An infuriated crowd greeted Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, drought envoy Barnaby Joyce and Federal Member for Murray Damian Drum in Mooroopna last week for a 90-minute drought summit.
The crowd of about 100 people ensured their voices were heard, continuously interjecting and pushing the politicians to commit to a course of action to address growing concerns about the cost and availability of water, dry conditions and the increasingly unsustainable cost of farming in the region.
Although billed as a drought summit, the event was largely about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, with calls to pause the plan continuing to grow stronger.
The meeting started with Mr Drum sympathising with the tough conditions and expressing the hope for rain.
The first interjector declared that natural rainfall had nothing to do with the problems and claimed it was a man-made drought.
Irrigators pressed the MPs to pause the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan but Mr Drum said although he ‘‘couldn’t agree more’’ with the sentiment of the Pause the Plan movement, he did not believe it was the answer and said a planned review — scheduled to occur in 18 months’ time — should be brought forward instead.
‘‘There will be a real risk to pausing the plan, that’s just the hard, cold reality. If we pause the plan we have no control over how we restart it,’’ he said.
Wade Northausen from Tongala demanded a royal commission into corruption he alleges occurred in the establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, but Mr Littleproud said he would need to see evidence of wrongdoing before contemplating a royal commission of that kind.
Mr Drum criticised the carry-over rules.
He also criticised South Australia for the way it managed its environmental water and the demands made on the system to provide environmental flows for the lower lakes.
He said about 700Gl of water evaporated from the lakes annually.
Mr Littleproud said they were fighting political forces wanting a ‘‘bigger plan’’ — hinting there would be less water for irrigators.
‘‘It may not be the best outcome, but it’s the best I can give you,’’ he said.
John Lolicato said NSW and Victorian irrigators were losing water to investors because it was the cheapest water to buy.
Mr Littleproud clearly resented accusations that he didn’t understand the suffering being endured by rural communities, repeating a story he has told at other meetings about knowing a farmer from his own electorate who was undergoing a mental health crisis.
‘‘Don’t tell me I don’t understand,’’ he said.
‘‘I get it.’’
The MPs were urged to lobby Prime Minister Scott Morrison on water issues to make them part of a national agenda.
They also asked to seek the release of environmental water for emergency use on farms, but the MPs said they couldn’t direct the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, a statutory authority, to give up the water.
Mr Littleproud warned that if politicians were able to influence decisions of the water holder, then Labor governments could use the same influence to force the water holder to make decisions which had a negative impact on irrigators.