The Nationals have split from their Liberal Coalition partners during a Senate vote, in a bold move that could blow up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and ensure that less water would be returned to the environment from farming.
Nationals senators abandoned the party’s cabinet ministers and Liberal colleagues, putting amendments to legislation that would effectively rewrite the plan and prevent the Commonwealth from buying water rights from irrigators.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was legislated in 2012, with bipartisan support across the Commonwealth and basin states, to provide more water for the environment.
Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, who is expected to be promoted to cabinet by new party leader Barnaby Joyce later this week, is leading the charge in the Senate to change the Basin Plan.
Sources have told the ABC that Senator McKenzie wants the water portfolio as part of her promotion, something Labor senators have sought to highlight in countering the Nationals’ push in the Upper House.
The Senate amendments relate to a bill to establish an independent inspector-general of water compliance to monitor the plan and provide independent oversight.
The bill was overseen by Water Minister Keith Pitt, a Queensland Nationals MP who sits in the lower house. Nationals in the lower house backed the original legislation Mr Pitt brought to the Parliament.
The ABC has contacted Mr Pitt to see if he supports his Senate colleagues’ proposed changes.
The Nationals senators proposed changes include:
- That 450 gigalitres of water should not be required by legislation to be returned to the environment;
- That the Commonwealth not be allowed to back any more water rights from irrigators.
Opposing the amendments in the chamber, South Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said Mr Joyce had issued war against her state.
“The whole reason we need an inspector-general and a tough cop on the beat is because of blokes like Barnaby Joyce,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“We have the National Party in the Senate moving amendments that take water out of the river system, from the environment, to give the big corporate irrigators and leave South Australia running dry.”
Labor’s Penny Wong, a South Australian senator, said the Nationals were an embarrassment for the Liberals and called on Mr Joyce to ensure that water policy was not part of the Coalition agreement.
“They don’t want to restore the basin to health, they just want to play to their constituencies the upstream irrigation communities, and they want to lie to them, and pretend that things can be as they were, but they can’t…. we have to change,” Senator Wong said.
The ABC understands the Nationals had been planning to oppose the legislation before Mr Joyce was elected as the party’s leader on Monday.
Earlier this week, the Nationals voted against their Coalition partners in the Senate when Labor put a motion that the Senate support the delivery of the Murray Darling Basin Plan in full and on time.
Following that motion, NSW senator Perin Davey said the Nationals senators’ vote was “really a matter of annoyance”.
“That 450 gigalitres is dependent on a social and economic neutrality test, so we don’t believe you can deliver it in full and on time if you apply that test because the social and economic damage has been done,” she said.
A meeting of state and federal water ministers in December 2018 agreed that up 450 gigalitres would only be returned to the environment if it would not have a negative socio-economic impact on river communities, based on criteria agreed to by the states.
The debate continues.