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Reflecting on a wasted year

Reflecting on 2021, it will be seen as a wasted year in which there was little progress to improve Australia’s water policy and management.

This is the view of the Speak Up Campaign, which says it is disappointing that federal Water Minister Keith Pitt appears to lack the commitment to deliver the best possible Murray-Darling Basin Plan for the nation and, in particular, rural communities.

Speak Up administration officer Shelley Scoullar said his recent refusal to hold a scheduled meeting of state Water Ministers, despite the urging of those who would participate, is yet another baffling decision. And southern basin communities have “pretty much given up” on any hope that Mr Pitt would make the effort to visit the region for meaningful discussions with advocacy groups around solutions to present water management issues.

“The Basin Plan has been controversial from the start, with political games taking priority over the interests of our communities,” Mrs Scoullar said.

“With a federal election looming it seems pretty obvious that the Minister wants to ensure it does not become a broad election issue. Of course, it will again cost the government votes in communities across northern Victoria and southern New South Wales which are suffering from this poor plan, but we have always been expendable … we’re the sacrificial lambs so the government can appease those in marginal South Australian seats, and in capital cities.

“Those who want the Basin Plan completed ‘in full and on time’, as Mr Pitt keeps telling us must happen, seem prepared to ignore the damage it has caused to our regions, and to the environment it is supposed to protect,” she said.

Mrs Scoullar said over the past year our nation has had to regularly adjust to challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, which the vast majority of people have accepted now as ‘the norm’.

“Living with Covid has required a flexible and adaptive approach – the same approach we were promised when the Basin Plan was being developed. Yet now, we have governments that are not prepared to accept any flexibility. It’s in total contrast to the Covid policy, which overall has been so successful.

“That’s all we want … a flexible plan that protects the environment and our communities. Unfortunately, throughout 2021 we have seen no desire by the Federal Government to deliver on the promise it gave us,” Mrs Scoullar said.

While governments allow the Basin Plan to roll along without the changes that are required, Australia’s food production suffers and so do the communities which rely on this productivity, especially those in southern NSW and northern Victoria.

Mrs Scoullar pointed out that in the NSW Murray, average irrigation allocations have fallen from about 75 per cent to less than 50 per cent, and this represents hundreds of millions of dollars in lost production.

“The great tragedy is that this is all so unnecessary. With the right water management and policy settings in place we can return water to productive use, and at the same time ensure there is plenty for our environment.

“But making the necessary changes would take some political courage, and unfortunately that’s what seems to be lacking,” Mrs Scoullar said.

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