The Murray-Darling Basin plan should be reviewed in light of science, not on political whim.
The National Party has proposed a number of amendments to legislation governing the Murray-Darling Basin plan that has the potential to “blow it up”, according to some of Australia’s leading environmental scientists.
The defeated proposals would have banned government water buybacks, and limited the requirement for water to be returned to the system for environmental reasons unless it achieved “neutral or improved economic outcomes”.
National MP Damian Drum told the lower house the legislation was necessary and he hoped the Liberal Party would support it.
“Our next step is to make this Coalition policy, so we need the Liberal Party to come on board with these amendments at their earliest opportunity,” Dunn said. “Once we get that, and this becomes Coalition policy, we will have a lot of work to do to win over the crossbench in the Senate.
“That’s simply the steps we have to take to stop the pain and damage and detriment that’s been inflicted upon our communities.”
Dunn also circulated a set of briefing notes on the basin, which included the claim that South Australia no longer needed fresh water from the plan. The notes said: “The science no longer supports SA needing fresh water… Rising sea levels will mean the SA Lower Lakes system will not need environmental water.”
The moves closely followed the reinstatement of Barnaby Joyce to the party’s leadership last week, revealing a new policy direction for the Coalition partner.
But leading environmental scientists are worried about the direction of the debate and its implications for the Murray-Darling Basin plan, which has the legislated aim of apportioning water between often competing interests, including the environmental health of the river system.
The renewed push on these issues by the National Party was signed off by the party room on Monday 21 June under the newly elected Joyce. The Nationals’ Liberal colleagues weren’t informed of the amendments, which were said to have been in the works for some months.
As far as politics goes, it was entertaining theatre that achieved very little. The Murray-Darling Basin plan stays intact; the Nationals demonstrated that they’re not the Liberal Party.
But some in the science community are worried about the debate and what it might mean for future governments thinking about the plan.
Professor Nick Bond, director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems at La Trobe University, Melbourne, says it was good to see the plans voted down because, if implemented, they would undo the important legislative capacity for water buybacks, even though they weren’t happening at the moment.
“In practice, the current government have said they won’t acquire any more water licences through a buyback scheme, but it would be a great pity to see the legislation undone – in that sense it was good to see it voted down,” Bond says.
“But the immediate impacts of that proposal were already being felt – in terms of being one of the factors in the delay in meeting the water recovery targets.”
Bond says that while the plan wasn’t perfect, and that its implementation has been slow and behind schedule, particularly in meeting some of the environmental flow targets, the time to review it was built into the legislation in scheduled cycles.
“There is a time to review the progress of the plan coming up,” he says. “But further to that, the sustainable diversion limit is due to be reviewed in 2026. We have to respect the adaptive planning cycle that’s built into the legislation. It would be a great shame to undo that at this point in the plan’s evolution.”
The future of the plan and its reviews needed to be driven by science, and run through the Murray-Darling Basin Authority – not by politicians, Bond adds.
“Any review needs to be done on the basis of solid scientific data on the health of the environment, on changes in water availability, and the impacts of climate change on that, and then the impacts on rural communities and the economic impact.”
Quentin Grafton, director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy at the Australian National University, agrees that the plan and the way that it was currently delivering for the environment was “not passing the grade”.
“There are some clear objectives within the basin plan and we are not achieving them – they are stream flows at the Murray mouth, and stream flows at various points in the basin,” says Grafton. “Scientists had a report in 2020 which showed that there was a 20% reduction on the stream flows that we would expect.
“It’s clearly not delivering on stream flows in various parts of the basin. It’s clearly not delivering at the end of the Murray mouth and it’s not delivering in other key wetlands as well.”
Despite the failings of the plan, Grafton says the solution was to adapt and improve on the current set of regulations, not “blow the whole thing up”.
“If it’s not delivering you adapt and improve – that’s what good governance does,” he says.
“The major factor, but not the only factor, is the level of extractions. Irrigation accounts for about 85% of the water that is consumed by human activity in the Murray-Darling Basin, so that’s where you need to look.”
While some were pushing the idea that climate change is the main issue facing water levels in the basin, Grafton says it was a “convenient” view that took responsibility away from irrigators.
“Extractions are the key driver here, not the only driver, but the key one,” he says. “That’s the key place we need to work – anything else is a distraction. I’m not saying extractions should be zero, but we should have sustainable agriculture, sustainable communities and a sustainable environment.”
Professor Michael Young, research chair in Water and Environmental Policy at the University of Adelaide, says it’s important that the independence of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was protected and that it was empowered to make decisions for the best interests of the whole system.
“The games that are being played are all about taking away that independence from them and restricting them from doing what they need to do to get it right,” says Young. “That’s what Barnaby Joyce is trying to do: tie the hands of the authority and stop implementation of what is sensible policy.”
Irrigators should be grateful that the current system offered buybacks, he adds, noting that state governments have it in their power to take water back for the environment without compensation, which he says is the alternative.
“I would argue strongly for an independent authority that is unrestrained, the same way almost every economist would argue that the Reserve Bank should be independent and empowered to make decisions quickly in a way that looks after our long-term interests,” Young says. “It’s better if politicians stay out of this rather than try and constrain them.”
Jarni Blakkarly is a journalist based in Melbourne. He is the winner of a Young Walkley Award and he tweets @jarniblakkarly.