Plibersek’s last gasp effort to stop Murray Darling plan from sinking
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A last-ditch campaign to save the Murray Darling Basin Plan has been launched by Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek, who is seeking a deal with the Greens or the Coalition to back her otherwise doomed plan to extend the looming deadline for water recovery.
Plibersek says the plan, to recover water from farmers to boost river flow and the environmental health of the ecosystem by the end of the year, is set to fall 750 gigalitres short of its 3200 gigalitre target – equivalent to one-and-a-half Sydney Harbours.
Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek, centre, with farmers and community members who support water buybacks.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen.
The minister’s Restoring Our Rivers Bill would extend the deadline until January 2027, but it must be enacted before the current deadline at the end of 2023. With just two parliamentary sitting weeks left, time is running out.
The bill has passed the House of Representatives and the government must secure support from either Greens or Coalition senators to legislate it.
A key sticking point is the basin plan’s mandate to recover 450 of the remaining 750 gigalitres of water, using voluntary buybacks of farmers’ irrigation licences, to boost river flow all the way through to end of the river system in South Australia.
On Wednesday, the Nationals issued a demand that Plibersek remove voluntary water buybacks from the bill.
Fronting a press conference with industry representatives, Nationals leader David Littleproud and the party’s water spokesperson, Senator Perin Davey, said further buybacks would shrink irrigation industries like citrus and rice to an unsustainable size.
This risked the future of communities including Shepparton in Victoria or Deniliquin in NSW, they said.
The Greens are demanding that Plibersek insert a legally enforceable guarantee into her bill for the 450 gigalitres to be restored to flows, as the current wording only commits government to “best endeavours” for water recovery.
Plibersek is locked in negotiations with both parties, but warned the Nationals that without her reforms the current legislation will force government to execute a fresh round of buybacks for the extra 300 gigalitres – starting next year.
That’s because a raft of large-scale, state-planned infrastructure projects to enhance river flow, like inserting weirs or removing obstacles, are incomplete.
“Without those water infrastructure projects, the Commonwealth will instead be forced to buy more water, more quickly,” Plibersek said.
“The Nationals say they oppose buybacks. But they are voting to increase buybacks.”
Davey, the Nationals water spokesperson, acknowledged the bind her party is in. “The bill before us is a lose-lose. If the bill does not pass, our communities lose because of the triggers in the basin plan,” she said.
“But if this bill passes unamended, our communities lose because it opens the door to open slather buybacks for up to 750 gigalitres of water.”
Recovering the 450 gigalitres in full was a commitment that was critical to Labor winning the Liberal-held seat of Boothby in South Australia at the 2022 election.
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