Australian Labor Party
Overview – Basin Plan origins and
There has been conflict about the use of water along the Murray-Darling
for longer than Australia has existed as a nation. The Basin has seen years of
tensions between states and their competing claims for water for different
communities, economic interests and environmental concerns. The Murray-Darling
Basin Plan was adopted by the Australian Parliament in 2012 with the support of
all Basin States. This was a historic achievement.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan embodied a more balanced approach to water
management than had been historically in place. For most of the last century,
the focus was on developing the river for economic benefit. As more water was
diverted for human consumption, flow through the river decreased by 75% on
This caused significant degradation of natural assets along the river system,
including soil and water quality. There has been a loss of around 70% of
floodplain vegetation, as well as a significant reduction in the numbers of
native fish and waterbirds.
This level of water use was unsustainable. The aim of the Murray-Darling
Basin Plan was:
...not to return freshwater ecosystems to a ‘natural’ state –
rather to deliver a healthy working river system. This means one that supports
the social and economic needs of people, while continuing to maintain the
health of important ecosystems requiring periodic water flow.
Although the Murray-Darling Basin Plan aims to strike a balance between
the competing claims on the river system, there is ultimately a limited supply
of water. This means that no particular claimant is likely to have their
interest entirely satisfied.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan contains a number of interlocking features.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority explains the key elements as follows:
The Basin Plan builds on the state governments’ long standing
water management arrangements and introduces two key new requirements:
limits on water extraction for all water resources in the basin
- whole-of-basin management to ensure a basin-wide approach is taken to managing
the connected river system across jurisdictional borders
As a result of community input and state requests, the 2012
Basin Plan water reform package was adjusted to include:
a seven-year transition period to reach the new settings in the
plan, giving communities and industries time to adjust
opportunities built into the Basin Plan for adjustment and
review, to improve the triple bottom line benefits, notably:
- the ‘SDL adjustment process’: to look at potential projects that
can reduce the amount of water needing to be recovered provided equivalent
environmental outcomes can be achieved and social and economic outcomes are
maintained or improved
the Constraints Management Strategy: to investigate improvements
to the effectiveness of environmental water use, which is supported by $200
million Commonwealth funding to mitigate impacts
the Northern Basin Review: to revisit some of the settings in the
north once more robust science and a better understanding of the potential
social and economic effects on some more vulnerable communities is available
three groundwater reviews to assess the potential to increase
sustainable groundwater extraction in three areas
Commonwealth government commitment to prioritise infrastructure
investment over purchasing water on the market, to achieve the new sustainable
Importantly, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan includes an extraction limit
for the basin as a whole, meaning that 2750 gigalitres per year has to be
recovered from consumptive use for the environment.
Labor Senators consider that the evidence given to the committee, when taken
as a whole, shows that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is delivering results.
Labor Senators affirm the importance of environmental outcomes to the
Murray-Darling system on both economic and environmental bases. The Basin
Watering Strategy contains a comprehensive framework for allocating
environmental water. This framework sets out clear environmental objectives
that are based on contemporary scientific understanding.
This Committee received evidence that the implementation of this
framework has been effective in providing some environmental outcomes to date.
Labor Senators accept this evidence, whilst acknowledging that that there are
further environmental outcomes that will only be realised over time.
Reversing over a century of ecological degradation will take some years,
however the early indications are positive.
In particular, this Committee heard evidence that the Basin Plan has had
success in the application of environmental water to generate fish breeding
events, extend water bird breeding events, and improve the quality and extent
of riparian vegetation.
Australia is recognised as a world leader in water management. The key
to this is adaptive management. Adaptive management means a cycle of
monitoring, evaluation and modification as water managers learn the
relationships between particular strategies and the environmental outcomes they
Labor Senators accept the evidence that the Commonwealth Environmental Water
Holder is acting in accordance with best practice adaptive management
strategies, and is a diligent, responsive and prudent operator.
Although particular water management strategies may sometimes produce differing
levels of success, this is to be expected and is accommodated by the responsiveness
of adaptive management.
Labor Senators acknowledge that the reduction in availability of water
requires both producers and communities to make adjustments. A package
associated with the plan is being rolled out to support producers and communities.
The majority report sets out some of the moving evidence this Committee
has heard from communities who are experiencing economic adjustment.
The introduction of water trading triggered changes in the economic
viability of many water-use activities – it is clear that some communities are
struggling to adjust.
It is not clear, however, that all of the difficulties being experienced
by communities have been caused by the introduction of the Basin Plan. Instead,
social research produces a more complex picture. There is evidence that
disadvantage and dislocation has affected communities across rural Australia,
and not just in the basin. This evidence suggests that many basin communities
are experiencing economic and social decline for reasons that are not
correlated with the operation of the Basin Plan.
Labor Senators do not believe that this makes the evidence we heard from some
of those communities any less moving. However, it does influence whether the
correct policy lever is to be found in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan or through
some other government mechanism.
The implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan represented a
significant change for many Basin communities. Community engagement is
enormously significant for any change process. It is important that all
government agencies work to engage the Australian community transparently,
consultatively, and where possible collaboratively.
Labor Senators note the evidence given about the investment Murray
Darling Basin Authority has made in community engagement.
Labor Senators encourage the Authority to energetically pursue community
engagement, given the significance of the change to local communities. The
Basin Plan represents an opportunity to demonstrate best practice.
Committee process and report
The Murray Darling Basin Plan was an important reform of Australia’s
water policy, and continues to be a significant driver of social, economic and
environmental outcomes in the region. Labor Senators support continued engagement
by Australian parliamentarians with this issue.
Labor Senators commend the Chair and Deputy Chair for their commitment
to pursuing issues and engaging with Basin community. There are some in the
Basin community who are unhappy with how the Basin Plan operates, and the Labor
Senators acknowledge that the majority report seeks to reflect some of this
However, Labor continues to support the implementation of the
Murray-Darling Basin Plan, recognising that the long term health of Basin
communities is dependent on a healthy, working river. The critical foundation
for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was (and remains) bipartisan support in the
Australian parliament, along with support of all Basin jurisdictions.
Labor Senators believe that there may be some valid concerns about the
operation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan raised in the evidence heard by this
Committee, and in the majority report itself. However the evidence that has
been heard does not provide the scientific or technical basis for making highly
specific recommendations that may disturb the stability and operation of the
plan. The Basin Plan operates as a whole. There are complex interlinkages
between the different elements, and there are significant risks in modifying
particular elements of the Plan on an ad hoc basis in the absence of an overall
strategic approach. Labor Senators have concerns that this inquiry has not put
this Committee in a position to be able to avoid or minimise those risks.
Accordingly, Labor Senators are not able to support the majority of
recommendations set out in the majority report.
Senator Jenny McAllister
Australian Labor Party Senator for New South Wales
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