A tipping point with the Murray Darling Basin Plan

A tipping point with the Murray Darling Basin Plan

As members and senators know, now more than ever, my electorate of Farrer is the home of irrigated agriculture. Murray Irrigation, Murrumbidgee Irrigation, Coleambally Irrigation and Western Murray Irrigation are the main districts, but there are many smaller schemes such as West Corurgan, Moira and Hay private irrigation districts and individual pumping licences along our rivers and creeks. This week I spoke about all of the Australian rice that is being grown in my electorate, and I urged everyone to buy Australian rice. That is easy—it is the Sunrice brand. Something that you may not know is that the hazelnuts inside Ferrero Rocher chocolates are grown near Narrandera. The success of the first Farrer Food Fair held here last week underscored the range, diversity and value-add of what we produce, all with irrigation water.

Griffith is known as the town where they burnt the Basin Plan. Deniliquin is widely accepted as the town that suffered the most from Labor’s harsh water buyback. Wentworth, where the Murray meets the Darling, is home of intensive horticulture. It struggled for years under appallingly low commodity prices for wine grapes and dried fruits, our small farmers being unable to win a contract war against big wineries and food companies. But I can attest to the resilience of my constituents, whether they be the farmers who are directly affected or the small businesses that open with pride every morning, even though the customers cannot afford to spend what they used to. When you live on the land you understand the big picture. When you live close to your natural surroundings you appreciate that there has been over-allocation of our river systems and that further steps were needed to secure a healthy working river for a sustainable environment and sustainable communities.

But we are at a tipping point with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I say that because there is a crisis of confidence in the communities I represent. They are on board with the plan, but only just. We are in the process of finalising the projects that will provide 650 gigalitres of offsets to bridge the gap between the total diversion limit of 2,750 gigalitres and the water that has been brought back already. A technical complexity means 106 gigalitres of the 650 gigalitres could still need to be found from productive agriculture, so I am calling for an amendment for the basin plan to lock in a cap on recovered water of 2,100 gigalitres.

What upsets my farmers greatly is what they see as a last-minute political deal which allows a further 450 gigalitres of so-called upwater to be recovered, increasing the total 3,200 gigalitres. This 450 gigalitres can only be recovered through on-farm efficiency measures and there is a socioeconomic neutrality test, but these safeguards are insufficient. On-farm irrigation efficiency programs come with a cost. The cost is that producers have to give up water to the environment in return for the upgrades. Often their farm program cannot continue unless they purchased temporary water every growing season. The price of this water is something that cannot be forecast. What this means is that sometimes it makes no economic sense to grow anything at all, so the expensive irrigation systems are underused. A common analogy is that there is no point in having a Ferrari parked in your garage if you cannot actually drive it. The socioeconomic test does not apply to people who are not directly participating in the program and does not take into account the cumulative effect of all water recovery programs.

The recent floods have triggered remarkable fish and bird breeding events and the subsequent watering has great potential to restore and enhance the environment. But there are also challenges where it seems that remote wetlands are watered for no reason, blackwater events kill fish or too much timber lying in the river causes an unwanted over-bank flood. The environmental watering plan is based on outcomes, not flows. Flow rates are used to get the numbers in the plan. The numbers are based on models that are highly contentious. If we accept that we have to start somewhere—and we do have broad agreement around the need for a plan—then in order for us all to work together to achieve the right balance we need to take the 450 gigalitres of upwater off the table and give the environmental watering plan time to work.

If you are a person passionately committed to the environment—even at the expense of farmers—then you should want this too, because if the fragile consensus breaks apart then the consequence will be that the communities I represent will walk away. I stress that this is not an us against South Australia issue. The 450 gigalitres should be paused and no further work should be done in anticipation of increased flows unless and until we see that it is needed and it can be delivered. I will be writing to the minister and the MDBA recommending further discussions at ministerial council level about these two important legislative amendments.

Question agreed to.

Federation Chamber adjourned at 13:28.