The Federal Government has already broken its August deal with Basin states in its relentless pursuit of water buybacks, according to legal advice obtained by the NSW Irrigators’ Council (NSWIC).
NSWIC CEO Claire Miller said the legislation cannot be supported in its current form for a multitude of reasons, not least that it deviates significantly from the August Agreement struck between the Federal Government and the States (excluding Victoria).
Ms Miller said the legal advice also shows the Bill removes essential checks and balances in how Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) are set and adjusted, enabling unknown and potentially limitless impacts and removes the need for the consent of State Governments.
“It is a sneaky attempt to bypass Basin Plan processes and the Basin States, so the Federal Government can unilaterally set and change SDLs any time it likes,” Ms Miller said.
“This Bill moves away from these set formal processes and instead enables a system where SDLs can simply be adjusted “from time to time” – effectively at the Federal Minister’s discretion.
“The original 2012 Basin Plan was a lot for communities and farmers to stomach, but after seeing the legislation, it is clear the Federal Government planning to do much worse.
“The NSW Government formally opposes buybacks and Victoria has not signed up to the August Agreement. This leaves too many unresolved policy, legal and practical questions for this legislation to pass in its current form.
“The Basin State Governments must not be complicit in enabling the Federal Government free rein to dictate how States manage their water resources.”
Ms Miller said clear and formal steps are currently in place to determine how much water can be diverted. These steps give certainty to stakeholders, including the State Governments.
“These steps ensure SDLs are not flippantly changed at any time the Federal Government fancies, but subject to robust, evidence-based decision-making, including public consultation, through the MDBA 10-year Basin Plan implementation and planning framework,” Ms Miller said.
“The Basin Plan’s objective to implement Sustainable Diversion Limits is already being met, with 98 per cent of water recovery targets achieved. Water recovery was a means to SDLs, not an end in itself.”
Ms Miller said not only is the legislation inconsistent with the August Agreement, it totally rewrites the original 2012 Basin Plan agreed with federal bipartisan and States’ support, and removes the limits of socioeconomic impact built into the 2012 Basin Plan
“In 2012, former Labor Water Minister Tony Burke said the rule for recovering water towards the 450 GL promised to South Australia was that it had no social or economic downsides, and he ruled out buybacks because the Murray Darling Basin Authority determined they have downsides,” Ms Miller said.
“A Victorian Government report has found using buybacks for the 450 GL would lead to an annual reduction of $855 million in economic output in the southern Basin and result in 1500 job losses. This is an outcome we cannot accept.
“The repercussions of buybacks extend far beyond the farm gate. Irrigated agriculture is the backbone of many regional economies. If the industry falters, the entire community feels the impact. We cannot afford more job losses to small businesses and frontline services that will inevitably follow this blow to farmers.”
The Government must address these critical concerns and amend the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 to safeguard the prosperity of regional economies and the well-being of those who depend on them.
“NSWIC, along with numerous stakeholders, have presented the Government with credible alternatives to buybacks. The Government must retain the socioeconomic protections agreed to in 2012 and avoid buybacks at all costs.”