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Plibersek Pressure: extend a $13bil dud, or deliver Murray Darling Basin Plan 2.0?

by Rex Patrick | Jul 31, 2023 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has less than 12 months to run. Everyone accepts the objectives of the Plan will not be met. The Albanese Government is looking to merely extend it. That approach is flawed, writes Rex Patrick

A conflict of interest

Before we proceed, I need to declare a conflict of interest. I care about the Murray Darling Basin. And as a Senator for South Australia, lived the Murray Darling Basin politics for years. 

The Basin is home to 2.3 million Australians, contains 23 rivers, including our two longest rivers – the Darling at 2,700km and the Murray at 2,500 km; contains 16 internationally significant wetlands. It’s the habitat for 35 endangered species and 120 waterbirds. It’s our nation’s food bowl. 

There are others, mostly from the National Party, who don’t care much about the Murray Darling Basin. They only see it exclusively as a cash-cow and take profound offence to the idea that, unsurprising for a river system, it discharges water into an ocean.

The Plan in the making

“Canberra, we have a problem.”

$13 billion was set aside to implement the plan … its implementation has failed

For decade after decade it’s an undeniable fact that irrigators have been extracting far too much water from the Murray-Darling. It took a millennium drought for our leaders to wake up to the idea that a plan was needed to address the over-extraction of water.

On Melbourne Cup Day in 2006, water ministers from state and federal governments met, acknowledged that continuation of a status quo would eventually lead to environmental, economic and social disaster, and agreed in principle to a remedy.

A year later the Water Act 2007 was passed, guided through the Federal Parliament by Federal Water Minister Malcolm Turnbull. It legislated the need for a plan.

Political fraud on the science

The scientists got to work and in October 2010 the Murray Darling Basin Authority published ‘The Guide to the Proposed Basin Plan’ to inform the Plan. The Guide recommended, as a minimum, that we needed to return 3,900 gigalitres (low certainty of success) to the river, but that the better number was 7,600 gigalitres (high certainty).

Well, the big irrigators went ballistic. They saw an immediate challenge to their profiting from a public resource. Protests were organised. There were even burnings of the guide in Griffith. More significantly well-paid lobbyists were engaged, and political arms were twisted.

Murray-Darling Basin Plan

Men burn copies of the Murray-Darling Basin guide. (Gabrielle Dunlevy: AAP)

In the end, politics trumped science (that will hardly surprise anyone). Inconsistent with the law as laid down in the Water Act (as argued by Brett Walker SC who examined the issue when he was the South Australian Murray Darling Royal Commissioner) a plan was formalised that called for only 2750 gigalitres to be returned to the river system plus 450 gigalitres of “efficiency” water that South Australia insisted on before agreeing to the plan.

even that low ball figure was too much for the big irrigators

Instead of a scientific number of between 3,900 and 7,600 gigalitres being returned the river, the aim point was to be set to 3,200 gigalitres.

But even that low ball figure was too much for the big irrigators. In a disgraceful move, in 2018 the Liberal and Labor Parties joined together in the Federal Parliament in an unholy alliance with vested interests to a reduce in that number by 70 gigalitres.

Climate change makes it worse

Even if it were to be said that the 3,200 is enough to keep the rivers sustainable and the basin productive, which would be a statement of fantasy (or more brutally, a lie), climate change is making the situation even worse.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority, which Royal Commissioner Walker found to have ignored the CSIRO’s input to the plan, is now promoting the CSIRO’s science on its web site.

It will almost certainly be hotter and drier in the Southern Basin, with the potential for significantly less run-off into its rivers and watercourses. The future for the Northern Basin is almost certainly hotter too, although there are scenarios involving it both being hotter and slightly drier, or slightly wetter. If slightly wetter, that will likely be through torrential downpours with consequent inflows of heavily silted and turbid water.  

the party put in charge of the Plan were the same party that tried to disallow the Plan from passing the Parliament in the first place

Overall, the Basin may experience a 5% reduction in average annual rainfall, leading to a 20% reduction in average annual runoff. In an extreme scenario, the reduction in average annual rainfall could be as much as 15%, resulting in a 40% reduction in average annual runoff. 

Less inflow, and then more evaporation; and yet no reduction in the level of take – not set at between 3,900 to 7,600 gigalitres with further returns to account for climate change – the water recovery amount remains at 3,200.

Failed execution

$13 billion was set aside to implement the plan. In addition to the plan being flawed, its implementation has failed. It has well fallen short of the 2750 gigalitres false target.

After nine years the plan has only recovered 4 gigalitres of the 450 gigalitres efficiency measures.

All up, the Department’s water recovery efforts sit at the 61% line. That’s $13 billion spent to get a result that a student at any school in Australia would understand to be a ‘D’, and 3% above an ‘F’.

Perhaps that’s what was to be expected when the party who were put in charge of the plan from 2013 to 2022 were the same party that tried to disallow the Plan from passing the Parliament in the first place back in 2012. That’s the National Party I’m talking about.

When in July 2022 Environment and Water Minister Plibersek tabled a mandatory report into the 450 gigalitre debacle, her department advised her to use the opportunity to express her “disappointment at the delays in recovering the 450 GL to date and the challenges now facing water recovery by 30 June 2024”.

Murray Darling Basin Plan

Extract from July 2022 Brief of Advice to the Minister

Unambitious

On 20 June 2023 the Federal Member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, rose in the House of Representatives at question time and briefly described the poor results from the plan and then asked the question, “Will the government negotiate a Murray-Darling Basin Plan 2.0 to protect our river and the environment?

The response from Minister Plibersek was uninspiring. And that’s quite understandable now that Freedom of Information has delivered us the advice the Minister has been receiving in background to deal with the failed Plan.

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It’s just more of the same – work with the States, try to identify efficiencies, calls to increase and integrity around water markets, updating the science – it’s unambitious.

None of this addresses the 2012 lie that the recovery of 3,200 gigalitres was enough

None of this addresses the 2012 lie that the recovery of 3,200 gigalitres was enough. And none of this addresses the reductions in inflows to the river system caused by climate change. 

Murray Darling Basin Plan 2.0

What we need is a new plan, a Murray Darling Basin Plan 2.0 that is based on truth and requires hard decisions. 

Extending the life of the existing flawed and inadequate plan is a recipe for eventual disaster.

Other ministerial briefs released under FOI have revealed hand written comments that show Plibersek cares. But it’s not enough to just care. She has to deliver the goods – or more correctly, deliver the water.  

The Minister is at a fork in the river. Down one path is a smooth ride, free of conflict with big irrigators and state governments, but which will inevitably lead to a dry creek bed and environmental disaster.  

Down the other path are some political rapids that will take courage to push through, but will lead to a sustainable system where everyone benefits, not just irrigators for a short time.

Minister Plibersek can go down in history as a person who fought hard to save the Murray-Darling. She could even go down in history as the person who saved the rivers. Or she can just roll-over and be another one of a long line of political failures who let vested interests prevail over the common good.  

We need a Murray Darling Basin Plan 2.0. And we need it now.

Going Nuts: Murray Darling’s “unbelievably beautiful story” for investors a nightmare for farmers, environment

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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