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Labor goes to water with Murray-Darling Basin sell-out

Nick G.

Conservationists have accused the Labor Party of selling out the interests of a healthy Murray-Darling river system. The party has withdrawn its support for a Greens motion to disallow a reduction in the amount of water to be kept in the Southern Basin of the rivers for their environmental health.

The federal Labor back-flip follows the release of an Issues Paper by the South Australian Labor-appointed Royal Commissioner into the Murray-Darling Basin that has questioned the legality of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP). Labor claims its change of mind was partly prompted by the need to rescue the Plan from recalcitrant states – particularly NSW and Victoria -  that had threatened to withdraw from the MDBP unless the reductions went through.

Referring to the Water Act on which the Basin Plan is based, the Royal Commissioner states that the Plan erred in not basing its calculations on the amount of water required for environmental purposes only. Instead it had included social and economic factors which should only have been applied once a base level had been established.

Environmental scientists had calculated that a recovery target within the range of 3000 – 7600GL was needed to establish an environmentally sustainable level of take (ESLT). Instead, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has set the ESLT at 2750GL, substantially below the minimum amount required for the river system’s health.

The MDBA’s failure to comply with the law in setting the initial ESLT led the Royal Commissioner to state, in paragraph 61 of the Issues Paper, that “there is a real risk that all or part of the Basin Plan is unlawful”.

The Australia Institute has further attacked the legality of the adjustment to the ESLT on the basis that it has unlawfully included projected water savings measures that are anticipated, but not yet realised, and that may in fact never be realised.  It has referred its objections to the Royal Commission.

What’s at stake?

What is at stake is an immediate reduction of 605GL from the already inadequate and unlawful figure of 2750GL.  These 605GL are the proposed savings to the river system of 36 projects, not one of whose business cases has been made public. The theory is that if 605GL can be returned to the rivers by these measures, then the rivers don’t need the full ESLT of 2750GL.  There is no guarantee that these 605GL will eventuate, but if they did, they should be used to supplement the inadequate ESLT rather than further reducing it.

This is not about letting good rainwater drain out to sea, as the cotton growers and other big corporate irrigators claim.  It is about ensuring Broken Hill’s water supply, ensuring the Menindee Lakes and Macquarie Marshes remain viable as part of our inland biodiversity (essential for birdlife and the Golden Perch fish species), that there is water available for pastoralists along the rivers (their take is minimal compared to cotton growers and other big irrigators), and that the internationally protected Coorong is kept alive.

A broad alliance fights for the rivers

A broad alliance has emerged to fight for the rivers.  It includes the Greens, various conservationist organisations, the national Birdlife Australia, First Nations peoples, pastoralists and many, many ordinary citizens.

It was the Greens that took an earlier and successful disallowance motion, pertaining to the Northern Basin, to the Senate in February. On that occasion, Labor voted for the rivers and supported the Greens.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has criticised the passage of the reduction in the Southern Basin ESLT, saying that “The cuts to the river’s water are premature and reckless, and puts at risk the health of floodplains, wetlands and wildlife that call the basin home, and the communities that rely on a healthy river to thrive.”  It demanded “an end to the industry-dominated and one-sided approach from the Turnbull Government and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to the management of the river system.”

Tolarno station pastoralist Robert McBride and his daughter Kate have campaigned strongly, including effective use of social media, for the rivers. Striking Tolarno shearers attacked scabs at nearby Moorara station on August 26, 1894 and burnt the paddle steamer Rodney (below), loaded with scab wool, to the water line. The Rodney was one of a number of paddle steamers navigating a then healthy Darling River carrying heavy loads of wool bales to Goolwa at the mouth of the Murray. They would be unable to do so today. Near Menindee, the Darling is a fetid gutter of green algae. It is so low passing Tolarno that Robert McBride, a relative of former Liberal Party President and Menzies Minister Sir Philip McBride, is able to appear to be walking on water in a recent photo.

First Nations peoples have won some rights to buy back water for Indigenous economic and cultural purposes in the deal struck between Labor and the Federal government.  Leaving aside the irony of Indigenous peoples having to buy back waters stolen from them during colonisation, the recognition of Indigenous rights to water is important. The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, peak body for 22 First Nations in the Southern Basin area has welcomed this but also decried the reduction in the ESLT, describing it as “a backward step for the iconic ecosystems of the Murray-Darling Basin.”

On May 5 traffic in Dubbo’s Macquarie Street came to a stop when more than 60 locals took to the streets with placards and banners supporting a healthy river system.  “Communities in the Murray-Darling basin are outraged at the perilous health of our rivers, marshes and lakes, and the impacts for all of the life that relies on them,” said rally organiser Mel Gray. Indigenous elders, Aunties Narelle Boys and Coral Peckham spoke about the healthy river that once existed.

Cotton and corporates – enemies of our rivers

Unlike corporates, cotton is socially useful.  However, it should be grown in an appropriate environment, and the arid and semi-arid regions through which the Murray-Darling river systems run is clearly inappropriate.  The water requirements of cotton are killing our rivers and killing the Lower Lakes and Coorong.

Since the corporate-led demise of water as a common good, and its subsequent transformation into a marketable commodity, huge corporations including overseas hedge funds and private equity firms have entered the market and have bought up big.  The more water stolen from the ESLT – from the environment – the more there is available for speculative purchases by finance capital.

Together, cotton and corporates are enemies of our great national icon, the Murray-Darling river system. The alliances that have emerged to fight for the rivers are the future independent and socialist Australia in embryo. Its future development is contingent on growing working class involvement in and leadership of the broader environmental movement.


Labor goes to water with Murray-Darling Basin sell-out
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