further water to be taken when the Basin Plan concludes in 2024

The amendments will see the removal of the 450 gigalitres (GL) that the Nationals say the former federal Labor government 'hastily added to the Plan in 2012 to get South Australia to sign up, but the 450GL was never guaranteed.'

Dr Webster said in the statement:

“Our farmers need certainty to farm with confidence, they need to know no further water can be taken.”

Emboldened after the return of Barnaby Joyce as deputy prime minister, the Nationals will move amendments to a government bill in the Senate on Wednesday.

While the government has ruled out water buybacks as a matter of government policy, the proposed amendments would enshrine the goverment's self-imposed ban in Basin Plan law.

In addition, no new water for the environment would be allowed after the plan concludes.

Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, who is tipped to return to cabinet as early as this week, is leading the charge for the changes and said on Wednesday morning:

"For too long our basin communities have been hurting; the science is now telling us the approach adopted 12 years ago is outdated and the plan must change."

South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick said the amendments were completely at odds with government policy:

"Scott Morrison must act now and strip the Nationals of the water portfolio."

The basin plan has recovered 2100GL of its 2750GL environmental water target, with the rest due to be recovered come from water offset projects.

But there is widespread concern the remainder of the water will not be recovered. FlowNews24 has previously reported that community objections have stalled state government action on the major means of recovering the water in New South Wales - permanently drying some of the Menindee Lakes system in the Lower Darling - and in Victoria - allowing intermittent flooding of riverside farmland.

The Basin Plan deadlines crystallise in 2024 and a failure to have met recovery targets will activate buyback rights in the Basin Plan, unless it is amended by law.

The Nationals' proposal would allow new projects to be added if existing plans do not succeed.

Senator McKenzie said:

"We all need to live and adjust to a world with less water, including the environment."  
"While we need to protect the environment we also need to protect our food security."

Nationals senators will aim to attach the changes on to a bill giving substantive powers to the inspector-general of the basin.

A handful of Liberal and Nationals senators - including Senator McKenzie - emboldened on the day of Mr Joyce's return to the leadership, voted against a formal but symbolic motion on Monday that the Basin Plan be delivered 'in full and on time'.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young accused Mr Joyce and his supporters of wanting to deprive the environment of more water, telling parliament:

"We now have a new war being launched on South Australia and the Murray-Darling Basin by the National Party."

Senator Hanson-Young challenged Prime Minister Scott Morrison and government Senate leader Simon Birmingham, an SA senator, to stand up to the Nationals, adding:

"Stare down this wacky, crazy, untrustworthy mob and make sure they do not get their mitts on the portfolio, the public money and any more of the water."
"The Nationals have always been more interested in looking after their corporate irrigator mates than the people or environment. They deny climate change, deny science and they cannot be trusted to manage the Murray Darling Basin.
"Scott Morrison must be a national leader and strip the Nationals of the water portfolio. When it comes to water he has one job, tell the National party to back off and take their hand off our water."

-- with AAP


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