IRRIGATORS have slammed the Australian Greens for “disgraceful propaganda” over a disallowance motion that’s threatening the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s future and undermining the stability of farming production in vulnerable Northern Basin communities.
Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull – a former Water Minister with extensive and intimate knowledge of the Basin Plan’s background and purpose – has also accused Labor of following the Greens on a political move that would “immediately destroy hundreds and subsequently thousands of jobs” and create financial and investment uncertainty, in those farming districts.
Labor has also come under intense fire from the National Irrigators Council (NIC) for indicating, through Shadow Water Minister Tony Burke, that they’ll be voting with the Greens to scuttle long-anticipated Basin Plan amendments.
The changes to the Basin Plan came following a four-year scientific review by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) which recommended the Northern river section’s water savings target be reduced by 70 gigalitres, to ease commercial suffering in mostly cotton producing regions, without any negative environmental impacts.
During Question Time yesterday in federal parliament, Mr Turnbull said Labor was “going to destroy jobs” by backing the Greens, on the disallowance motion.
“Labor is going to vote with the Greens to withdraw their support for the Basin Plan - a once bipartisan Plan of which the member for Watson (Mr Burke) was a great supporter,” he said.
“When we lost government in 2007 the responsibility for water went from me over to the Labor Party - first Senator Wong, then the member for Watson, who became a great supporter of the Basin Plan.
“(But) he's now going to vote down in the Senate the outcome of the Northern Basin review that he initiated and immediately destroy hundreds and subsequently thousands of jobs.
“He's going to create financial and investment uncertainty and threaten jobs right across the Basin.”
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has also launched an online campaign targeting Labor leader Bill Shorten and urging him to reverse his party’s position and side with the Coalition, to vote-down the disallowance.
NIC CEO Steve Whan issued several strongly worded media statements this week as the disallowance motion was hotly debated during the first sitting week of federal parliament in Canberra for 2018, ahead of a February 14 deadline to be voted on.
Yesterday, the NIC targeted comments by Greens SA Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who is leading the charge on the disallowance motion, where she said “environmental flows are lower than previously”, in the Basin Plan.
The NIC said the Senator’s comments showed “the lengths of deceit the Greens will go to, to destroy the Basin Plan for their own political ends”.
But Mr Whan said Senator Hanson-Young’s statement can “be very easily disproved” and was “entirely false – as frankly are many of her other statements”.
“The public doesn’t have to take my word for it - they can look at the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder’s web site which shows in black and white how Commonwealth water holdings have grown from 65GLs in 2008-09 to 2670GLs now,” he said.
“You would think from the Greens’ disgraceful propaganda that irrigators are taking all the Murray Darling water.
“The truth is that in an average year 32,500GLs goes into the system and under the basin plan two thirds cannot be extracted.”
Yesterday, Senator Hanson-Young faced media in Canberra welcoming Labor’s backing for their disallowance motion that’s due to be voted on leading up to the SA state election in March.
But she also launched a vicious verbal spray at her political rivals and “greedy corporate irrigators”.
“Too much water is still being ripped out of the river system by greedy corporate irrigators – the environment is being left to fend for itself and communities throughout the Basin are being left to suffer,” she said.
“The changes that the government wants to make to the Basin Plan would mean big corporate irrigators could take even more water out of the river and off the environment but we’re not going to stand for it.
“We’re sick and tired as South Australians of being left out to dry by big corporate irrigators upstream.
“The government wants to hand more money, more taxpayers’ dollars and more water to these big corporate irrigators at the expense of the river and the environment.
“I welcome Labor’s move to back the Green’s disallowance motion when this comes on – it’s a good move by Labor.
“I welcome support by other members of the crossbench and I hope they all come on board.
“It’s time that this federal government and the National Party and the Liberal Party stopped doing the dirty work and the bidding for the big corporate irrigators.
“Their job is to manage the Murray Darling Basin fairly, so it’s available for all users.
“We know there’s a big campaign against this disallowance motion but we’re standing strong.”
Basin Plan “sinking”
But Mr Whan said, “It should be clear to everyone including the Labor party that the Greens are intent on sinking the Basin Plan”.
“They never supported the Plan and they see a political benefit for them in blowing it up,” he said.
“This is a repeat of their 2007 rejection of emissions trading - politics before the environment.”
Mr Whan said “Unfortunately Senator Hanson Young has form on this”.
He said last year she demonstrated a “complete lack of knowledge” of the Basin Plan by saying the Murray Darling Basin Authority had ‘lost’ 605GLs of water but that was “complete rubbish again”.
“The Basin Plan was a massive achievement for the Gillard Government in 2012,” he said of the legislation passed when Mr Burke was the Water Minister.
“It did what very few people thought would be possible, brought to an end a century of argument with a bipartisan agreement, kicked off by John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull and completed by Tony Burke and Julia Gillard.
“It would be a very sad day for Australia if Labor goes along with the selfish Greens and destroys the Basin Plan and their own legacy.”
Mr Whan said Labor was “destroying community goodwill” on the Basin Plan with its stance backing the Greens.
He said he’d been “inundated” with messages from moderate people and community leaders who’d been working to implement the Basin Plan “but who are telling me that if their effort and faith is rejected by the parliament their support will be gone”.
“Mr Burke said he needed answers on: protecting environmental water; comprehensive response to allegations of theft in the Northern Basin; indigenous consultation and engagement in water planning/governance; and accuracy of data modelling and assumptions,” Mr Whan said.
“Those following closely the large number of reviews, investigations, studies and papers for Ministerial Council know that during the last few months a huge amount of work has been done.
“Irrigators have done their bit in this and made it very clear that we have zero tolerance for water theft and are willing to work with government on protecting environmental flows - the problem is very small and isolated to unregulated rivers.
“Irrigation communities are asking why, when they have engaged over years in good faith, their Labor representatives can get to the last second saying they don’t have enough information and make a negative decision.
“If Labor backs the Greens they risk alienating the very people they need to make the “lan work.
“The people who provide the voters in every Victorian, NSW, Qld and South Australian Labor seat with their fresh milk, fruit and veg.
“Labor introduced the basin plan with bipartisan support, it ended years of argument and uncertainty.
“Do Australians really want to see their Parliament restart the fights?”
Mr Whan said he was “appalled” that a decision that will cost more than 100 rural families their livelihoods had been made with “so little regard for the people involved or for the Basin Plan overall”.
“I note Labor is not saying they are opposed altogether to the Northern Basin amendments but I am disgusted that after months of these being on the table specific concerns have not been discussed and resolved,” he said.
NSW Irrigators Council CEO Mark McKenzie said that Northern Basin communities would feel betrayed by the federal Labor decision to scrap the previous bi-partisan approach to the Basin Plan between the Opposition and Coalition parties.
“We are dumbfounded that the Opposition would side with the Greens to support a disallowance motion in parliament that is based on complete ignorance,” he said.
“The Authority’s recommendation to reduce the Northern Basin water recovery target by 70GLs will not mean any reduction in water flowing to South Australia, but would prevent further job losses across many northern valleys as more water is taken out of agriculture.
“The Labor decision is also a slap in the face to the Basin Authority which conducted a long and thorough scientific and economic review of the Northern Basin including the recovery volume, and the social and economic impacts on communities – before recommending the amendments to the Plan.
“It appears that lending a hand to its state colleagues in next month’s South Australian election is more important than protecting the integrity of the Basin Plan and supporting the work of the MDBA.”
Mr McKenzie said “pandering to environmental groups” was more important to the Greens than the loss of hundreds more jobs in the northern Basin that would “irrevocably damage” the social fabric of scores of rural communities but do nothing more to improve the environment.
States may reassess Basin Plan support
Victorian Labor Water Minister Lisa Neville the Greens and her federal Labor counterpart’s backing of the disallowance motion raised “serious concerns” about the Basin Plan’s future.
She said the MDBA’s scientific review (Northern Basin review), required by the Basin Plan, “clearly recommended” the amendment be made to the amount of water recovery (lowered from 390GLs to 320GLs).
“The findings were clear that such an amendment would have no detrimental environmental impact,” she said.
“We are concerned that ignoring the scientific evidence puts the plan back years and ultimately means that political considerations will override decisions of scientists and the ministerial council, which involved the commonwealth and all basin states.
“It also brings the future of the 605GLs Sustainable Diversion Limits adjustment into question, which is due to be considered by the Senate in coming weeks.
“The Senate has created huge uncertainty about whether the Plan can now be delivered.
“If the 605GLs is disallowed, Victorian communities face the potential of further water buy backs and uncertainty, which is unacceptable to the Victorian government.
“We will continue to lobby the Senators from all sides to support the 605GL.
“We will be assessing our position on the Plan as a result of this decision and will have further discussions with NSW.”
Agriculture and Water Minister David Littleproud said there was “real risk” that without calm, and without leadership, “this whole thing can blow up”.
“We could have what we were proposing as a 3200GLs Plan, end up delivering 2090GLs to South Australia,” he said.
“So the Greens, in what they're trying to do is put more water back in the environment, they're actually going to take less.
“The fact is that we have to deliver 2750, but the only mechanism we've got is buybacks.
“We're going to get nowhere near 3200 for South Australia - so you do the math.
“The reality is that they're going to do themselves out of a hell of a lot of water, just for the sake of grandstanding and playing politics with peoples’ lives.
“It's not just up in the Northern Basin that they're playing with peoples’ livelihoods - they're playing it with people in South Australia.
“There are farmers in South Australia that are going to cop this as well.
“So the reality is we all have to show some leadership here.”
Mr Littleproud said the Basin Plan was at a “pivotal moment”.
“These are real people's lives - I've seen them - and I just reach out to the Greens and whoever else,” he said.
“Take a step back, because we are at a pivotal moment, and I'm trying to reach out to the states as well, to make sure they stay on this journey, because if they fall, we are at real risk of this Basin Plan falling apart.
“I am committed.
“I wasn't in this place in 2012, but I'm prepared to go the full journey on the Basin Plan.
“But if those who were the architects can't even be bothered to do that, or they want to play politics with it, then you make your judgement about them.
“I just say take a step back and think about the livelihoods of the people you're playing with.”
MDBA CEO Phillip Glyde said his Authority stood by the Northern Basin review process, and urged all parties to examine its detailed and published evidence when considering the amendments currently before parliament.
Mr Glyde said the MDBA’s recommendation was based on the “best available science and evidence” and involved an “extensive and comprehensive” review process over four years.
“The MDBA made this recommendation because we identified that the environmental benefits sought through the Basin Plan could be delivered with 70GLs less water recovery, while saving about 200 jobs in local irrigation-dependent communities,” he said.
“The MDBA was well aware of concerns about the protection of environmental water in the Northern Basin during the review and this was a key consideration in our decision-making.
“To address these concerns, a ‘toolkit’ of measures was agreed between Queensland, NSW, and the Commonwealth to ensure protection of environmental flows in the Northern Basin.
“When implemented, the MDBA is confident that environmental benefits will be delivered.
“Work on these measures is already underway, but will be jeopardised if the amendments are disallowed.”
Mr Glyde said the MDBA an independent panel had also conducted a thorough review of compliance across the Basin and its recommendations were being implemented, including actions to further strengthen the protection of environmental flows in the Northern Basin.
He said the Northern Basin review process involved consultation with hundreds of community members as well as environmental, industry and community stakeholders.
Their views all contributed to the evidence base for the amendment, he said, which included extensive consultation with Aboriginal community members.
“The four-year process of the Northern Basin Review generated a significant improvement in our knowledge of the Northern Basin,” he said.
“The modelling and data which underpinned our recommendations was strong, accurate and stood up to the scrutiny of independent peer-review.
“The MDBA is an independent, science-based and evidence-driven organisation - our chief objective is to deliver the Basin Plan in a way that will secure the future of this vital river system and the communities and industries that rely on it.
“We believe that the changes we have recommended to the Plan in the Northern Basin achieve the right balance between fiercely competing interests.
“I am deeply concerned that disallowance of the Northern Basin Amendments will have significant consequences for the implementation of the Basin Plan at a time when it is more important than ever to maintain consensus and stay the course.
“I hope that the parliament will take into account the published, professional and peer-reviewed analysis, which is fully documented on our website, in their consideration of these amendments.”
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