THE dawn of a new government has brought fresh hope of a more commonsense approach to the Murray Darling Basin Plan, with the Coalition redoubling its commitment to capping damaging water buybacks.
In one of its last policy announcements before Saturday’s federal election, the Coalition announced it would cut spending on buybacks from $650 million over four years to the same amount over six years.
The move has infuriated environmental groups and prompted South Australian premier Jay Weatherill to accuse Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott of “walking away from the state”.
It comes on top of a previous pledge by the Coalition to cap buybacks at 1500Gl basin-wide and a commitment by the NSW government to limit buyback to a maximum of 3 per cent of entitlement, per valley, per decade.
Buybacks are seen as the most destructive part of the basin plan, permanently removing water rights – and future income – from irrigation communities and increasing water delivery costs for remaining farmers.
Griffith Business Chamber president Paul Pierotti, a long-time vocal critic of buybacks, said the Coalition’s commitment was a critical safeguard for the MIA.
“The gun has been unloaded,” Mr Pierotti said.
“This is the protection we’ve been screaming out for, rather than just relying on the state government to block the federal attack on us.
“This area has been making a very clear statement about the importance of investment and infrastructure over just buying water back and it seems governments are finally starting to listen.”
Already, close to 1600Gl of the proposed 2750Gl has been reclaimed under the basin plan through both buybacks and infrastructure upgrades.
Coleambally Irrigation chief executive John Culleton said slowing the rate of buyback spending was a “sensible decision”.
“The plan needed to be slowed down – there’s too much detail not set in place to justify (the time frame),” Mr Culleton said.
“We’ve been saying for nearly five years buyback is a blunt instrument that damages basin communities.
“Any future recoveries ... have to be around works and measures and modernisations.”
Greens water spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said it was “despicable” the Coalition had announced the cuts just 48 hours out from polling day.
“Cutting the water buy backs will devastate the lower Murray,” she said in a statement.
“There is no way the much-needed 3200Gl will be delivered back to the river under these cuts.”