WHILE conceding some aspects of the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan could have been done differently, federal Independent MP Tony Windsor says the plan is now a “significant piece of political history”.
Mr Windsor said he’s relieved certainty has now been achieved and most of the political “confection” has been proven wrong, in particular over water buybacks.
In a frank interview with Fairfax Agricultural Media about the disputed water planning process, Mr Windsor said he’s “relatively comfortable” with the final plan, signed into law by the Prime Minister and Water Minister Tony Burke last week.
He also praised Minister Burke for taking on board critical recommendations that came via the Regional Australia Committee process.
The no-nonsense MP chaired the multi-party committee which consulted with rural communities extensively after the Guide to a draft Basin Plan was released in October 2010.
That work helped reverse the direction in which the doomed plan was heading.
Minister Burke said the Windsor Committee played an “irreplaceable role” in ensuring basin communities had a direct line of communication in finding ways to deliver the outcomes that the rivers required, in ways that minimised community impacts.
The Committee’s work and recommendations helped with; creating the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism; prioritising infrastructure investment (on and off-farm) ahead of water buyback; moving to a more strategic approach to water purchases; and engineering solutions to enable more efficient use of environmental water.
It also assisted with establishing the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office with a focus on the water needs of environmental assets, scientific and engineering expertise, transparency and accountability and community engagement in watering decisions.
Mr Windsor said there would always be some argument about something at the margins when it comes to water management.
“For some people, an agreement could never be reached because of a whole heap of parochial political reasons, but now it’s been done,” he said.
“Our committee was given a task to do and I think they did a good job.”
Mr Windsor said the plan’s baseline target of 2750 gigalitres in environmental water flows can be obtained without causing “a hell of a lot of pain” for farmers and rural communities over time.
He said 2750GL was always going to require some sort of compromise position in the end.
But at the start of this process, he said all the water use efficiency demands were mainly placed at the farmers’ feet. The final plan places those demands at both ends, with the environment also required to become more efficient.
Mr Windsor said it was misleading to say 3200GL was the actual volume of environmental water required in the Basin Plan, with various political motives and profit, attached to repetitions of that statement.
He said the additional 450GL on top of the baseline 2750GL would be a voluntary program for South Australia in accessing the $1.77 billion federal funding to improve water use efficiencies and would not include any buybacks.
Another 650GL would be achieved through various works and measures, to create improvements and savings from the environmental watering pool.
The remaining 2100GL would be derived from current water buyback and infrastructure programs, with 1300 to 1500GL of that volume already obtained.
“The actual number going back into the system is 2100GL but we’ve got between 1300 to 1500GL of that now already, so the actual number left to go is between 600 and 800GL,” he said.
“But there’s still this stuff running around out there claiming the government is going to take water from rural communities which simply isn’t true.
“I think one of the great tragedies in all of this is that some very decent, genuine people were absolutely frightened by some of the rhetoric that was out there saying the government was going to come along and just take their water away.
“And up until about a week ago that stuff was still running around.
“But Minister Burke has said that essentially only strategic buybacks will occur to recover any water, so those who are worried about buybacks shouldn’t be worried.
“Those who are worried about the additional 450GL also have nothing to worry about.
“If they don’t want to access funding to become more efficient then they don’t have to access the funding.”
Mr Windsor praised MDBA chairman Craig Knowles, who replaced Mike Taylor in early 2011 after the process hit the skids with growing anger and outrage captivating public consultation and opinions.
He said Mr Knowles, “turned around a nasty situation, even though a large part of it was confected”.
“The whole process got off to a bad start under Mike Taylor because they went straight for the numbers and then sold the plan as the government taking away water from communities,” he said.
“They came out with rows and rows of numbers next to rivers and it was all very complicated and confusing.
“They didn’t get the right interpretation in place and so it all became this belief that ‘your river’s going to lose 100GL and they’re going to take 100GL from your town’.
“I don’t think it was a deliberate strategy, but when Craig Knowles took over he had to claw it all back into the world of realism.
“And that wasn’t easy with (Shadow Water Minister) Barnaby Joyce and the like running around saying the government was coming to town to take everyone’s water away.
“But throughout this entire process, no one has shown me where they’ve come to town and taken away water.
“We went through this Murray-Darling process with a number of people, like Barnaby Joyce and others, running around and frightening the crap out of everyone.
“Michael McCormack (Nationals Riverina MP) is another one who was doing it and I’ve got a lot of time for Michael - but the way some of those Griffith people were frightened for no good reason is unforgivable.
“The political profit out there in all of this was to frighten everyone but Barnaby Joyce and others will now vote for the very thing they were arguing against.”
Mr Windsor said the most significant impact of the Basin Plan would be ending ongoing uncertainty for people living and working within the river system.
Throughout his Committee process, which covered almost every region of the Basin in gauging stakeholder reaction to the Guide and seeking grass-roots solutions, he said the recurring theme was uncertainty.
“People said we need to know what the government and the Authority wants to do and how they want to achieve that,” he said.
“People now know there’s only 600 to 800GL to go which can be found through a whole range of ways, so they can be certain of the final number which isn’t that big.”
Mr Windsor said the remaining 600 to 800GL in environmental water flows would come through a range of methods, including strategic buybacks in specific sections of the river system.
He said the Windsor report identified about 1600GL was possible in water use improvements at Menindee Lakes alone, and if one only third of that is achieved it would have a significant impact on the remaining volume.
He said another area of opportunity to recover a large percentage of the remaining 600 to 800GL was through the computerised river management technologies used by Water for Rivers which enhance water use efficiencies.
But some of the State and Commonwealth water agencies would need to overcome “frictions” and “bureaucratic protection” for that technology to reach its full potential.
He said water saving work by Water for Rivers would be “lean and mean” but if the Commonwealth and States insisted on retaining the task it would prove less efficient and more expensive.
“Water for Rivers has been a real shining light in this process,” he said.
“They have credibility in the bank for the water improvements they’ve done already and that’s been accepted by the community.
“I’d hope something like that would gain acceptance.”
Mr Windsor said the 2750GL won’t achieve some of the environmental outcomes that some environmentalists want, but would create a healthier river system.
“Most communities probably won’t feel any great socio-economic impact because no water has been taken away and people have legitimately sold their water,” he said.
Mr Windsor said he received personal abuse for recommending buybacks be stopped in irrigation districts at the southern end of the river system.
“I had people ring me up saying, ‘you bastard you’ve taken away our opportunity to get out of trouble because the government’s the only one who’ll buy water from us’,” he said.
“But then you had growers and irrigation groups saying, ‘oh no, buybacks will destroy our towns’.
“The farmers have always been a little bit trapped in this.
“All the communities have argued that as soon as (former Water Minister) Penny Wong came along with the cheque book the bigger players said, ‘who gives a stuff about the town anymore I’m off to the coast’.
“The farming community was always dogged by this business that they agreed with this market mechanism that allowed water to be taken from their towns, if someone wanted to sell water, regardless of the socio-economic impacts.”
Mr Windsor said only time would tell how balanced the final plan was.
He expected the States, including NSW, will eventually all agree to the final plan that’s been presented to parliament by the Minister.
He said he expected disallowance motions, raised in the House of Representatives and Senate during the prescribed 15-day period, would be defeated with the government and opposition agreeing to pass the final plan.
Mr McCormack rejected Mr Windsor’s criticism of the Nationals by suggesting they’d confected fears about government taking water from basin communities.
He plans to cross the floor and vote against the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
“I’ve stood up for my constituents in doing the right thing and representing their views on the Murray-Darling Basin,” Mr McCormack said.