New hope for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

The Darling (Baaka) River in Wilcannia during the 2019 drought. Photo: Tracey Carpenter

Labor went to the federal election promising to implement the Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDBP). It includes reinstating water buy-backs, a National Water Commission policy to drive ongoing water reform.

Now that Labor has a majority and Tanya Plibersek is the new Minister for Environment and Water, advocates are optimistic.

The new government has promised to reinstate and broaden the remit of the National Water Grid Fund, which advises the federal government on water infrastructure, investment and expenditure. It will be in line with the Productivity Commission’s recommendation that the fund’s investment policy not prioritise one sector, or class of water user, nor be limited to providing water for primary producers.

The government says it will “set the right balance between needs of local communities, farmers and the environment”.

The water portfolio, one of the most contentious policy areas, has been moved to Cabinet status. Former shadow water minister Terri Butler lost the seat of Brisbane to the Greens’ Max Chandler-Mather. The Greens are also committed to restoring rivers through water buy-backs.

Butler’s five-point plan for the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) said an Anthony Albanese government would “restore science, integrity and environmental focus to the [MDB] plan”, with funding to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and accountability measures.

Australian Precision Ag Laboratory welcomed Plibersek’s appointment, tweeting: “Water and environmental flows are being prioritised by the newly elected federal government. The ALP plans to implement the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, which will deliver water to South Australia.”

The National Party — which had the water portfolio for 10 years under the Coalition government — has run interference on the interstate water-saving plan and ruled out water buy-backs to restore water to the environment.

David Littleproud, former agriculture minister and now leader of the Nationals, claimed in the Adelaide Advertiser and on SkyNews during the election campaign that the MDBP was dead. “It’s over; it’s done,” he said.

The Nationals had committed to building controversial new dams. Littleproud said in March that the Coalition was committing “an additional $126.5 million — through the National Water Grid Fund — for the construction of the Emu Swamp Dam and Pipeline”.

The cost of the Nationals’ promised 61,000 gigalitre dam for a new irrigation region in Queensland was estimated at $5.6 billion.

Apart from the expense, dam building is not an effective strategy to build water security. This is because under the MDBP’s market system, licences must be purchased for any new water extracted.

The new Hells Gate Dam in central Queensland will potentially produce the country’s most expensive water, pricing it beyond the reach of all but the richest irrigation farmers.

The National Party did not produce a business case for this dam, or for other dam-building promises, such as Dungowan, Wyangala and Mole River in NSW.

Labor’s commitment to return a vital 450 gigalitres to the over-exploited MDB by 2024 is welcome news.

“Labor’s commitment to deliver the water is vital if we are to meet the targets of the plan, which, according to the science, is the bare minimum needed to save rivers, wetlands and sustain river communities,” said Mel Gray Nature Conservation Council of NSW water campaign director .

The Lifeblood Alliance of small farmers, water users and First Nations people, centered in northern NSW and Queensland, has been campaigning for the MDBP to be fully implemented. The Alliance has also called for First Nations water justice: currently they hold less than 0.2% of the basin water.

It also wants the National Water Commission reestablished; for its data and modeling to be published; for more investment in research; and greater funding for monitoring and compliance, following years of scandal and secrecy.

Water mismanagement and financing should face a federal independent commission against corruption, also promised by Labor.

The federal government is responsible for the MDBP and environmental water flows, while state governments control water management and delivery. They are under competing pressures from irrigators, mining interests and environment lobbyists to deliver an over-exploited resource.

The new federal water minister will need all her political skill to hold the national water sharing agreement together.

[Tracey Carpenter is a member of the Lifeblood Alliance.]