UPDATED 2pm: NSW and Victoria have threatened to withdraw from the Murray Darling Basin Plan – should Federal Labor back a disallowance motion in the Senate this week – and establish their own tripartite agreement with the Federal government to deliver 605GL worth of offset projects.
NSW regional water minister Niall Blair and Victorian counterpart Lisa Neville met today to discuss the states’ options if amendments to reduce water recovery targets in the northern basin by 70GL are voted down.
Asked if he was blowing up the plan, Minister Blair said rejecting the amendments in the Senate would mean “the Basin Plan (did) not exist”. He said the disallowance motion was a ‘mongrel act’.
“We need to make this very clear, the Murray Darling Basin Plan was agreed to in 2012,” Mr Blair said.
“NSW and Victoria have met every one of their deadlines according to the plan and we have agreed principles.
“And that has sometimes been to the detriment and despite the best advice from our communities. This is the Senate potentially saying, despite having a deal… we’re going to play politics with the environment and viability of our regional communities and toss it all on the scrapheap just because of what is happening in South Australia.”
The Greens’ disallowance motion – expected to appear in the Senate on Wednesday – would scuttle plans to reduce Northern Basin environmental water recovery targets by 70GL. The change was recommended by a four-year Murray-Darling Basin Authority review that said 200 jobs were at stake .
Federal and state governments endorsed the review.
Ms Neville said NSW and Victoria had “committed to the heavy lifting” while “SA had focuses on (the upcoming state) election”.
“It’s very rare to see Labor and National governments to come together and share a point of view,” she said. But we are here because of our communities.”
It’s fine to have Opposition and Government negotiating over things they want clarified or to seek more assurance. That’s the normal process of Government but when that all happens in a final week after years of effort it’s no wonder the other participants wonder why they bother.
“If the senate is to block these amendments, the Plan is dead. There is no bluff here.”
When asked about why she was at odds with her SA and Federal Labor colleagues, Ms Neville said she was putting Victorian communities first.
Both Mr Blair and Ms Neville said they would commit to delivering the Sustainable Diversion Limit projects that were on the table, regardless of the vote in the Senate.
“We’ve discussed about how we are going to go together to get the funding we need to deliver those projects,” Ms Neville said.
Fairfax Media has reported Federal Labor had backed the Greens and would vote to disallow at least one of the proposed federal measures that would deliver more water to irrigators. But Labor is also understood to be reconsidering its position.
NSW government sources said they were unsure which way the vote would go.
Allegations of corruption and perceived water mismanagement in NSW are understood to be worrying Federal Labor, which has reportedly also questioned the accuracy of water data and modelling assumptions.
Irrigator groups give Feds a spray
Gabrielle Coupland, chairwoman of Southern Riverina Irrigators, said she wouldn’t blame Mr Blair would he walk away from the Ministerial Council and the Basin Plan.
“(Today’s events) shows the minister is serious about supporting communities that are looking to him for certainty and support,” Ms Coupland said.
“If the Basin Plan is blown up it significantly erodes confidence in the ministerial council, and I would not blame the NSW minister if he didn’t attend the council in the future.”
National Irrigators Council chief executive and former NSW Labor MP Steve Whan is in Dubbo for irrigator stakeholder meetings.
He said the future of water-saving Sustainable Diversion Limit and Northern Basin projects looked bleak if NSW and Victoria broke away from the plan.
“It’s very dependent on whether the senate deals with either or both of the Northern Basin or SDL,” Mr Whan said.
“But if NSW and Victoria decide to go their own way, it’s hard to see how those SDL projects can get off the ground. The money would not be there. Why you would do it if you weren’t getting credit for the downwater in the basin plan?
“If there is not a Basin Plan it just doesn’t seem like it would be likely.”
Mr Whan said irrigator communities felt let down by the federal political process.
“These communities have been a positive part of the Basin plan for years, they’ve cooperated and participated and made the best of it, even if they didn’t like it
“And now political talk has put that all at risk.”
“It’s fine to have Opposition and Government negotiating over things they want clarified or to seek more assurance. That’s the normal process of Government but when that all happens in a final week after years of effort it’s no wonder the other participants wonder why they bother.”
The Murray Darling Association said both the reduction to the Northern Basin Water Recovery Target from 390GL to 320GL, and the 605GL of Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment projects, were essential for the success of the Basin Plan.
“Local government across the Basin is united in the view that there must not be further buybacks, and that these amendments are the best way to balance social, economic and environmental interests,” Association president David Thurley said.
Meanwhile, Assistant Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Anne Ruston said the only state which had gone back on its promises and commitments regarding the Basin Plan was SA.
“As I have consistently done ever since Mr Hunter’s little ice cream tantrum, I call on SA Labor to end the political games, come back to the table and reiterate its full support for the Basin Plan in concert with other Basin states – states which have never withdrawn their commitments like SA has,” she said.
Earlier: THE already rocky politics of the Murray-Darling Basin look set for more turbulence with speculation NSW and Victoria could walk away from the Basin Ministerial Council.
NSW’s Minister for Regional Water Niall Blair and Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville have announced a press conference at 10am in Sydney to discuss the “future of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.”
Both had threatened to review their commitment to the Council - which comprises of Basin state and federal government representatives - as federal Labor and the Greens prepare to block an amendment to reduce water recovery targets in the northern basin by 70GL.
“If this disallowance motion is successful, it forces NSW to reconsider its ongoing participation in Ministerial Council, because we can no longer trust it to deliver a balanced economic, social and environmental result for the Basin,” Mr Blair said last week.
Progress on interstate agreement on how to deliver the upwater goal ground to a halt at a meeting of basin state ministers in November last year,
SA’s Water Minister Ian Hunter demanded NSW and Victoria commit to deliver 450GL in full by February 14.
That’s deadline for the Opposition and Crossbench to pass a disallowance motion against the Northern Basin Review, backed by NSW and Queensland because it would reduce water recovery in that region from 390GL to 320GL.
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- Murray Darling Basin Plan water recovery challenges in upwater process
Mr Hunter said he would lobby Senators to block passage of Northern Basin amendments.
SA’s deadline was rejected. NSW Water Minister Niall Blair said “all bets are off” on cooperative negotiations and NSW would “chance our arm in the Senate”.
Anticipating a NSW-Victoria withdrawal from the Ministerial Council, Sydney-based environment group the Nature Conservation Council said the federal government must step in and deliver the plan on time and in full.
“The Murray Darling Basin Plan doesn’t just go away because NSW spits the dummy and pulls out of the Ministerial Council,” said Nature Conservation Council CEO Kate Smolski.
“Under the legislation, the Commonwealth has the power to step in to ensure the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is implemented on time and in full.”
With Mike Foley