NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm says the Murray Darling Basin Plan is the result of 1 per cent science and 99pc politics and SA has the worst understanding of its water sharing reforms.
In a Senate speech last week during debate a motion demanding an independent judicial inquiry into recent allegations of water theft linked to the Basin Plan, raised on the ABC Four Corners program, Senator Leyonhjelm hit out at overt politicisation of the underlying issues.
His views were also underlined in a strongly worded opinion article penned for Fairfax Media published last week.
“The Millennium Drought, the longest and most severe drought for a hundred years, prompted panic about climate change and led some to conclude that drought was the new normal, water would always be scarce and the environment was facing catastrophe,” he said.
“Sensible people knew, and others found out, that droughts always end.
“That occurred in 2010/11 with widespread flooding, recovery of wetlands, birds breeding enthusiastically, frogs and fish proliferating, and the cycle of life resuming as it has for thousands of years. Dorothea Mackellar’s Australia, ‘a land of droughts and flooding rains’, was never better demonstrated.
“However, during the drought a plan was devised, first by the Howard government and then by Rudd, to remove water from agriculture in order to ‘save’ the environment.
“The Water Act was introduced which required the development of a plan to manage water in the Murray Darling Basin.
“Its details were negotiated by Labor against a background of panic over the drought, state bickering over water sharing and the threat to Labor from the Greens.
“The result was 1pc science and 99pc politics.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said the Basin Plan called for the return of 2750 gigalitres of water to the environment with a further 450GLs to be returned subject to certain conditions.
He said since it began in 2012, water rights had been purchased from farmers in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, plus a small quantity from SA.
In the last parliament, he chaired a Senate inquiry into the Basin Plan’s impacts with the Committee finding that the loss of irrigation water was hurting rural communities and farms no longer grew irrigated crops like fruit or pasture.
“They required far fewer inputs and generated far less income,” he said.
“Workers had lost their jobs and moved away.
“Regional communities had fewer schoolchildren and volunteer firefighters and customers in local shops.”
But Senator Leyonhjelm said the inquiry also found out that there was “a very poor understanding of the plan”.
“Many people had an almost religious belief that the environment simply needs water, irrespective of whether it's in the right place at the right time or in the right quantities,” he said.
“It was even worse in South Australia.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said SA’s “outrage” over allegations that water was being misappropriated from the Darling and Barwon rivers in NSW, as aired on ABC, was “ridiculous, given that these rivers often run dry and only about 6pc of the water in these two rivers ever gets to SA.
“Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the inquiry was hearing how 900GLs of water taken from productive agriculture in Victoria and NSW evaporate in Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert in SA,” he said.
“If Lake Alexandrina was allowed to remain open to the sea and subject to tidal influences rather than being kept closed by man-made barrages, it could be sea water that evaporates and not fresh water.
“Preserving an artificial environment at the expense of farming and rural communities seems very poor public policy.
“The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was conceived in panic and is seriously flawed. Its intentions are laudable, but it is not Holy Writ.
“There's enormous scope for improvement.”