Opinion

Forced to live a nightmare

By Deniliquin Pastoral Times

Commentary from the Federal Government last week suggests there is no doubt it is prepared to sacrifice food and fibre production in the NSW Murray to avoid a political stoush.

The manner in which this regional community has been abandoned by the government is nothing short of a national disgrace, and should be called out as such.

The NSW Murray has, for generations, been one of our nation’s primary food bowls.

It has the advantage of arguably the world’s best gravity-fed irrigation system, built near the source of water storage so it can maximise the productive use of our most precious resource.

What it doesn’t have is a lot of seats in Parliament, and this would appear to be sufficient justification by the Federal Coalition Government for throwing the region ‘under a bus’, all for the sole reason of avoiding a political controversy.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which is crippling communities and at the same time damaging the environment it is supposed to protect, is predicated on Commonwealth legislation.

For many years a plethora of reports and inquiries have highlighted shortcomings in the Basin Plan, and those who are forced to live the nightmare of its failings know only too well that it is not delivering for the communities and the environment as we were promised.

In our naivety, we expected some common-sense would prevail and the ‘flexible and adaptive’ plan that was guaranteed by politicians would lead to the necessary adjustments being made.

Instead, through the insistence of Water Minister David Littleproud, it appears this failing plan will continue to be delivered and our communities will continue to be forced to suffer the consequences.

In our region, the most pressing current issue is the zero water allocation for the second consecutive year.

Yes, the allocation announcements are the responsibility of state governments, as we keep being reminded by Federal Coalition members, but no-one can deny that pre-Basin Plan we would not have zero allocation in the present climate.

This is a Commonwealth plan and instead of avoiding the issue the Coalition members should show leadership and work with us to develop solutions.

However, under the current regime that appears unlikely. And please, do not tell us again that the present crisis is caused by drought.

From the day after he was appointed Water Minister, Mr Littleproud declared the plan would be delivered ‘‘in full and on time’’.

As we learn more about its shortcomings there is a growing chorus that this is not the best approach.

After all, who continues unabated with any project or plan that is, at best, not working as intended, or in the eyes of many a total dud?

Well, Mr Littleproud does.

He recently described it as ‘‘a compromise involving many interest groups and governments which provides Basin communities certainty for the first time in a decade’’.

Certainty? If it wasn’t so serious, this ridiculous claim would be considered a bit of a sick joke.

Before the election his leader, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, appeared sympathetic to calls for action to fix this ailing Basin Plan.

Last week he defended the plan: ‘‘Anyone who thinks that the Commonwealth has a magic wand which sort of says ‘this can happen and that can happen’, I think should read the history of the basin plan more carefully,” he said.

Mr Morrison, like others, conveniently forgets when it suits him that the plan is driven by the Commonwealth and if it is going to be fixed the leadership must come from his government.

Likewise, the Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie wants to ‘pass the buck’ to the states.

When questioned about problems with the Basin Plan in the Senate, Senator McKenzie refused to acknowledge the deficiencies, instead insisting they were state issues.

Yes, she is correct in stating that the NSW Government is responsible for water allocations and issuing irrigator licences.

However, may I repeat, the Basin Plan was Federal Government legislation and repairing the damage it has caused will require Federal Government intervention.

Instead, all we get is denial.

As for the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, I think his position was best summed up by Blighty dairy farmer Lachlan Marshall who said: ‘‘The tragedy of this situation is he (McCormack) has been to our region and he still doesn’t understand it.’’

He doesn’t understand, and taking positive action is too politically risky.

It is particularly disappointing that the Environment Minister and Member for Farrer Sussan Ley is happier to ‘toe the party line’ than call the Basin Plan out for the disaster that is unfolding.

In a recent statement Ms Ley said: ‘‘It is important to remember what can be achieved at a Commonwealth level is also limited by the water sharing rules governed by both federal and state legislation. I am committed to not overstating what is achievable, or pretend we can tell the states what to do with their allocations or water policy.’’

Again, we have a Federal politician — this time one in a position to make a difference — avoid the tough call on solutions which could save farmers in the NSW Murray.

Would it be impossible for Ms Ley and her Coalition colleagues to obtain a parcel of water that would be the difference between some farmers staying on the land or walking away in despair?

Would it be impossible for an emergency allocation to be purchased with drought funding? Difficult perhaps; but impossible, I think ‘no’.

Fortunately, it appears the NSW Government is recognising the failed Basin Plan is hurting our communities and the state’s economic prosperity.

Our hope, it seems, lies in Deputy Premier John Barilaro — supported by Water Minister Melinda Pavey — continuing the tough stance he is taking, and saving our region from the political weakness of a Federal Government that wants to avoid another Basin Plan fight with Labor and the Greens, despite the human consequences.

■Lester Wheatley (pictured) is a long-standing Deniliquin businessman and former chair of Murray Valley Community Action Group.