OPINION: Labor puts Murray-Darling Basin Plan back on Track

Tomorrow there will be a vote in the Senate about the Murray-Darling Basin plan. When Labor put the Plan in place in 2012 we resolved over a century of conflict. A conflict that saw the rivers in the Basin suffer – outbreaks of blue green algae a thousand kilometres long.

The Plan we put in place is a framework to deliver a healthy river. Labor fought to include an additional 450GL of water for the environment. We secured an additional $1.77 billion in funding to do that.

We also put in place a mechanism that allowed less water to be used in some circumstances if environmental results could be delivered.

The outcomes for the environment we want are clear in the Plan.

18 months ago, Barnaby Joyce put the entire Murray-Daring Basin plan into jeopardy when he took away the previous bi-partisan commitment to provide an additional 450GL of water to restore the system to health. This was made worse last year when allegations of massive water theft were made on the ABC’s Four Corners program.

The independence of the Murray Darling Basin Authority is essential to water reform. I’ll tell you straight – some of the numbers that have come from the Authority are not the numbers I would have chosen. Scientists may question whether or not some of the decisions that have been made in the last 12 months will hold over the longer term, I have to say, I have questions on that too.

However, I am not willing to give up on having an independent authority simply because it doesn’t make every decision identically to how I might make decisions. Having an independent authority is critical.

The rivers were run without an independent authority for 100 years and it saw the entire Basin over-allocated to death. With that in mind, I wanted to use the disallowance votes before the Parliament to negotiate with the Government to get the 450GL back on track, and to make sure that proper compliance was brought to the Basin. So that water theft can be stopped and if it were to occur again, it would be punished severely.

Labor made it clear that in any negotiation with the Government it sought the following:

  • assurances around the Government’s commitment to deliver the 450GL of environmental water (efficiency measures)
  • assurances that the concerns regarding the quality of projects to deliver the 605GL of environmental equivalent outcomes will be resolved
  • the need for taxpayer funded environmental water to be used for environmental purposes
  • a comprehensive response to allegations of corruption / water theft in the Northern Basin
  • Indigenous consultation and engagement in water planning / governance
  • the accuracy of data and modelling assumptions.

In the negotiations with the Government, the Government has agreed to our demands.

I know some people would have wanted me to disallow anyway, on the basis of questions over decisions that the Authority has made. But if we kill the Plan, we are right back where we started and that would be the worst outcome for our rivers. You can only imagine what Barnaby Joyce would have been able to do if the Murray-Darling Plan hadn’t been there at all.

I have linked a document that goes through the agreements with the Government in detail, click here.

No negotiation is perfect, and I’m not pretending that this is, nor am I going to pretend that we could do as much from Opposition as we could do from Government. However, returning to the principle of having an independent Authority for the long term health of the Murray was crucial in our negotiations.

Importantly though, today’s decision means that the 450GL is back, and the days of the States turning a blind eye to water theft are over. It means that decisions from the Authority will have a new level of transparency so that the scientists can fully analyse the data, and the public can get inside each of the decisions that have been made.

It will also be the first time that traditional owner First Nations communities will hold water entitlements in their own right.

Above all of this, it will mean that we still have a Murray Darling Basin plan, because let’s face it – if we went back to how the system was run for the last 100 years then many of the rivers and wetlands wouldn’t have a next 100 years.

Tony Burke