When federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announced a new plan this week to return water to our nation’s biggest river system, Victoria cut a lonely figure as the only Basin state not included in the deal.
Under the new agreement the NSW, South Australian, Queensland and ACT governments will allow the Commonwealth to buy back irrigation licences to return at least 450 gigalitres of water for the environment, and the deadline for recovering that water will be extended from June 2024 to December 2027.
By refusing the deal, Victoria stands to lose out, as do regional communities from the new money being made available to the states that have signed up.
It’s not altogether surprising that Victoria was left out considering the Andrews government is clinging to the old era of Barnaby Joyce-style water policies that blocked the most effective and feasible solution to get water back into our ailing river system – buying it back from willing sellers.
Just as NSW has revised its position and accepted water buybacks, Victoria should also stop standing in the way of farmers and irrigators who want to sell water back to the Commonwealth. What next – is the Victorian government going to stop farmers from selling their land?
If Victoria is genuinely concerned about the impact on regional communities, they could reach a similar compromise, allowing the Commonwealth to purchase water without actively endorsing it. Then Victoria could sign up to the deal and receive the benefits.
By remaining at the negotiating table, Victoria could also use its clout to push for better support for regional communities – something the Commonwealth has signalled they’re willing to bankroll.
Instead, the Andrews government is clinging to the delaying and blocking tactics we’ve seen in place for over a decade that have led to the decline of our river system, placing hundreds of threatened animals and plants at greater risk of extinction.
We’ve all seen the shocking images of mass fish kills and stagnant discoloured water over the past years – it is river mismanagement writ large. While not perfect, Tanya Plibersek’s new deal for the Murray-Darling at least offers a way forward, giving Australia’s largest river system a possible lifeline on the brink of drought.
After years of neglect, it’s time for Victoria to follow NSW’s example and allow the federal government to get on with the job of restoring our once-mighty Murray-Darling back from sickness to health.
An edited version of this op-ed was published in the Herald Sun newspaper on 25 August 2023.