By Steve Whan – CEO of National Irrigators’ Council (NIC)

With most farmers in NSW on zero allocation and many in Victoria and NSW unable to afford prices for temporary allocation, it is entirely understandable that we are seeing a significant amount of frustration, anger and many people are looking to find a solution. 

I understand that’s why some people think that the answer is to ditch the Basin Plan. 

“Scrapping” the Basin Plan would not stop the impacts of drought. But it is important to think through what that would mean. 

Inter-governmental agreements that pre-date the Basin Plan (and are separate) govern how water is shared between the States, so ‘scrapping’ the Plan would not change how much was allocated to NSW, Victoria or South Australia. Not one more drop of water would be available. 

The Water Market is also separate to the Basin Plan, so ‘scrapping’ the Plan would not return water to anyone who sold entitlement or has not received an allocation.  It would do nothing to reduce the very high price for allocation, address the operation of the market or the movement of allocations.

Environmental Water ‘owned’ in exactly the same way as irrigators own their entitlement so getting rid of the Plan would not mean environmental water returned to the consumptive pool. 

The question that needs to be answered by advocates of scrapping the plan is what would it be replaced with? Is it realistic to think that some iteration of a new plan would include less than the current Plan requires for the environment? 

There is no scenario in which there is a majority in the Parliament for a Plan that requires less water for the environment.  Some loud voices seem to think that individual MPs can achieve these results, forgetting that any change has to get a majority of all members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

And we have to be realistic about that.  It’s unlikely a change like that would even get through the Liberal Party room, let alone a Senate where Labor, Greens and just South Australian cross-bench command a majority. 

There are some real challenges remaining with the Basin Plan implementation.  We need to work to overcome them – but we won’t do that with slogans.

The supply projects that make up the 605GL of Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Measures are a key one. 

The real danger of our current situation is that these measures may not be successfully put in place by the State Governments. 

If they are not, the Basin Plan legislation makes it very clear that the Federal Government can go back in and buyback the 605GL.  Most of that would come from the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Goulburn. 

Minister Littleproud has been criticised for pointing this challenge out, he has been accused of threatening communities.  The fact is the ‘threat’ was very deliberately put into the legislation in 2012 and even if he wanted to, the Minister can’t just make it disappear. 

He could take the easy option of saying what people want to hear, of making promises he knows he can’t keep.  But that’s not leadership.  Leadership means telling people a tough truth rather than going for easy populism. 

NIC knows that a failure to achieve the supply projects is a threat to irrigation, it’s a threat with a potential billion dollar negative impact on Murray and Murrumbidgee communities.  We have, a number of times, pointed out how wrong it is to have the cost of failure resting on communities while the responsibility for implementation rests with Government. 

No matter how you look at it, it is a threat and the only way to remove it is to make sure the 605 projects (or equivalent) are implemented.  That’s why we have been urging State Government’s to accelerate their activity, accept their responsibility and ensure maximum flexibility on the projects.

We do have a way forward on some of these really difficult issues, it is via the recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s five-year review.  The review pointed out how difficult it was going to be to deliver the supply measures by 2024 and it questioned whether the 450GL efficiency measures could be delivered (given system constraints); it also called for a reassessment of the salt export objective (linked to how much water flows out the Murray mouth). 

It and several other reports talked about the importance of complimentary measures as well. 

So far Government’s have been somewhat half-hearted in their response to the Productivity Commission. NIC and National Farmers have called for more action and this is real opportunity to improve the implementation of the Basin Plan and address some of the Plan related issues that are causing problems. 

In my view anyone really concerned about the future of irrigation communities would direct their efforts at lobbying hard to make sure we use the opportunity provided by the Productivity Commission recommendations to get changes to the way remaining elements of the Plan will be implemented to ensure they are realistic, deliverable and produce good outcomes all round.

Finally, like so many of us I have been thinking a lot about the bush fire victims and the volunteers over the last couple of weeks.  It is often hard to know how to help but as a regular donor to the Red Cross I decided to give some money via this link [HERE], I know the Salvos also have a fund. 

When I was NSW emergency services Minister, a decade ago, this sort of early simultaneous fire season (i.e. QLD, NSW and even still California) was quite unusual – now with climate change and this terrible drought it seems to be becoming common.  It’s frightening and reminds us all just how grateful we are to the volunteers from the RFS, SES and the welfare groups who are being stretched by these conditions. 

Best wishes and stay safe. 

Visit the National Irrigators’  Council website [HERE].