AGRICULTURE and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud has written to his shadow ministerial counterpart Tony Burke warning him the Murray Darling Basin Plan could “unravel” without bipartisan political support.
Mr Burke was heavily criticised this week after it was revealed Labor would side with the Greens to support a dangerous disallowance motion to scuttle Basin Plan reforms that the Coalition government has put forward that are underpinned by “sound-science”.
The Basin Plan reforms aim to lower the Northern Basin’s water savings target by 70 gigalitres, to ease economic suffering in at-risk farming communities while maintaining environmental outcomes.
Mr Littleproud also referred to another disallowance motion that’s under threat from the Labor and Greens alliance - and due to be voted on when the Senate sits again next week - which contains amendments to the Basin Plan’s Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) adjustment mechanism.
Mr Littleproud’s letter said the two Basin Plan amendments - which Mr Burke signed into law when he was Water Minister in 2012 - were made by the Coalition government and represented “significant milestones” in delivering the $13 billion water reform plan.
Mr Littleproud said he agreed that Mr Burke had “played no small part in securing” the Basin Plan.
But as farm groups warned Mr Burke was now at risk of sinking that political legacy he created in the hung parliament, by supporting the Green’s disallowance motions, Mr Littleproud’s letter sought to confirm a commitment to work together and avoid a potential catastrophe.
“These measures have been agreed by all Basin state ministers, including South Australia, in June 2017,” the new Coalition minister said.
“In your letter (February 7, 2018) you have sought my and the government’s commitment to give you greater confidence in the amendments currently before the Australian parliament.
“As I have said during the course of the week, the current threat of disallowance over the Northern Basin Review amendment presents a clear threat to the engagement of key states in the Basin Plan and – if miscalculated – could see the Plan that you delivered in 2012 unravel.
“This is not an outcome that you or I would welcome.”
Mr Littleproud said he also believed he and Mr Burke needed to work together to remove the “current threat” of the disallowance.
The Queensland Nationals MP said he also welcomed Mr Burke’s offer to work “constructively” to address concerns raised in his letter about the Northern Basin review and SDL Adjustment amendment.
“The government is committed to strengthening compliance and enforcement with the Basin Plan,” Mr Littleproud wrote.
“You will appreciate that some of the issues you have laid out in your letter are challenging but I believe we can work constructively through many of these over the coming days.
“It remains my view that the Northern Basin review, that was part of your agreement to deliver states support for the Basin Plan in 2012, was completed in November 2016 and the subsequent amendments are based on sound-science and the best judgment of the independent Murray Darling Basin Authority following extensive community consultation.
“I commit to work with you constructively on the matters raised in your letter on the basis that this is suitable for the Opposition to endorse the Basin Plan in full, including both the Northern Basin review and SDL Adjustment amendments.”
Former Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce tabled the Basin Plan Amendment (SDL Adjustments) Instrument 2017 on December 19 last year, saying he adopted the amendment to the Basin Plan under section 23B of the Water Act 2007.
“This instrument amends the Basin Plan 2012 to adjust the Basin Plan surface water sustainable diversion limits, in accordance with the recommendation made by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to the former Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources on 8 December 2017,” a statement said of it coming into law, on January 13 this year.
“This instrument is a disallowable legislative instrument and must be tabled in both Houses of the Federal Parliament within six sitting days of registration on the Federal Register of Legislation.”
The Northern Basin disallowance motion was scheduled to be voted on yesterday but has now been postponed to some-time next week with a February 14 deadline, along with the disallowance motion on the SDL Adjustment.
However it’s understood that if a vote isn’t held, the disallowance motions would still stand automatically, and scuttle the Basin Plan reforms.
National Irrigators Council CEO Steve Whan said it was pleasing that Labor is seeking information from the government before the disallowance vote and working with the federal government.
But he said he’d be “very disappointed” if the SDL Adjustment disallowance was voted on next Monday as it would be a “real rush job” given it didn’t need to be dealt with, until March 28
“That’s an advance over last week and I’m encouraged by being told there have been discussions between the government and Labor,” he said.
“We’d just urge the Opposition to recognise that these amendments were a part of the original Basin Plan from 2012 and that these amendments need to not be disallowed and they should be upheld, to give all participants confidence.
“I’m aware there have been discussions between the government and Opposition and that’s a far more positive situation than we were in earlier in the week.”
Mr Whan said the SDL Adjustment was about delivering water to the environment and producing better environmental outcomes while minimising loss of productive water, pertaining to 605GLs of ‘down-water’, in the Basin Plan.
Yesterday, Labor SA Senator and former Water Minister Penny Wong, who was also involved in the Basin Plan’s formulation, moved a motion that on the next day of sitting, the Senate “recognises the need for greater security for the delivery” of the full 3200GLs including - including the 450GLs component for SA – in the Basin Plan.
Senator Wong’s motion also called on the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister to update the work that the MDBA had already carried out in good faith, to provide better information and analysis in various areas to restore public confidence in the Northern Basin review and instrument.
That included; the need for taxpayer-funded environmental water to be used for environmental purposes; a comprehensive response to allegations of corruption and theft in the Northern Basin; indigenous consultation and engagement in water planning and governance, and; the accuracy of data and modelling assumptions.
Assistant Agriculture and Water Resources Minister and SA Liberal Senator Anne Ruston took a swipe at the Greens during Senate debate yesterday.
“Why would we want to destroy jobs in regional communities?” she said.
“Why would we want to shut regional communities down?
“Why would we want to decimate regional communities?
“You only have to look at the disallowance motion that (SA Greens Senator) Sarah Hanson-Young moved in here in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin plan to see that you don't care about our regional communities.
“You only care about your own ideology.
“There is not a care in the world for the fact that people like me live in regional communities, and those communities would be shut down by the actions of the legislation and regulations that you constantly come in here and try to have passed.”
Senator Hanson-Young said in a media statement today that her SA colleagues needed to “hold firm” on defending the River Murray amid news that the Labor Party was in talks with the government over changes to the Basin Plan.
“It’s deeply concerning that Labor is now negotiating with the government on changes to the Murray Darling Basin Plan - my message to Labor is: don’t go to water over threats and blackmail from the federal government and upstream states,” she said.
“South Australian Senators of all stripes stood side by side last year to defend the River after scandals of corruption and water theft came to light, we need to come together again to save our river.
“The government wants to change the plan to strip more water out of the river to hand over to corporate irrigators, ripping off the environment.
“The Greens’ disallowance, which will be voted on next week, will stop this.
“There must be an independent audit into where taxpayers’ money has gone and where the water is going, urgently.”
MDBA stands by “robust” scientific work
Farming groups have also urged Labor to support the government to vote down the disallowance motions while calling out the Greens for misinformation, while the MDBA has stated the Northern Basin review over four years underwent “rigorous and independent assessment” including for downstream impacts.
“The modelling and data which underpinned our recommendations from the Northern Basin review was strong, accurate and stood up to the scrutiny of independent peer-review by leading environmental, economic and water experts, who found our work to be robust,” a statement said this week.
“The Northern Basin review was a thorough, science and evidence based assessment of water management settings for the northern Basin, undertaken over a four-year period.
“It is a legislated requirement of the Basin Plan - and a core objective of the MDBA - to achieve the best possible balance between social, economic and environmental outcomes in implementing the Plan.
“All Basin governments, including South Australia, reviewed the analysis and the Northern Basin review was considered and endorsed by the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council.
“The MDBA’s recommended Northern Basin Amendments will deliver the environmental benefits sought through the Basin Plan with 70GLs less water recovery, while saving about 200 jobs in local irrigation-dependent communities.
“The MDBA stands by the Northern Basin Review process, and urges all parties to examine its detailed and published evidence when considering the amendments currently before parliament.”
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