Fiona Simson on challenges facing the southern basin

Last week, I had the opportunity (along with other representatives from the NFF and our member bodies) to meet with farmers and others in the southern basin communities of Griffith, Mildura and surrounds.

These are communities under pressure. Under pressure from drought, from high water prices, from low general security water allocations and from uncertainty.

It’s fair to say we heard a diverse range of views in respect of the water debate. A number of people we spoke to recognised that there were several contributing factors to the current challenges and each were approaching the situation in a different way.

Across the board there are legitimate concerns about the Murray Darling Basin Plan – many of which the NFF share. The NFF continues to consider a broad spectrum of solutions. We’re working to address concerns in a manner which is representative of the majority view of our members, and informed by as much diverse information as possible.

The Plan as it currently stands is not doing the best job it could. It’s implementation has been inefficient and lacklustre.

So how do we fix that?

We continue to hear calls to pause the plan, scrap the plan and/or to call a royal commission. The NFF Water Committee meets regularly (at least monthly) to review its position on these suggestions. We continue to have these options under scrutiny, but do not yet see the benefits of supporting any of them.

There are a few salient reasons why:

  1. The Productivity Commission has made 38 recommendations in its five-yearly review of the implementation of the Plan. We believe a high number of those will have a positive contribution to a better Plan. We continue to put the case strongly to government that it needs to work harder on this. An outcome of the last Basin Ministers meeting was a response to the PC recommendations, our view is that they were underwhelming and lacked urgency so we have raised our concerns again.
  2. Calls for intervention in the water market to create more transparency may have unanticipated consequences. The sensible course of action is to await the independent umpire’s view, in this case the ACCC water markets inquiry, led by Mick Keogh, who as we know has strong, coercive powers.
  3. Ongoing concerns about the community impacts of the Plan – especially the acquisition of environmental water – need addressing in a comprehensive manner, that is the task of the Sefton Socio-economic Review. We expect to hear more on progress on this review quite soon.
  4. A Royal Commission will be expensive, but that’s not the principal concern. The risk is that the environmental water target could be revised upwards and exacerbate current impacts. The SA Royal Commission started this debate, and it is unlikely to turn around. It is also the case that what seems to be the most compelling proposition for a Royal Commission, to explore malfeasance, can just as efficiently be explored either via the inherent coercive powers of a senate select inquiry (one is underway) or a similarly empowered Inspector-General (legislation enabling those powers is currently being drafted).
  5. A number of agreements that sit outside the Plan would not change, in the event that the Plan is paused or scrapped. Machinery like the water sharing arrangements under the Murray Darling Agreement and the ongoing existence of environmental water (already acquired) would remain in operation.

The NFF is very concerned about the impacts being felt across the Basin right now. There are, as the farmers we met with identified, a range of factors contributing to the current challenges.

We understand that allocations in the Southern Basin are at critical lows and for longer than seen before. It is also the case that water pricing is high, though not at record prices yet.

We will continue to listen – especially to members, continue to engage with policy makers, and continue to seek to fix problems with the Plan. The NFF will also continue to advocate for drought support, where necessary.

The NFF will continue to lead Australian agriculture through these fraught times. That’s the core purpose, and I think the great benefit of, a Federated representative body.

Fiona Simson

Fiona Simson

Fiona Simson is the President of the National Farmers' Federation and a farmer from the Liverpool Plains.

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