Tegan Plant

States 'disappointed' with Federal Murray Darling plan

THE Queensland and New South Wales governments have reacted angrily to the Federal Government's plan to save the Murray Darling Basin.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke on Thursday signed off on the first national plan to manage the fragile system.

Mr Burke told the National Press Club in Canberra the plan was "a century late, but hopefully just in time" to save the basin.

He described the plan as a "grand compromise that's a middle ground between all the stakeholders".

"In my view Australia has been putting this off for more than a century, that needs to end, that ends today," said Mr Burke, having earlier signed the plan into law.

Under the complex plan, which is more than 600 pages, 2750GL of water will be returned to the system over the next six years.

This will be achieved primarily by investing in water efficient measures, although there will be some water buy backs.

Under separate legislation that passed the Senate this week, the government will spend $1.77 billion to recover an additional 450GL of environmental water from 2019-2024.

This, Mr Burke said, achieved the "environmental outcomes described in the 3200GL modelling and do so through projects to ensure there is no social and economic downside for communities".

Details of the $1.77 billion plan were revealed late last month.

In Queensland Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Andrew Cripps said he was "bitterly disappointed" with the plan.

He said while the plan addressed a number of important issues raised by the Newman government, it again failed to detail how irrigation communities would be helped to adjust to a future with less water.

And he accused the government of pandering to South Australia.

"If additional water programs and industry support are good enough for South Australia's Riverland, why not for Queensland's lower Balonne?," Mr Cripps said.

"At the moment, we can only assume that the Federal Government does not believe Queensland irrigators are worth as much as South Australian irrigators."

Mr Cripps said Queensland was seeking an additional $100 million package to support communities and industries affected by water cutbacks under the fifth and final plan.

NSW Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner was similarly disappointed, although he admitted the government was still digesting the details.

"Our initial reaction is that the Murray Darling Basin Plan is not acceptable to NSW," Mr Stoner said.

"With the final plan failing to include a cap on water buybacks at 3% per valley per decade as required by NSW, the Commonwealth minister today claimed NSW believes there are sufficient projects to achieve 650GL in Sustainable Diversion Limit offsets."

The states will be responsible for recovering 650GL of the 2750GL total.

Mr Burke said the Commonwealth had the legal planning powers to manage the basin if the states refused to get on board.

"The role that the states play is when they put in their own state management plans. Now we have some years before they have to be locked in," Mr Burke said.

"If they refuse to put in state management plans at that point, there is a Commonwealth reserve power to take over the planning powers."

Mr Burke said he did not think it would comes to this.

But the plan does have one final hurdle to overcome, with the Greens and the Coalition still in a position to disallow it through the Parliament. There are 15 days for this to happen once the plan is tabled in the Parliament.

Opposition parliamentary secretary for the Murray-Darling Simon Birmingham said the Coalition was likely to support the plan.

"If it ticks the two key tests - does it deliver for the environment and will it be implemented in a way that preserves the economic value of river communities - then that's a good thing," the South Australian Senator said.

"But obviously we need to look through the detail."

He conceded it would be almost impossible to ever get "everyone on the same page" when it came to managing the basin.

Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce welcomed Mr Burke's earlier comments that the days of big water buy backs were "a thing of the past".

He said it was a promise the Minister had to keep.

"The test for the Labor party now is to show how its words today will be guaranteed in action in the basin plan, the intergovernmental agreement and the water recovery strategy," Senator Joyce said.

"We know that everyone will want to know what the Coalition thinks of the plan. Our energies now, before the period for a disallowance expires, is to hear back from key stakeholders, who are the 2.1 million people who live in the basin, on their views, noting that no one is going to be completely happy. We have also yet to see the water recovery strategy or the inter-governmental agreement."

Winning support form the Greens will prove more difficult, but the government is unlikely to need it.

The party's Murray Darling spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said it was a "plan for big irrigators and not the environment".

"It is disappointing that the government has decided to do a deal with the Coalition and upstream irrigators rather than taking the opportunity to work with the Greens and save the river from environmental collapse," Senator Hanson-Young said.

"We will be moving to strengthen the Water Act and disallow the plan, sending it back to the minister so it can be fixed."

During his address to the press club Mr Burke acknowledged the work of past governments and leaders of all political persuasions, including Liberal primer minister John Howard who committed $10 billion to the Murray Darling Basin early in 2007.

The minister also spoke at length about the history of the basin, which he described as Australia's "largest environmental" and "most important production asset". He said environmental concerns had never featured in the debate.

But a "game changer" arrived in 1991 in the form of a blue-green algae outbreak that affected 1000km of the system.

"The environment turned up to the negotiating table and proved to be more ruthless and less compromising than any of the states," Mr Burke said.

"Effectively, the rivers decided ... that if we were going to manage the water as though it stopped at state boundaries, then the water was willing to stop."


  • $20 million for the development of new and sustainable regionally based industries as well as projects that enhance the profitability of existing industries
  • $30 million for key infrastructure projects, such as transport and communication, which can work to improve the competitiveness of existing and new businesses in the Queensland Murray-Darling Basin
  • $20 million for research and development, to examine matters such as irrigation efficiency, new sources of irrigation water, the potential for new crops and associated value adding opportunities
  • $10 million to support improved productivity and business diversification for existing farm and non-farm businesses to respond to reduced economic activity arising from reduced water allocations in the region
  • $10 million for employment and retraining programs for the workforce affected by water cutbacks to help them find new employment
  • $10 million to support Indigenous communities, including support for Indigenous business development and retraining of Indigenous workers