Murray-Darling Basin Plan at risk as NSW, Victoria threaten to pull out

See you later: Victorian and New South Wales Water Ministers Lisa Nevill and Niall Blair leave a Murray-Darling Basin meeting in Albury in December. Photo: Mark Jesser.
See you later: Victorian and New South Wales Water Ministers Lisa Nevill and Niall Blair leave a Murray-Darling Basin meeting in Albury in December. Photo: Mark Jesser.

The plan intended to guarantee the long-term health of the River Murray remains intact – for now.

But political posturing by the opponents and supporters of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan over the past week – notably New South Wales and Victoria's threat to pull out of the plan less than six years after it started – has caused nothing but dismay among those who have the most to lose.

South Australian Dairyfarmers Association president John Hunt, representing some of the river's southernmost water users, said he was exasperated by all the "political carelessness".

“We have seen an escalation in brinkmanship from all parties that has now entered the domain of stupid," he said.

“It is simply time for everyone playing games to stop, get back to the table and sort this mess out.

“Otherwise, the losers will be South Australian dairy farmers and the Coorong itself.”

The current stoush started when Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team senators voted 32-30 against a proposed adjustment to the basin plan which would have reduced by 70 gigalitres the amount of water to be recovered for the environment from northern basin irrigators.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said reducing the water reduction target would only reward irrigators who were currently being investigated for allegedly corrupt practices, and three more South Australians – Labor's Penny Wong, NXT's Rex Patrick and Conservative Cory Bernardi – expressed similar sentiments.

In response to the vote, New South Wales and Victoria's water ministers declared they had lost faith in the basin plan and would consider pulling out, putting more than 1000GL of planned water savings at risk.

If they did so, South Australian Water Minister Ian Hunter said, the federal government should forcibly buy back water from irrigators in those states to meet the basin plan's targets.

The Murraylands and Riverland's Liberal MP, Tony Pasin, blamed Labor and the Xenophon Team for playing politics.

But the agency tasked with implementing the plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, said everyone simply needed to trust science, evidence and the experts' judgment.

"The MDBA was established ... because the task of implementing the visionary, long-term basin plan was too important to risk it being captive to any one perspective," its members said in a joint statement.

"We call upon all those involved to consider how far we have come over the past 10 years, and how much we stand to lose.

"We believe the collapse of the basin plan would be a disaster for the future of the river system and its communities.

"We urge all parties to stay the course."

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