Election candidates face the voters

By Country News

‘‘Welcome to democracy at work in Greater Shepparton,’’ moderator Sam Birrell declared last week to open the Shepparton state election candidates forum.

About 200 community members attended the event at Shepparton’s Eastbank Centre, keen to hear from the candidates vying to be the State Member for Shepparton after the November 24 poll.

Mr Birrell, the Committee for Greater Shepparton chief executive, asked all five candidates present to introduce themselves to the audience before candidates were pressed on the big issues affecting Shepparton and the region.

The sitting member, independent Suzanna Sheed, Nationals candidate Peter Schwarz, Liberal candidate Cheryl Hammer, Bill Heath (Labor) and Nickee Freeman (Greens) were in attendance.

Irrigation and access to water featured for much of the discussion, during the personal introduction by candidates and as the basis of questions from Mr Birrell and the audience.

‘‘We’re under threat from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. What steps are you going to take to ensure the continued dynamic of our irrigation industries?’’ Mr Birrell asked the panel.

The majority of the discussion revolved around the fight to retain the 450Gl.

Ms Hammer said campaigning across the region had helped her realise how crucial this particular issue had become.

‘‘The 450Gl — I’m of the view we must fight very hard to retain that water ... if there’s no major benefit to taking that water, then we should be digging in pretty hard,’’ she said.

The Labor candidate was largely in agreement with his Liberal opponent.

‘‘There is, of course, a lot of discussion about the additional 450Gl,’’ Mr Heath said.

‘‘Labor’s state water minister has been incredibly strong on defending the requirement of no negative socio-economic impact.’’

Mr Heath said local irrigators also need to continually improve water-use efficiencies, citing advances made in California and Israel, along with keeping up the fight to hold on to current allocations.

Ms Sheed said the issue of the 450Gl was one of the most pressing for the region.

‘‘We’ve won some battles and we’ve lost some battles, and only one real battle remains and that’s the 450,’’ Ms Sheed said.

‘‘There’s a need for a whole lot more work to be done to ensure no more water goes out of the district.’’

Mr Schwarz disagreed, saying the battle had already been won.

‘‘I’m going to disagree with Suzanna,’’ he said.

‘‘The plan is actually delivered in full regardless of whether that 450Gl goes or not.

‘‘The state government has already established that we’ve already had a negative effect with the current water that has disappeared.

‘‘How on earth could taking another 450Gl not have a (further) negative effect?’’

The Greens’ Ms Freeman conceded she was not fully across water management issues, but maintained her party was not interested in removing thousands of gigalitres to improve environmental flows.

Population control, development and decentralisation were other big themes of discussion.

The forum was jointly hosted by the Committee for Greater Shepparton and the Shepparton News.

—Myles Peterson