Nationals unclear on extending deadline for Murray-Darling Basin Plan water recovery

Jamieson Murphy
By Jamieson Murphy
May 12 2022 - 9:00pm
NATS MIXED MESSAGE: Water Minister Keith Pitt, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud have all given different answers about extending the MDBP deadline.

THREE Nationals frontbenchers walk into a bar in Nicholls. The barman asked if they support extending the Murray-Darling Basin Plan water recovery deadline. One says yes, one says no and one avoids the question.

This is not a joke. This is the confusing messaging coming from the Nationals, as the party tries to voice the concerns of their rural communities while toeing the Coalition party line.

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The MDBP is likely to fall short of its 605-gigalitre water recovery target, with both the NSW and Victoria government admitting their water recovery projects would not be completed before the mid-2024 deadline, with several Commonwealth reports have indicated the same thing.

Earlier in the campaign, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said if the government had to extend the deadline, "we should".

However, he was quickly slapped down by his Nationals colleague, Water Minister Keith Pitt, who said the government's MDBP policy remained unchanged and the government was committed to the plan "as it was negotiated".

Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce avoided the question - "every government into the future does consideration of the facts before them".

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The Coalition has promised there will be no more water buybacks if the deadlines are not met, despite government legislation stating otherwise.

That leaves two options; ruling the water has been recovered is enough even with the shortfall - a difficult pitch that would have the party's environmental credibility questioned - or extending the deadline to allow the state governments to complete their projects.

However, the Nationals can't commit to either because it would harm the campaign of Liberal MPs in marginal South Australian seats, where anything other than delivering the plan "in full and on time" (the official policy of both major parties) is viewed as a threat to the state's environment and water security.

Independent candidate for Nicholls Rob Priestly said the Nationals had failed to implement adequate changes to the MDBP because they were politically hamstrung by the SA Liberals.

"In three terms of government, they've had plenty of time and opportunity to deal with the issues, but instead they've left a ticking time bomb," he said.

Mr Priestly, who supports an extension of the deadline along with no buybacks, said currently there was a fixation on water recovery numbers instead of environmental results - something retiring Nationals MP for Nicholls Damian Drum has previously said.

"The reality is, we've had someone in parliament who has known these things for the last six years, but hasn't been able to voice them or garner support," Mr Priestly said.

"They say one thing and vote another. This goes to the heart of why I'm not running as a National, I'm not prepared to compromise. As an independent, every time I go to vote [on parliament legislation], this issue will be on the table and I'll use all the leverage I can."

Labor has declared it will deliver the MDBP in full, as it also targets marginal SA seats. While the party has says it does not have a policy of "compulsory acquisition of water entitlements", it has not ruled them out.

Labor water spokesperson Terri Butler said the party would use every tool at its disposal to deliver the plan and would not "be entertaining the idea" the state government's were not going to deliver on the promises they made.

"The jurisdictions who are claiming they can't meet obligations have had a free pass from the current national government," Ms Butler said.

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"It's not a surprise, because any government with Barnaby Joyce in it is not going to deliver on the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

"We will expect jurisdictions to redouble their efforts to deliver on the things that they voluntarily agreed to a decade ago. I don't think it's too much to ask."

Jamieson Murphy

Jamieson Murphy

National Rural Affairs reporter

National Rural Affairs reporter, focusing on rural politics and issues. Whisper g'day mate to me at jamieson.murphy@austcommunitymedia.com.au

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