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Bush Summit raises more water recovery concerns

Communities in southern New South Wales and northern Victoria will take little comfort from comments made by Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek at last week’s Bush Summit.

The community-based Speak Up Campaign is concerned that the inflexible, politically driven approach to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will continue under the Albanese Labor Government, despite initial promises by a Labor Government a decade ago that it would be flexible and adaptive.

Speak Up Chair Shelley Scoullar said over the past decade, this ‘flexibility and adaptability’ have been sadly missing from the Basin Plan’s implementation and at this stage it appears unlikely anything will change. We still have a Basin Plan based on numbers, not outcomes, and this is the crux of the problem.

Although Ms Plibersek said at the summit she was “open-minded” about water recovery, this was questioned by Griffith farmer Vito Mancini, who was also a part of its Water Panel.

“You say you want to work with us but the language I’ve heard in the last three to four weeks never mentions the triple bottom line, it’s all about the 450 (gigalitres of upwater). We don’t know where (the water) is coming from, where it’s going to go (or) how you’re going to get through constraint points in the river,” Mr Mancini said to the Minister.

“That’s the conversations we have to have and I’m not going to make up my mind until we’ve had them,” Ms Plibersek replied, to which Mr Mancini responded, “it sounds like you have”.

Mrs Scoullar said many people are also feeling frustrated that governments talk about flexibility, but don’t deliver it, both in Basin Plan implementation and water policy.

“While Ms Plibersek keeps saying she is open-minded, at the end of the day it seems the inflexibility will continue. The Minister keeps insisting that the plan will be delivered in full, including the additional 450 gigalitres of ‘up water’ and she refuses to rule out buybacks, despite the unequivocal evidence that they decimated some of our towns. Ms Plibersek needs to look at the community profiles prepared by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which highlight massive job losses following previous buybacks,” Mrs Scoullar said.

She also asked if the time will ever arrive for South Australia to play a role in delivering more water for the environment.

“Because of its political importance and influence, South Australia is not pulling its weight and making a contribution to the Basin Plan. Projects such as returning water from the south-east drains to the Coorong, or upgrading the barrages are ignored, while SA also refuses to effectively utilise its desalination plant, which could save 100 gigalitres a year. Ms Plibersek told the Bush Summit she would support efficiency projects wherever possible, so why not insist the desal plant is operational and deduct this 100GL from the 450 target? This makes sense, but it seems anything that involves a contribution from South Australia is not considered,” Mrs Scoullar said.

She added Ms Plibersek talks about the environmental damage during the Millennium Drought, but does not recognise that a lot has changed over the past 15 to 20 years, including significant water recovery.

“We all need a secure water supply and we all want the environment protected, which we have shown can be achieved with the water already recovered. If we take more away from food production, even though it is unnecessary, how are we going to meet domestic food supply needs?

“The claims by Ms Plibersek of being open-minded are hollow. As Mr Mancini articulated, we want adaptability … farmers are at the coalface and deal with climate every day of the year and have been doing so for decades. Like all of us, he wants the Basin Plan to be adaptive, just like farmers, and the promised triple bottom line to be respected.

“All we hear from the Government is its insistence on recovering the 450. Despite her rhetoric, just like Mr Mancini we are not convinced the Water Minister has not already made up her mind on Basin Plan direction, and we do not like what we hear,” Mrs Scoullar said.

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