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Ministers asked to fight for rural communities

“Don’t forget how hard we fought to get an effective socio-economic neutrality test.”

That is the message from the community-based Speak Up Campaign, which is encouraging state Water Ministers in New South Wales and Victoria to ensure the agreed test is applied before any more water is recovered.

“State Water Ministers are due to meet this month, and no doubt a top agenda item from federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek will be recovery of the additional 450 gigalitres of ‘upwater’ under the Basin Plan, even though there is no evidence that it is needed,” said Speak Up chair Shelley Scoullar.

“All the indications suggest Ms Plibersek wants to reintroduce water buybacks, despite the massive social and economic damage from previous buybacks. For many communities, it beggars belief that buybacks could even be considered, taking into account the proven damage they have caused.

“If that is the direction the Federal Government wants to take to appease the Greens and protect South Australian seats, then it will be very disappointing. However, under no circumstances can we waiver from the commitments that have been made, guaranteeing no adverse social and economic impacts from further water buybacks.

“The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s own data has proven the damage from initial buyback programs, showing total workforce decreases from 2001 to 2016 (most from 2011-2016) of more than 50% in the small community of Wakool, 39.9% in Berrigan/Finley and many other communities similarly affected.

“We cannot let this happen again,” Mrs Scoullar said.

The Speak Up Campaign coordinated a rally in Melbourne, supported cross regional workshops and held information events in its attempts to convince politicians that communities could not sustain more socio-economic damage from water recovery.

The NSW and Victorian Governments acknowledged that a firm neutrality test was required, and it was subsequently adopted.

“For the sake of our communities it is imperative that the strict guidelines of the neutrality test are adhered to,” Mrs Scoullar said.

Speak Up has written to Water Ministers, pointing out that while farmers are financially compensated when they participate in water buybacks, the businesses that service those farmers are not compensated for lost income as a result of declining production on farm and subsequently declining job opportunities and population.

It asked for a commitment to the neutrality test “to protect rural communities”.

Speak Up has also urged Ministers to take every action possible to make changes to legislation that ensure the funding for the 450GL of up-water is spent on improving water quality and not volumes. It says recovering more water is still going to leave issues to deal with, including European carp proliferation; deliverability issues; river bank erosion; loss of habitat to native fauna and flora; and a Murray Mouth which will still need dredging.

It told Ministers that “we need your support to protect our communities, as well as the food and fibre production in our region, on which our nation and the world relies”.

Mrs Scoullar said rural communities continue to hope that common-sense will prevail, and the politically-motivated Basin Plan will transition towards protecting the environment rather than achieving political goals, which has largely been the case to this point.

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