ADF defends water stance

ADF president Terry Richardson says he did not mean to offend irrigators

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Australian Dairy Farmers president Terry Richardson says he did not mean to offend irrigators in an opinion piece he penned for last week's Stock & Land.

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HOT WATER: Australian Dairy Farmers president Terry Richardson has moved to clarify remarks made in an opinion piece about the MDBP.

HOT WATER: Australian Dairy Farmers president Terry Richardson has moved to clarify remarks made in an opinion piece about the MDBP.

Australian Dairy Farmers president Terry Richardson has clarified his comments about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in an opinion piece in last week's edition of Stock & Land, but members of the Victorian Farmers Federation water council remain scathing of his stance.

Mr Richardson had written that, "Ultimately, it is the devastating impact of drought - not the Basin Plan or investors - that is responsible for rising water prices."

Yesterday, he qualified that remark.

"The point I was trying to make was that there's a range of influences but that drought was the most notable driver, not the only one," he said.

Mr Richardson said the ADF supported the ACCC water inquiry and asked for it to be "fast-tracked".

"I know that Aifer have said that the impact of investors is that we have a market that didn't exist previously," he said.

"They've said there are new products and risk management tools being driven by the water investors.

"Most of their water's tied up with leases.

"It's a developing market and I think there's some criticism being levelled at the level of transparency that exists and so this is what we're supporting the ACCC investigation to look into."

His piece had also called for "coordination between water recovery programs such as irrigator buybacks and infrastructure reform".

"The federal government under the Water Act can recover up to 1500 gigalitres of water through the buybacks," he said yesterday.

"We don't support buybacks beyond the the mandated 1500GL.

"That target hasn't been reached yet and I understand the government's recovered about a bit over 1200GL.

"They also have infrastructure initiatives and we believe that there must be proper coordination between the two recovery mechanisms, so that's in reference to the Water Infrastructure Development Fund."

Mr Richardson said there was "a possibility" government might overstep the 1500GL mark but ADF would do whatever it could to prevent that.

VFF water council member and Murrabit dairy farmer Andrew Leahy said those comments contradicted dairy industry policy.

"The ADF policy is no more buybacks but he's saying that we can go to 1500GL on the buybacks," Mr Leahy said.

"UDV water policy is no more buybacks at all and ADF, I understand, has the same policy.

"The really critical thing is, he's talking about something he does not know about.

"When you go to state governments and say, 'Look we're in deep shit' but your national body's saying the policy's all right, it's just drought, how do you fight that?"

Mr Richardson sought to clarify his comments around water pricing.

He had pointed to water prices of over $500 a megalitre in the early 2000s, peaking at $1400/ML in the Murrumbidgee in June 2007.

"To put this in perspective, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics is predicting an average annual water price of $473/ML in 2019-20 for the Murray trading zones," he wrote last week.

Yesterday, Mr Richardson said the comparison showed the role of water availability on pricing.

"This is not new, then, so the ... prices that are experienced now are in relation to water shortages that might have been experienced previously," he said.

VFF water council president Richard Anderson said water prices had hovered around $500 to 600/ML, despite 100 per cent allocations in the Goulburn and Murray systems.

"We don't support on-farm efficiencies taking water from the consumptive pool because it only exacerbates the problem," Mr Anderson said.

But Mr Richardson said there was no silver bullet.

"The ultimate solution is to ensure that they are supported through this period when we've got a severe drought, we've got increasing cost of production, we've got stress and anxiety on farming families," Mr Richardson said.

He rejected calls for the MDBP to be abandoned or modified, saying ADF policy supported continuing with the plan.

"We will be lobbying for, for support for the farmers, that they have the fair and reasonable policy outcomes for the farmers," he said.

"That there has to be a balance between the users of the water - that's the environment, the agriculture and industry - and that we have to recognise that the tests that are applied to determine the outcomes or the impact of the policy outcomes are applied fairly and there is rigour about the tests that are used."

Asked whether he felt the balance between users had been struck, Mr Richardson spoke about the impact on dairy farmers.

"You look at the decline in milk production, the impact on the communities and the farm businesses, you can't say that it's fair when you look at what farmers are going through," he said.

"Now, I know that that's not the case along the whole of the river but certainly when I travelled to the southern Riverina or north Victoria, you can say 'Is this fair with what they're facing right at the moment?' and ... every morning you get up and say, 'It's not fair'."

Mr Richardson said he was supportive of those farmers who had been critical of his earlier commentary.

"I never intended for anybody to think that we don't ... do the utmost possible to ensure that their interests are brought to the attention of those who make decisions, that we don't seek every opportunity to provide support for them," he said.

"I know from my own experience that farming is a tough business to be in.

"You do have to reach deep for the commitment to get to the day's end some times and I know from experience, it's important to think that you're not alone and I hope that ADF can provide that assurance ... it wasn't intended to elicit the response that some may have provided but I hope I can provide an assurance that we do care, we do want to provide support."

However, Mr Leahy was not convinced and said the organisation must be held to account.

"They're not communicating with the people they represent," he said.

"Either Terry goes or the policy person that wrote, or both, should resign."

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