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Regional Australia needs a healthy flowing Murray (The Punch)

After a wetter than average year in the Murray-Darling Basin many people think the problems of Australia’s most important river system are solved. They’re not, writes Don Henry.

Rain and floods have returned life to many parts of the river system, but if they are to provide more than a temporary boost before the next drought hits, our federal Parliament will need to sign off on a strong Murray-Darling Basin Plan this year.

When I say a strong plan, I mean a plan that results in a river not poisoned by salt, that flows, that is alive. Anything less threatens the future of the river and regional communities, not to mention Adelaide’s drinking water. For too long we’ve been taking too much water out of the river – much of it for irrigated agriculture – for the system to remain healthy.

Opponents of a strong Basin Plan tell us Australia has to make a choice between vibrant regional communities and a healthy river.

There is no such choice.

The best protection for farming, regional and metropolitan communities is to keep our rivers, the country’s lifeblood, flowing and healthy. Let’s be absolutely clear: rivers die from the bottom up. South Australia will be hardest hit if the government fails to deliver an effective plan.

So why do some of South Australia’s federal MPs duck for cover when it comes to the Murray? Why are some of them shy about advocating a strong, scientifically robust Basin Plan?

One would hope it is not because most of the water that gets taken out of the Murray-Darling is extracted by powerful irrigators in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, where the major political parties have their biggest support bases.

Environment groups plan to remind SA’s federal politicians about their responsibility to represent the interests of the communities that sent them to Canberra.

For the next month big billboards with the message "No future on a dead river: SA needs a healthy Murray" will be on display at prominent locations in the electorates of federal Labor MP Kate Ellis and federal Liberal MP Christopher Pyne.

After that we will distribute information brochures and hold public meetings in federal electorates.

Some politicians understand.

At the start of 2012 SA Premier Jay Weatherill told Adelaide’s Advertiser the Basin Plan would determine the river system’s health for a century. And federal Liberal MP Jamie Briggs told ABC TV’s 7.30 he wants the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to deliver a plan “based on science and not based on petty, parochial state politics which has damaged the Basin for so long”.

Mr Briggs needs to get a few more of his federal colleagues to speak up for the Murray.

Because it’s going to take a concerted, bi-partisan effort from South Australia’s political players, federal and state, to wrestle the Basin Plan out of the grip of powerful industries upstream that want to delay, water down and thwart the blueprint.

Water Minister Tony Burke and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott have spent most of their consultation time in NSW and Victoria, where vested interests are trying to make sure the Basin Plan puts as little water back into the river as possible. And the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has not, to date, scheduled a public consultation in Adelaide, to hear what people in the city that will be most affected by a dying river think about the draft Basin Plan.

A successful Murray-Darling Basin Plan must serve the national interest, not the self-interest of big irrigation companies upstream. It’s time for politicians — of all political persuasions and at all levels of government — to speak up for the Murray. And it’s up to the rest of us to hold them to account.

Comments (1)

Kathryn McCallum
24 February 2012 - 10:58am

A few years ago, I jumped over the Murray River where it starts up on Cowombat Flat in the Victorian high country, just two feet across. What a long way it is to Adelaide from there! So many people, needs and passions, and all those decisions ending up impacting the people and creatures at the end of the line. Thinking of you Adelaide!