Liberal Party scuppers Nationals shake up to Murray Darling water plan

The Liberal Party has delivered its first slapdown to the Nationals since Barnaby Joyce deposed Michael McCormack as leader, rejecting a proposal to halt water recovery to restore the ecosystem to health.

Water recovery is unpopular in NSW, Queensland and Victorian rural electorates, with many irrigation communities calling for their Nationals representatives to prevent any further irrigation losses. Nationals senators lodged an amendment on Wednesday morning to do just that.

Nationals MP Anne Webster, Senators Bridget McKenzie and Perin Davey, with MP Damian Drum addressing media after the party moved in the Senate to halt water recovery under the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen.

Just hours later Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, the government’s Senate leader, knocked the Nationals’ move on the head, declaring: “I, and the government, will be voting against those amendments”. The Senate is expected to vote down the Nationals proposal on Wednesday night.

Asked if the Nationals now appeared to their constituents like they are “all hat, no cattle” due to their inability to deliver reforms, Nationals MP Damian Drum said the Nationals were aiming to send their amendments to a Senate committee for review and would continue to lobby their Liberal colleagues to back their proposal.

“I don’t think putting this important legislation in front of a committee so they can actually inquire into it for one month is actually kicking into the grass and all hat, no cattle,” Mr Drum said.

The basin plan was created in 2012 to buy back water from irrigators and invest in infrastructure projects to return 3200 gigalitres to the environment.

Water reform was initiated when scientists found water had been over-allocated across the region. Lack of flow in the river system was threatening the viability of farming, causing mass tree diebacks and wreaking havoc to internationally protected wetlands including the Coorong near the Murray mouth in South Australia.

About 2100 gigalitres of irrigation water has already been recovered through buybacks, around 600 gigalitres is set to come from projects under way to improve the efficiency of the river system and 450 gigalitres is set to be bought back from irrigators.

The prospect of water recovery cutbacks is so poisonous in South Australia that the Liberal party fears it could lose the marginal Adelaide electorate of Boothby as well as Senate seats.

The Nationals proposal would have definitively ruled out recovery of the 450 gigalitres and banned any more water recovery in the future. But these moves are not legislated and the prospect of a future Labor government re-enacting existing laws to buy back water remains live.

“For too long our basin communities have been hurting, the science is now telling us the approach adopted 12 years ago is outdated and the plan must change,” Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie said.

The Nationals blindsided their Liberal colleagues when on Wednesday morning they attached their amendments to a bill to establish an Inspector General in the Murray Darling to monitor water theft and other compliance matters.

Mr Birmingham said the government “stands resolute” in its commitment to deliver the basin plan “in full and on time”.

The Nationals amendment sought to alter the Inspector General bill, which had been approved by cabinet. Senator McKenzie is expected to be elevated to cabinet with a ministerial posting following the resurrection of Mr Joyce to the leadership. Cabinet colleagues are bound to solidarity and must publicly support all decisions it takes, which means should Senator McKenzie be made minister, she would not be free to move her amendment.

Labor water spokeswoman Terri Butler said “these actions demonstrate that Scott Morrison has lost control of his government” and would pit “farmer against farmer and state versus state”. She asked Mr Joyce in Parliament question time why his first move as the new Deputy Prime Minister was “shredding” the basin plan?

“If you’re asking me why are the Nationals in the Senate making sure that these people understand that we hear them and respect their views, that is because that is what the Nationals’ job is,” Mr Joyce said.

South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the Nationals’ were trying to “steal water from South Australia”.

“This is shocking. Every South Australian should be angry that right now the National party is moving in the senate to cut water from SA and the environment,” she told the Senate.

She called on Liberal Senators and Scott Morrison to stare down “this whacky, crazy, untrustworthy mob”, and take the portfolio from the Nationals.

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