Now that the dust has settled on the latest political fight over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, what are the results?
To update you, the Senate voted against the adjustment of the Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDL) in the Northern Basin by 70GL. This would have meant less water had to be recovered in the Northern Basin.
That 70GL had yet to be recovered and after a four year review of the Northern Basin, the MDBA found that the 70GL provided little environmental benefit if taken off consumptive users, but significant social benefit if it was retained for the consumptive pool.
To clarify if the SDL had been adjusted for the Northern Basin, which could still happen, the Southern Basin would not need to have more water recovered to compensate. This particular process treats the Northern and Southern Basins as separate.
While Victoria was not directly affected by the 70GL, the vote was important to ascertain Federal Labor’s stance and also spoke to the integrity of the plan. The Basin Plan had several processes built in to adjust the Plan, but if the Senate fails to pass these adjustments the Plan cannot function as originally intended, to adapt as new information is researched.
With the vote now decided, the South Australia State Government is claiming victory, the Victorian State Government has expressed disappointment while the Queensland State Government has apparently been working behind the scenes and is urging the NSW and Victorian State Governments to stick with the Plan after the 70GL vote.
The fallout from that vote is that the NSW State Government has now vowed to stop cooperating with the implementation of the Plan.
Practically this means that the water already recovered will remain with the environment and there will be no further recover in NSW.
In response SA has said it will take NSW to the High Court, however legal experts do not necessarily think the court challenge would be successful. Alternatively the Federal Government could use its powers under the Water Act 2007 to continue implementation of the Basin Plan in NSW, but they would be unwilling to force NSW to comply with the Plan.
It is unclear whether NSW will follow through with walking away from the Plan, already they have softened their message, offering to work with the Federal Government. Additionally the 70GL adjustment can be brought back before parliament to be voted on again. Potentially the 70GL could pass parliament a second time which would achieve the goal NSW wanted to occur.
There was a second vote regarding the Basin Plan scheduled for Wednesday, which would allow 605GL to stay in the consumptive pool across the Basin, however that vote has been delayed until Tuesday 8 May. Victoria is directly involved in this vote and State Water Minister Lisa Neville has said Victoria will walk away from the Plan if the 605GL in supply projects isn’t delivered.
The NSW Water Minister, Niall Blair, had committed to the supply projects, projects that provide for environmental infrastructure and policies to support environmental watering events, before the vote even if they did walk away but they are unlikely to have the funds to pursue those projects alone.
Federal Labor was attempting to get agreement from the Federal Government that the 450GL would be guaranteed, presumably without the requirement for taking social and economic impacts into account, if Federal Labor voted in favour of the 605GL adjustment to the Sustainable Diversion Limit.This agreement was not reached before the vote was delayed.
Importantly, the vote is now after the South Australian State Election (Saturday 17 March.) The suggestion has been that Federal Labor is grandstanding for that State Election and may be more supportive of the Basin Plan adjustment in May than they are now.
As the VFF, we see our role between now and May is to persuade Federal Labor of the benefit of the supply projects, as well as protecting Victorian farmer’s water rights by working closely with the Victorian State Government and State Opposition on a range of water issues.