What a week we’ve had in the world of water policy. Here at NFF we’ve taken a deep breath and a Bex as the political fracas has ensued around us.
We’ve seen it all. A minister behaving so badly that it has ensured that what was in reality a “no-decision” Ministerial Council has stuck on the front page of the papers and top of the news cycle.
We’ve seen Ministers and MPs of all shades stick up for the communities that they represent. National, Liberal, Labor, Green, and independent MPs have all had a say about what’s important to them.
We’ve seen the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for the first time acknowledge in its decisions that the Basin Plan is a genuine balancing act between environmental, social and economic outcomes – and that ultimately a decision is a trade-off. And while NFF is part of a chorus of voices that has said it doesn’t go far enough, we dip our lids to the MDBA’s genuine analysis and engagement with communities. Credit where it is due.
We’ve seen a journo convey succinctly and accurately the complexity of the 240 odd page document that is the Murray Darling Basin Plan. If you haven’t read the Basin Plan 101 by ABC journalist Anna Vidot then you should (find it here). It’s should be a compulsory text for those who choose to contribute to the public debate about the future of the Basin.
Barnaby Joyce has been wrongly accused of breaking bipartisan solidarity and blowing up the Basin Plan. This is unfounded criticism and just untrue. The Deputy Prime Minister is simply seeking to implement the Plan in the way that it was designed. When the Plan was agreed by the Parliament in 2012, it included a very specific provision for the Northern Basin Review – to collect better environmental, economic and social information to refine the water recovery targets and environmental outcomes for the vast Northern Basin.
The Basin Plan isn’t at an intractable deadlock. For the future of our communities, industries and the rivers of the Murray-Darling it can’t be.Jack Knowles, NFF
When the Parliament agreed on the Plan, it included the 450GL “upwater provisions”. In the eyes of many these provisions mean the Basin Plan is a 3200GL Plan for water recovery, not a 2750 GL Plan. These upwater provisions however are not without strict conditions. The conditions explicitly include a neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes “test” that is specified in both the Plan (Part 7.17) and the Water Act 2007 (Part 2AA). The Water Act allows for the upwater to be recovered by investing in water efficiency projects both on-farm and in off-farm delivery systems. In the Basin Plan this specific test is met with the “participation of consumptive water users in projects that recover water through works to improve irrigation water use efficiency on their farms”
Independent research conducted in the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District in recent weeks (published here), has shown that regardless of how water is recovered, there are lasting economic and social impacts as the consumptive pool shrinks and demand outstrips supply on the temporary water market. The temporary water market is so crucial particularly for the dairy industry in northern Victoria.
Barnaby Joyce is right. We don’t yet have a methodology that can demonstrate that infrastructure projects can meet the neutral or improved test – a test that was established with the bipartisan support of the Australian Parliament. Irrigator appetite for further government funded on-farm irrigation projects is low. Past on-farm efficiency programs have been viewed by irrigators as a reasonably priced source of capital (cash for water entitlement). Now that the big new trends in the water market are emerging however, farmers are increasingly reluctant to hand back an appreciating asset (water entitlement) for a depreciating one (on-farm infrastructure).
If you’ve read any of the press in the last few days you would think all is lost and a solution cannot be found. Hopefully our political representatives will head home, cool their heels and return after the Christmas break with a spirit of cooperation and the energy and creativity to find a solution that can deliver outcomes for all. The Basin Plan isn’t at an intractable deadlock. For the future of our communities, industries and the rivers of the Murray-Darling it can’t be. Here at NFF we will continue to work to ensure that the Basin Plan can work for all.
Jack Knowles manages natural resources policy for the National Farmers' Federation.