Victoria has said the Murray-Darling basin plan is “over”, dealing another body blow to the future of the crucial water-sharing agreement.
Victoria and New South Wales are now preparing to leave the Murray-Darling basin plan, after federal Labor and the Greens blocked plans to cut the amount of water returned to the environment by 70GL in northern NSW and Queensland.
The Murray-Darling basin plan is the product of decades of reform aimed at preserving the health of Australia’s largest inland river system and governing water use by irrigators, industry and state governments in four jurisdictions.
But the Victorian water minister, Lisa Neville, said on Thursday the actions of federal Labor and the Greens in the Senate had in effect killed the plan. “We said if these motions get disallowed the plan is over. It’s not walking away, the plan is over,” Neville told ABC radio.
Neville said she was angry, and was sticking up for her state’s farmers and irrigators, who were doing it tough and deserved more from the plan. “I’m not willing to get rid of our dairy industry and our horticultural industry,” she said.
Her comments come a day after NSW water minister, Niall Blair, said the Senate outcome had made “the Basin Plan untenable for NSW”. “The NSW government was committed to delivering the plan, but federal Labor and the Greens have decided to put people last and politics first,” Blair said.
Federal Labor has indicated it is still willing to continue negotiations, and opposition leader Bill Shorten was hopeful a deal could be reached.
“I think there’s a deal to be done. I think that people of goodwill can make it work,” Shorten said on Thursday. “But the government really has left it at five minutes to midnight … They’re so consumed about their own soap opera that the big issues, the issues which affect jobs and agriculturalists and affect climate – that’s just not getting the attention it deserves.”
Environmentalists and NSW Labor have warned walking away from the agreement would be legacy-defining for the NSW government and spell disaster for the environment.
The Australian Conservation Foundation campaigns director, Paul Sinclair, said NSW “seems obsessed” with destroying “decades of river reform that was sparked by Prime Minister John Howard”.
“It is now incumbent on NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to pull the NSW Nationals into line and get the basin plan back on track,” Sinclair said.
Last year, the ABC’s Four Corners alleged some NSW irrigators in the Barwon-Darling region were stealing water, tampering with meters and failing to comply with rules. It also raised allegations of corrupt conduct.
Sinclair accused the NSW government of bowing to powerful irrigators. “You would think the NSW Government would have a little more shame given the serious allegations of rorting and mismanagement of the river on its watch,” Sinclair said on Thursday.
The 70GL reduction in the environmental water recovery target was recommended by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and was supported by major irrigators in northern NSW and Queensland, because it allows more water to be used for agriculture.
The reduction, though, is strongly opposed by farmers downstream of Bourke. Environmentalists and scientists have warned it puts the river’s health at risk, and that the cut to environmental recovery targets in the upper Darling would undermine the plan.
The NSW shadow water minister, Chris Minns, said if NSW pulled out, it would place the NSW Nationals in charge of “writing the rules and ensuring compliance for water management on the Darling”.
“Talk about putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank,” Minns said. “If the last seven years have taught us anything it is that you cannot trust the NSW Nationals, they will always put their mates first.
“The NSW Nationals through their scandalous management of the water portfolio have brought the Murray-Darling River network to the brink of collapse.”
The NSW Nationals have been contacted for comment.