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Water Protests Spark Action

During this last sitting week of Parliament the front lawns have seen one of the biggest protests for many years. Farmers, Truckies and their supporters have set up camp on the lawns across the road from the entrance with a forest of signs, tents, bbq’s and loud country music. There have been constant calls of ‘can the [Murray Darling Basin] plan’ and shouts of derision at politicians with the exception of One Nation’s Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts. The notorious red head was even allowed to drive a tractor around the lawns.

Labor thought that ‘discretion was the better part of valour’ and stayed inside the building.

On Tuesday the protests generated a response from the Government. On Monday a delegation of protesters had met with Water Minister David Littleproud, who was subsequently described by protestors as “Mr Little to be proud of”. The minister had Mick Keelty, the Interim Inspector General for the Murray Darling Basin with him. They apparently listened to the complaints of the protestors about the current policies and on Tuesday announced that Mr Keelty (a former AFP Commissioner and Chairman of the Crime Commission) would investigate the implementation of water policy in the Southern Basin.

Among the major complaints of the protestors was the administration of policy regarding water flowing through the Barmah Choke. The Choke is the narrowest part of the Murray River situated in the Barmah-Millewa internationally recognised wetlands. It is capable of handling flows of up to 9,000 megalitres a day. If more than that flows through the choke it tends to erode the banks and to flow out over the land where it evaporates.

The problem at the moment is that the Darling system is in drought and can make no contribution to river flows. This means that the water that has been allocated to the three southern states: NSW, Victoria and South Australia has to come from the Hume and Dartmouth dams through the Barmah Choke in quantities it can’t handle. It also means that water flows past rice and dairy farmers who desperately need it, downstream to almond, citrus and grape growers in the lower Murray and the environment in the Coorong.

The growers in the lower Murray have bought water from the Goulburn River system upstream and this has to go through the Barmah Choke. It restricts access to water downstream under water management arrangements agreed in the 1960’s. This causes a queue for water downstream so that the farmers who came into the market late are last to get access or they have to pay exorbitant spot prices.

The protestors want state governments to stop issuing permits to develop new land downstream and conduct an audit of what's already been approved to ensure that, in the future, enough water will make it through the Barmah Choke and Goulburn River.

To make it work, all three states would have to back the plan, but only Victoria is actively investigating how it might work in practice. If the states don’t agree then they want the Commonwealth to override them.

Mick Keelty has agreed to investigate these issues by 31 March next year. In order to do this he will have to have the co-operation of the states. If they agree to assist him with the investigation it is likely they will also agree to changes in the rules which now seem to be out of date.

It needs to be understood that none of these changes will impact on the Murray Darling Basin Plan and its implementation.

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