Federal Labor has just released a new plan to revive the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. But Victoria’s Water Minister Lisa Neville is standing in the way. Instead of supporting healthy rivers and communities, she’s sided with the Nationals to keep water in the hands of a few big irrigators instead!
Amidst all the noise, point scoring and gotcha moments swirling around the Federal election, it is easy to miss some of the really important policy announcements that will continue to impact on the future of Victoria and the country in the most profound ways.
Last month in Adelaide, Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese and Shadow Environment and Water Minister Terri Butler announced a new five-point plan for the Murray-Darling Basin that re-commits to delivering vital water that our rivers, wetlands and fish need to survive.
The Federal Labor Plan promised to focus on ‘working with Basin governments and stakeholders to deliver on water commitments, including the 450 GL of water for the environment’, water that was previously promised but never delivered. It also would put rigorous science back at the heart of the Basin Plan, with funding to properly model the impact a hotter, drier climate will have on our rivers. Crucially, the five-point plan also included a pledge to increase First Nations ownership over water, as well as increasing their participation in decision making.
While the federal Coalition government has spent years undermining the Basin Plan, this announcement from Labor could finally get it back on track.,
But rather than getting behind her Federal ALP counterparts’ plan for the Basin, Victoria’s Water Minister Lisa Neville continues to side with Barnaby Joyce and the Nationals in opposing the Plan and pursuing a short-sighted policy that would instead keep the water in the hands of a few big irrigators.
From its inception, the Basin Plan was designed to reduce how much water could be taken from our rivers, so there can be enough left for the wetlands, forests, birds, fish and frogs to survive. When the Plan was finalised in 2012, it set a target of returning 3,200 billion litres to our rivers – far less than what science said was needed, but a huge step forward against powerful irrigators who’d lobbied for an even weaker target.
Of this, it was agreed that the final 450 billion litres would be recovered from irrigators by 2024. To get a sense of scale, this is almost as much water as in Sydney Harbour. It’s a lot of water – and it’s vitally needed to trigger breeding events for waterbirds and fish, to sustain the giant river red gums that live in floodplain forests like Barmah National Park, and to make sure the Murray-Darling flows through to the sea.
But while this 2024 deadline is looming fast, the federal Coalition government and state governments in NSW and Victoria have made it even harder to deliver this water for the environment.
In 2018, Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville worked with National Party counterparts to implement extremely onerous and unworkable criteria that made it nearly impossible to return water for the environment. In practice, the most effective way of recovering water for the environment – buying it back from willing sellers – had already been ruled out. These unworkable barriers only benefit a few big corporate irrigators who’ve been able to continue extracting more than their fair share of water. Meanwhile, our rivers and communities downstream lose out.
Now, we’re seeing the same story play out in the context of the Federal election. Minister Neville is again choosing to side with the Nationals to keep water rights in the hands of big irrigators instead of standing up for healthy rivers and communities.
We know the majority of Victorians want a future where our waterways are brimming with life. We want to see a healthy Murray-Darling Basin where First Nations have the right to protect, manage and own water on their Country, and where Australia’s unique and wonderful birds, fish and native plants can thrive.
When we begin to live within the means of this landscape, then our regional communities will be well-placed to adapt to a hotter climate, with diverse industries providing good local jobs along the river.
Victorians want a Water Minister who cares about our rivers and all the people, animals and ecosystems they support. That’s why we’re calling on Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville to get behind Federal ALP’s five-point plan — and take the first step to protect the future of the Basin.