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Updated Murray-Darling Basin Plan passes Senate

Grain Central, November 30, 2023

Basin communities rallied last week against water buybacks. Source: NFF

THE CONTROVERSIAL updated Murray-Darling Basin Plan was passed in the Federal Senate on Thursday with support from crossbenchers and the Greens.

The Restoring Our Rivers Bill 2023 amends the Water Act 2007 and Basin Plan 2012, and includes repealing the cap on water buybacks, expanding eligible projects, and delaying the review of the Act from 2024 to 2027.

To gain the support of the Greens and some crossbenchers, the approved Bill features stronger environmental safeguards than the original legislation, introduced in the House of Representatives in September.

These included guarantees that the government would recover the 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water by 31 December 2027, flexibility to allow additional water recovering in the Northern Basin, more emphasis on the First Nations connection and a $50-million package for the upper Murrumbidgee River.

In exchange for support from Independent Senator David Van, the government must also take into account the “social and economic impact of the program on communities in the Murray-Darling Basin” and provide an annual report on these issues to the parliament.

The Bill allows the government to move forward with water buybacks which opened via a voluntary tender process in March.

The process reportedly received about 250 responses, totalling more than double the amount the tender called for: 44.3GL per year across six catchments.

Minister for Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek said this was an historic day for the Murray-Darling Basin and the communities, industries, farmers, First Nations groups and environment that rely on it.

“This is one the biggest things any government has done for the environment in a decade,” Ms Plibersek said.

“I said from day one that I was determined to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, including the 450GL of water for the environment. That’s what I’ve done.”

The passage of the bill comes days after thousands of protesters held rallies in the Basin communities of Griffith, Leeton, Shepparton and Deniliquin to call for the water buybacks to be removed from the legislation.

National Farmers’ Federation President David Jochinke said the bill effectively removes the socio-economic impact tests for water buybacks.

“The Basin’s heart has been broken by a government that has ignored communities and hasn’t even bothered to visit those who will be impacted by this dreadful backroom deal,” Mr Jochinke said.

“This will sound the death knell for countless jobs in these communities and will cut food and fibre production in an area that grows 40 percent of what Australia produces.”

NSW Irrigators’ Council CEO Claire Miller said there was already evidence of job losses due to water recovered from earlier reforms.

“Farmers, workers, small business owners and local government across the Basin have shouted no to even more buybacks, because they know from bitter past experience how buybacks have hollowed out their communities while governments went missing on promised assistance,” Ms Miller said.

“Nothing in this rewrite of the 2012 Basin Plan gives these communities any reason to believe anything will be any different this time around.”

Mr Jochinke said the NFF remained committed to supporting these agricultural communities with what lay ahead.

“The government has said buybacks must provide value for the taxpayer and benefit the environment.

“We will continue to engage with the government to ensure it doesn’t lose sight of these objectives.

“The government has also committed to considering other options and the NFF will continue to vehemently pursue this.”

Mr Jochinke thanked parliamentarians who had sought to make more workable legislation available and acknowledged there had been some improvements made, such as the extended deadline.

The bill now needs to go back to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass.

Source: NFF, NSWIC, DCCEEW

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