Parliament to report on Basin Plan

I’ve written in previous blogs about the ‘Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’, released last October.  It is the first working draft of the Basin Plan, due out later this year.

Long-awaited, the Basin Plan is required to set ‘sustainable diversion limits’ for the 20-odd  river valleys of the MDB, Australia’s largest irrigated river basin (70% of national irrigation output).

In simple terms, this means deciding how much water the environment should have, then buying that amount of water back off irrigators, using money provided by the Federal Government. Three billion dollars has already been allocated to that task, and more may be needed.

The ‘Guide’ met with widespread criticism from irrigators, rural communities and scientists.  One consequence of that criticism was the establishment, within days of the release, of a federal Parliamentary Inquiry into the ‘Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in Regional Australia’.  The inquiry was initiated by the Minister responsible for rural Australia, Simon Crean.  Not, interestingly, Federal Water Minster Tony Burke who has carriage of the Basin Plan (that’s politics for you!).

The Regional Australia Committee is chaired by Tony Windsor MP, an ‘Independent’ member not aligned with any of the major political parties in Australia. Windsor, his electorate in the northern MDB, is one of three independent MPs who hold the balance of power in Australia’s federal government since last year’s federal election..

There’s been a strong response to the ‘Windsor’ Committee enquires so far. The 20 public hearings across the Basin have attracted people from Indigenous groups, growers, graziers, councils, social services, government, policy and science, and so on.  And over 620 submissions have been received.

The MDB Authority, too, has been out meeting with angry irrigators. Their website reports they have met 20,000 people in 31 community sessions, and have received over 2500 pieces of feedback since October.

With Windsor holding a critical casting vote in Federal parliament, the ruling Labour Party is surely keen to keep Windsor satisfied.  And if the speed of reaction by Ministers Crean and Burke to an interim letter from the committee in February is anything to go by, the committee’s report at the end of May should be influential.

In mid-April, Windsor stated that the final agreed water savings will be achievable by using a range of means that should avoid dramatic effects on rural communities. A brave call given we don’t know the final volumes of water that will be set for environmental recovery from irrigators.

More on the Windsor Committee report when it is released soon.

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