South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales are in a war of words after federal and state water ministers failed to agree on whether more water should be bought off farmers and set aside to improve the health of the Murray-Darling Basin.
- SA wants 450 gigalitres set aside to boost river's health
- Victoria says loss of water will impact farmers
- NSW accuses SA of using river to win votes
The ministers gathered at a meeting in Albury on the New South Wales-Victorian border for the first time since allegations of water theft were aired on the ABC's Four Corners programme in June.
South Australia is angry at Victoria for its decision to withdraw support for an aspect of the plan that would see an extra 450 gigalitres of water bought off farmers in the southern basin and set aside for the preservation of the environment.
"What state government wants to stand in the way of irrigators getting access to a bucket of Commonwealth money to make their business more efficient and more resilient in dry periods?" the state's water minister Ian Hunter said.
"Victoria seems adamantly opposed to delivering any of the 450 gigalitres at all, and didn't even want to embrace a trial."
The water would be in addition to the plan's initial 2,750-gigalitre target, but can only be given the go-ahead by ministers provided it won't have any socio-economic impact on basin communities.
A 2016 review into northern basin communities found some towns experienced a 21 per cent reduction in employment in the years after the plan was implemented.
South Australia said it was adamant the Commonwealth could buy an extra 450 gigalitres of water off farmers and take it out of production without hurting the economy of towns in the south.
Mr Hunter said Victoria's opposition to the extra water was threatening the health of the river.
"This underlines our suspicions that we have had all along, that eastern states would jolly us along and get the parts of the plan they wanted delivered, and once they got that they were going to withdraw from the process," he said.
In response, South Australia followed through on an earlier threat to pull its support for a suite of infrastructure projects throughout the basin designed to reduce water wastage.
NSW 'won't be held to ransom' by SA
Victorian and New South Wales ministers lashed out at the decision, saying South Australia was holding basin communities to ransom.
"South Australia has pretty much tried to hold hostage, or blackmail, the Victorian and New South Wales communities," Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville said.
"We cannot deliver that 450 gigs without serious and significant impact on farmers and on our irrigation districts.
"We cannot leave a legacy of wrecking communities"
Her NSW counterpart, Nial Blair, said South Australia was drumming up controversy in an attempt to gain support of voters ahead of its state election in March.
"We're not going to allow communities in NSW to be held to ransom for political gain in South Australia, and that's what we've seen today — politics over policy," he said.
"To turn all of that on its head for political gain is disappointing and it's something we weren't going to stand for in NSW."
Victoria said it offered a compromise to examine other ways to contribute to the 450-gigalitre flow, but that was rejected.
States agree on water theft crackdown
Federal Assistant Water Minister Anne Ruston said it was disappointing the states could not overcome the impasse.
"This is a very serious issue about making sure our river communities survive the adjustment towards the plan," she said.
"My point to SA and Victoria is we have until 2024 to deliver this, and we have already delivered 2,100 gigalitres in the first five years of a 12-year plan.
"Surely it can't be beyond us to identify 450 gigalitres of water over the next seven years to make sure we deliver all parts of the plan."
Despite the bickering over changes to the amount of water needing to be acquired, the states did find some common ground.
They agreed to implement a national standardised method of reporting compliance, and will publish the data to discourage water theft and rorting across the basin.
Mr Hunter also softened his tone towards NSW, which he once accused of "covering up" water theft.
"We have seen NSW go through a period of internal tribulation but they gave a very positive report today about how they are dealing with their issues," he said.
The Murray Darling Association, which represents local councils in the basin, said it was critical the ministers continued working together to make sure all the objectives of the plan were realised.
"We need to ensure our parliamentarians, our ministers, and our politicians are focused on seeing those outcomes, and those outcomes that can be achieved basin-wide," chief executive Emma Bradbury said.
SA urged to call off 'Labor dogs' in Canberra
The South Australian Labor Government had also been lobbying the Federal Government to reject any legislative changes that would reduce the amount of water the Commonwealth needs to acquire.
Currently there is legislation before the Senate that would require 70 gigalitres less be taken from the northern basin.
Mr Hunter said he has asked the Federal Opposition to block the changes in Parliament.
"I have run the case by them that SA needs the whole plan delivered and we have had a positive reception, but Federal Labor will make its own announcements in the new year," he said.
Senator Ruston called for calm in South Australia.
"I would be keen for Ian Hunter to come up with a path forward so he can call the dogs off in Canberra from the Labor Party, so we can see this amendment put through," she said.
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