Water woes could wash away politics as we know it

Water woes could wash away politics as we know it


Farm Online News
In December last year about 300 protesters from NSW and Victorian irrigation communities travelled to Melbourne to protest water rules at a meeting of state and federal water ministers. Photo Andrew Miller.

In December last year about 300 protesters from NSW and Victorian irrigation communities travelled to Melbourne to protest water rules at a meeting of state and federal water ministers. Photo Andrew Miller.

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New political paradigm as anger at water reforms boils over

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The populism sweeping global politics, writ large in the Brexit and Trump phenomenons, has come to the Southern Murray Darling Basin.

A groundswell of support is driving a campaign to rewrite a major national environmental reform, the Murray Darling Basin Plan, fuelled by community anger at the decade of social and economic disruption by water reform.

Water is more expensive than ever before, compounded by drought and the fact that significant volumes of water from Southern Basin storages are being sent out to downstream states while most irrigators are on zero allocation.

Communities are frustrated at the lack of representation from major political parties and farm industry lobby groups and the looming NSW and federal elections will test the support for the largely Liberal and National representatives.

"We believe the Plan is a bid to kill off family farms and communities and Australia's food security," said Wade Northausen, leader of the recently formed Southern Basin Communities group.

Mr Northausen's group will hold meetings to discuss civil disobedience. They oppose the Basin Plan and the Water Act, which in 2007 separated land and water titles to create an openly traded market that is being blamed for the rise of corporate irrigators at the expense of family farms.

Other community groups have formed to achieve similar goals. The Riverina-based Speak Up campaign has lobbied prominently against the social impact of water recovery under the Basin Plan for several years.

The 1800-strong Southern Riverina Irrigators group split from the NSW and National Irrigators Councils to make more strident demands while the Northern Victorian Irrigation Communities group has also emerged to lobby for water rules on better terms for the small end of town.

Community groups are angry that their federal Coalition and state Nationals representatives have failed to deliver on their concerns.

But it remains to be seen how a political switch would play out.

The NSW Nationals argue they're the only party with enough clout to halt the tide of social damage from water reform.

NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair said communities' anger would only escalate under a federal Labor government - which has pledged to conduct more voluntary water buybacks and to consider increasing the overall recovery volume.

In December last year about 300 protesters from NSW and Victorian irrigation communities travelled to Melbourne to protest water rules at a meeting of state and federal water ministers. Photo Andrew Miller.

In December last year about 300 protesters from NSW and Victorian irrigation communities travelled to Melbourne to protest water rules at a meeting of state and federal water ministers. Photo Andrew Miller.

"NSW will be part of the Basin Plan, but it's not a plan at all costs. We firmly believe that opening back up that buyback cap and coming back into our communities, into the Murrumbidgee or Murray, doing the lazy option, that is a non-negotiable, and that is when we would walk away," Mr Blair said.

"At a state level, anyone that wants to preference Labor is also signing up to more buybacks. In the Murray electorate, we have the Shooters party wanting to work with Labor.

"That is a tick to Tony Burke (federal Labor water spokesman) and his state Labor colleagues to back into this community and buy water."

Mr Blair was referring to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, which the betting market shows is in with a shot in Murray, the NSW electorate which has perhaps been impacted by water reform.

SFF Murray candidate Helen Dalton is riding the wave of anger and is calling for the Coalition to be dumped from office, but she acknowledged that Labor's policies go against the community sentiment she is tapped into.

"If we have a change of government then I will have more of a say," she said.

"I suppose whatever you do is a risk, but at the moment the plan is clearly not working. How much worse does it have to be?

Mrs Dalton wants to pause the Basin Plan for five years to examine its failings, and to hold a Royal Commission.

"We need to get going with a Royal Commission on just terms, not a South Australia-centric Royal Commission but a one that is common to all of us, and looks into all issues related to water management."

Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville is a long-standing opponent of buybacks, at odds with her federal colleagues. NSW Labor water spokesman Chris Minns was contacted for comment.

Reforms spur community outcry

Two historical reforms have changed the face of farming in the Southern Murray Darling Basin, spurring community angst and potential upheaval for the region's traditional conservative political representation.

The Water Act 2007 separated land and water titles and opened a trading market that drove prices to new highs. The Basin Plan has tightened the market by returning irrigation water to the environment.

On top of that, new permanent citrus and nut crops, as well as cotton are seeing record plantings, creating unprecedented competition for allocation.

Aither director Chris Olszak said unprecedented water demand had caused his consultancy to recalibrate its economic models.

"If commodity price conditions stay as they are, the days of $100 per megalitre water will be limited to the very wet seasons. Even $150-$200/ML water," Mr Olszak said.

Key Water founder and water broker Anthony McClosky said the market had changed traditional farming.

"Annual cropping will be more and more an opportunity venture simply because of the demand for water going to horticulture, because it is such a high-value product."

Mr Olszak said water reform had generated the desired response from industry, but the social cost was another question.

"It's really a good news story. Markets are designed to enable new industries to go in and respond to the global market. It was what was intended to happen," he said.

Permanent horticulture's long-lived trees need water or they die. But flexible industries such as rice or cotton can sell their water and get more than they would from production.

"The challenge is will some people be left behind, and how do we want to respond to that?," Mr Olszak said.

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