The Senate has voted against the Greens’ Murray Darling Basin Plan disallowance motion to block 37 offset projects to recoup 605 gigalitres for the environment. So where to from here?
Full steam ahead on community consultation, according to Assistant Agriculture and Water Minister Anne Ruston.
The South Australian Senator and irrigator has a tough gig balancing state loyalties and her portfolio’s lead role in delivering the $13 billion river reform.
She says Labor providing the numbers to block the Greens motion is a vote of confidence in the offset projects, paving the way for government and the MDB Authority to release detailed project proposals and consult impacted communities and industry.
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“Our absolute number on priority from now on will be community engagement. We need to restore confidence in the Plan and get everyone on board, so impacted parties feel ownership of it,” Ms Ruston said.
“Until we had this commitment (to the offset projects) in place, we couldn’t talk over all the details.
The offset projects were criticised heavily for rubbery water recovery figures by the Greens and environmental groups for their lack of detail in design.
The government and MDBA maintained detailed disclosure would advantage private companies when tendering for construction contracts, as well as water entitlement holders who could have scooped the local water market and jacked up their sell-back price if they knew the volume and timing of buybacks a project requires.
“We couldn’t just give out market sensitive information on these projects, I think any reasonable person could see that would be a silly thing for government to do.
“And I defend the fact we haven’t put information out publicly to play the process out in the media.
“Communities haven’t yet been fully consulted. The last thing people need is to read things like that about their town on the front page of the newspaper.”
Heavy media coverage preceded the disallowance vote. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists have been prominent critics of the offset projects, particularly the lack of design detail made public.
Ms Ruston said the Coalition had followed the Basin Plan process set out under the then Labor Government in 2012, which incorporates the adaptive management principle.
“People need to realise there is not one final project design. We needed to know we had a certain level of accuracy in projections we could recover the 605GL through these projects,” she said.
“But it was never anticipated that we’d have absolutely every I dotted and T crossed. From here, parliament will be informed as projects develop so we are in a position in 2024 to report on their delivery and if they are short, we have to find more water.”