Labor move slammed

By Alana Christensen

Irrigators have slammed a federal Labor push to throw out the current neutrality test for the recovery of the 450Gl of ‘up-water’, labelling it ‘‘lunacy’’ and impossible to deliver.

Shadow Water Minister Tony Burke announced on Friday that, if elected, his party would seek to return to the original socio-economic test, which irrigators say failed to safeguard regional communities.

The reversal would require the support of all Murray-Darling Basin states, who agreed to a new neutrality test for the ‘up-water’ during a meeting in December, mandating that any future water recovery for the 450Gl must deliver positive or neutral socio-economic outcomes for regional communities

Federal Water Minister David Littleproud labelled Mr Burke’s announcement a ‘‘hoax’’, saying no-one should be playing politics with the socio-economic test agreement.

Mr Burke said urgent action was needed to restore the health of the basin, and also officially announced Labor’s plans to remove the 1500Gl cap on buybacks.

‘‘(The Federal Government) made two changes from the original plan and both of them to the detriment of the rivers,’’ he said in Adelaide on Friday.

‘‘What that change in socio-economic test means is it effectively puts into jeopardy whether the 450Gl of water will ever be acquired. And without that additional water you cannot deliver the environmental outcomes that were the purpose of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the first place.’’

Yet Speak Up chair Shelley Scoullar labelled the announcement ‘‘lunacy’’, calling for the plan to be paused and for NSW and Victoria to abandon the basin plan if both changes happen.

‘‘It is clear that the Shadow Water Minister does not care about communities or actually fixing the environmental mess that the basin plan has created,’’ she said.

VFF Water Council chair Richard Anderson slammed the policy as ‘‘arrogant’’, ‘‘unscrupulous’’ and ‘‘populist’’.

‘‘Farmers in northern Victoria are facing serious challenges with limited water availability and high water prices, yet Tony Burke is happy to ignore Victorian farmers’ pain and the jobs of men and women in regional Victoria to do sweetheart deals with South Australia to shore up swinging seats there,’’ he said.

‘‘I don’t think (Victoria and NSW) are going to be bullied into anything, by Tony Burke or anyone else.’’

Labor has also pledged to split the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and create a separate compliance body, urgently review the impact of climate change on the basin and renegotiate the Menindee agreement.

Northern Victorian Irrigation Communities chair Nick James said removing the cap on buybacks would be ‘‘crippling’’ to the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District, a view echoed by State Member for Shepparton Suzanna Sheed who said the announcement showed a ‘‘blatant disregard’’ for farmers in the region who had already done the heavy lifting.

Mr Burke’s announcement in Adelaide on Friday was delivered in a press release extensively quoting the South Australian Labor party leader, but not Mr Burke.

A Victorian Government spokesperson said it did not support the changes and any changes to the socio-economic criteria were a matter for the states.