Water sustains our communities in more ways than one. It's not just about the environment or farming.
It's about jobs across the value chain.
It's about amenity and liveability, it is the lifeblood for so many.
In October I took some of my colleagues in the Coalition on a week-long tour of the Murray-Darling Basin. We went to Shepparton, Mildura, Renmark, Griffith, and Moree.
My aim was to get them to hear directly from those living and working within basin communities. Those who will be directly impacted by changes to the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
From farmers to food processors, small business owners to local governments and water infrastructure operators, all voices were given a platform to be heard.
Regrettably, many of these voices felt unheard by the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications, which chose not to hold public hearings in these communities.
The recurring themes echoed throughout these regions, from Queensland to South Australia, were the impacts of water reforms and the potential for serious economic consequences as a result of water buybacks.
Communities want a river system that's environmentally robust but they also want economic resilience. As Ben Hassett, a food producer from Renmark, SA, said, "We may end up with a healthy river, but it won't be working anymore".
Across the basin, communities are asking for better solutions than the "just add water" approach of more buybacks.
They're looking to innovative environmental outcomes, like improved fish passages, water quality enhancements, and targeted environmental watering strategies.
However, the current pursuit of an additional 450GL of water and opening it to buybacks devoid of any social and economic test is seen by many as a departure from the original objectives of the Basin Plan, moving it from an environmental focus to one that many are concerned is overtly political.
Communities still live with the trauma of past water reforms. Stories of economic downturn resulting from previous buybacks were commonplace, showing the need for a more balanced approach.
As Mayor Barry Holman of Bourke Shire Council observed, "When they bought Toorale, it was like taking BHP out of Wollongong. Ten per cent of our productivity was gone".
The economic ripple effects of buyback's were obvious.
In 2012 the basin plan passed Parliament with bipartisan support because then Water Minister Tony Burke heard the concerns of the communities and wrote social and economic protections into the 450GL.
The amendments before Parliament are a significant step away from that bipartisanship.
We all want better environmental outcomes.
But as I reflect on the testimonies I heard from basin communities, the message is loud and clear.
To have thriving regions, we need balance, and to work towards a healthy working river system.
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