Secret Water Buyback Fund Criticised by Australia’s Farm Groups

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Australian farm groups have criticised the Albanese government’s opaque water buyback plan saying the move is cause for concern for communities along the Murray-Darling Basin.

This follows the release of the recent federal budget (pdf) in which funding allocations to meet water-saving targets for the Murray-Darling Basin were undisclosed “due to commercial sensitivities.”

“Communities are nervous about the government’s approach to this issue, and the number concealed in the budget will send a shiver down their spine,” National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson said, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Water buybacks have been a controversial issue since the Murray Darling Basin Plan was legislated in 2012, with Victoria, New South Wales (NSW), the federal opposition, National Farmers Federation and the National Irrigators Council staunchly against the move.

While the budget states that the financial implications to the Labor government’s Murray-Darling Basin were undisclosed, it has been reported that the funding could be used by the Commonwealth to purchase water from farmers.

Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek has previously said that voluntary buybacks are “on the table” in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which Plibersek has also hinted at extending. She said the 2024 deadline in delivering the 450 gigalitres, through efficiency measures, in full by June 2024 was “next to impossible.”

Since the plan was legislated in 2012, more than 2,100 gigalitres of water have been relocated back into the environment. Under the plan, the basin states agreed to remove 2,750 gigalitres of water from irrigated agriculture and relocate that back into the basin by 2024.

These have mostly come from infrastructure upgrades and water buybacks.

Support and Opposition for Buybacks

At the same time, South Australian Labor Water Minister Susan Close and South Australia Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young have both voiced support for the water buybacks.

“For the first time, South Australia can feel some confidence that we’re finally going to get the plan delivered,” Close said.

Hanson-Young said that if license holders have water to sell, “then they should be allowed to.”

However, NSW Irrigators’ Council’s chief executive Claire Miller said water prices could soar if the Commonwealth were to enter the market.

Miller added that water buybacks were “triggering” for basin communities and farmers, as it is a reminder of what occurred in 2009 and 2012, “where the government just rode roughshod over the communities to buy back water.”

In 2008, then-water minister Penny Wong announced the federal government’s $50 million allocation to purchase water from irrigators, which was a “downpayment on the future of the Murray River” and a “first” in the nation’s history, reported the ABC.

However, there were community concerns over job losses due to the department’s choice to purchase water of the best value. Then from 2015, direct negotiation between the department and entitlement holders was utilised.

In reference to the recent budget allocation, Plibersek said that “action backed by spending is urgently needed to get the plan back on track.”

The budget also states that measures to meet the environmental water-saving target would be “partially offset by redirecting funding from within the Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water portfolio.”

Meanwhile, an independent report by Water for the Environment Special Account (WESA) (pdf) has found that up to $10.8 billion could be spent to meet the 450 gigalitre target if the 2024 deadline was removed.

Henry Jom


Henry Jom is an Australian based reporter covering local Australia news.
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