Appealing to a higher authority

Murray River Group of Councils representatives discuss their concerns with Murray-Darling Basin Authority chair Sir Angus Houston and other MDBA representatives. Photo: Murray River Group of Councils

The Murray River Group of Councils has urged the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to keep the social and economic wellbeing of northern Victorian communities at its heart when advising the Federal Government on water buybacks as part of the upcoming Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023.

MDBA chair Sir Angus Houston and his colleagues met MRGC representatives in Echuca on Wednesday, November 15 to discuss the MRGC’s concerns about the significant socio-economic impacts water buybacks would cause if reintroduced.

MRGC says independent research shows water buybacks have caused a raft of negative impacts, including $500 million of lost productivity across the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District each year, the loss of 1600 jobs across the MRGC region and business closures.

“If the upcoming water amendment bill is passed into legislation it would be a shortsighted and lopsided policy decision by the Australian Government,” MRGC chair Rob Amos said.

“The bill’s proposal to reintroduce water buybacks from irrigation farmers may give short-term environmental gain to the government but will result in long-term socio-economic pain for our farmers, industries and communities,” he said.

“The bill’s removal of the socio-economic impact test is also deeply concerning to us.

“The government needs to understand the broader ramifications of water buybacks, such as contributing to the breakdown of the social fabric of communities by impacting the viability of local businesses, schools, sports clubs and community facilities.

“We saw this last time when buybacks led to a 28 per cent decrease in milk production and this contributed to the closure of a milk processing plant. We can’t let that happen again.”

Cr Amos said water buybacks would also put at risk a significant portion of Australia’s largest food bowl and add further pressure to Australia’s cost-of-living crisis.

“The fresh produce Australian families love, from farm-fresh milk and cheese to all kinds of fruit and vegetables, are mostly grown along the Murray River and its tributaries,” he said.

“Furthermore, 78 per cent of milk production in the Murray-Darling Basin is in northern Victoria.

“Buybacks are known to increase the price of water for farmers. So, when production input costs go up, this will ultimately be reflected in the price of fresh produce and food products at the checkout.

“Australia needs a water policy backed by big picture strategic thinking underpinned by careful consideration of the triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental impacts.

“However, what we’ll potentially have if this bill passes in its current form is a water policy that focuses on the environmental lens only.

“We acknowledge that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is not a policy-making body.

“However, we hope that by reiterating our deep concerns, the authority will have a more holistic understanding of the negative impacts buybacks will have on our communities and can advise the government accordingly.”