A controversial new bill giving the Federal Government increased powers to buy back water from irrigators is set to be passed into law, with Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announcing on Wednesday (29 November) she had secured the key support of Independent ACT Senator David Pocock.
Senator Pocock’s decision comes despite being lobbied by Riverina farmers and businesses, who urged him to vote against the bill.
The former rugby star opted to back the legislation after Ms Plibersek said she agreed to his request “to invest $15 million in measures that will improve the health of the Upper Murrumbidgee river”.
In an announcement on social media, the minister said that former Liberal and now Independent Victorian Senator David Van would also support her bill.
After securing the support of 11 Greens senators on Monday, the Labor Government now appears to have just more than half the Senate on its side to pass its proposed new law (39 out of 76 senators).
The Restoring Our Rivers Bill seeks to recover much more water for the environment than is currently allocated, including by buying back water licences directly from farmers so that the water can be left to flow down the river rather than being used to irrigate crops.
Mass protests in Griffith, Leeton and Deniliquin last week saw speakers argue this would have a devastating impact on the population, economies and living standards of these towns.
“The Griffith Business Chamber is dismayed by today’s announcement,” the peak body’s president John Nikolic said. “Senator Pocock previously stated that there is no civilisation without agriculture.
“The business chamber has repeatedly lobbied for the implementation and delivery of water sustainability projects, which the Commonwealth and states have failed to deliver over the past 10 years.
“Those sustainability projects are the appropriate mechanism by which to ensure the future of the Murray-Darling Basin and all of its uses.”
Water sustainability projects include investment in infrastructure to save water and use it more efficiently. The business chamber says this is preferable to buying back water from farmers, arguing the latter leads to families leaving Griffith and declining investment in health and education services.
Outspoken Griffith businessman Paul Pierotti said the nation was “betrayed” by Senator Pocock, Labor and the Greens.
“You would think that someone who travelled across the Murray-Darling Basin [as Senator Pocock did] would understand that they can’t flow this volume of water due to the river constraints, they can’t prove any environmental benefits … but worse still [this bill] will increase the cost of food and fibre in Australia forever.
“We have these do-gooders, particularly the Greens, screaming about cost of living and the impact it’s having on marginalised groups, yet they don’t understand the permanent damage that will be done by this bill.”
Mr Pierotti said it was pointless to buy back more water due to river constraints, such as choke points, low-lying bridges, crossings and private land that prevent water from flowing down the river.
“Governments already have 4600 [gigalitres] of combined environmental water that they can’t use and can’t trade,” he said.
Peak environmental body the Nature Conservation Council, though, has expressed strong support for the proposed new law, arguing claims about the negative impact buybacks would have on rural communities have been overblown.
A Senate vote on the bill is expected within days.
Original Article published by Oliver Jacques on Region Riverina.