Labor strikes deal to pass Murray-Darling changes

Tess Ikonomou |

David Pocock says he is comfortable in supporting the government on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
David Pocock says he is comfortable in supporting the government on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

An overhaul to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will go ahead after the Albanese government secured the backing of the crossbench.

The $13 billion plan aimed to return 450 gigalitres of water to the environment by June 2024 but that deadline will be moved to the end of 2027.

ACT independent senator David Pocock announced on Wednesday he had cut a deal with the government to support their legislation.

This agreement will set aside an additional $20 million for the health and monitoring of the Upper Murrumbidgee.

Another $30 million will be in the contingency reserve for more water in the Upper Murrumbidgee during drought-like conditions.

The Murrumbidgee River in NSW
Funding worth $30m has been set aside for more water in the Upper Murrumbidgee during drought. (HANDOUT/CSIRO)

With the backing of the Greens, Senator Pocock and another independent senator David Van, the government has the numbers it needs to pass its legislation before the upper house.

Senator Pocock said he was comfortable to support the bill in the Senate.

“Part of my ask for supporting an update was that the government look after the Upper Murrumbidgee and they’ve come to the table,” he told reporters. 

The Murrumbidgee catchment supports Canberra, Wagga Wagga and many other regional communities.

Andy Lowes, from the Australian River Restoration Centre, said the Upper Murrumbidgee was in “pretty poor health”.

“This is actually just the start of the journey to bring this river back to life, and bring it in line with the rest of the reforms across the Murray-Darling Basin,” he said.

The coalition opposes the legislation, which will enable more voluntary water buybacks and water-saving infrastructure projects to be built.

These projects would have been scrapped had the legislation not secured the support to move an end-of-year deadline.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek was asked in parliament by Nationals MP Sam Birrell if the government had modelling on the cost to taxpayers and the financial and social impacts on communities of water buybacks.

Ms Plibersek pointed to the price of food going down during the largest year of buybacks more than a decade ago.

Nationals MP Sam Birrell
Nationals MP Sam Birrell questioned the government on the cost to taxpayers for water buybacks. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

The laws would put in place a new agreement with all basin states except Victoria, which is opposed to more buybacks.

Many farmers and producers have come out against the new deal, warning their communities will suffer as a result of buybacks.

Fruit Growers Victoria said they were “begging” the Senate to delay passing the legislation, which would lead to higher food prices and long term food shortages.

“(The bill) and the removal of 450GL from the consumptive pool of water allocated to irrigators will put extreme pressure on agriculture during droughts and reduce our ability to consistently feed the nation with Australian grown produce,” chairperson Mitchell McNab said.

He said all avenues to avoid water buybacks should be explored.