Australian government ‘won’t ignore social impacts’ of water buybacks in Murray-Darling Basin

Agriculture minister Murray Watt told the 2023 NFF Conference that agriculture was a ‘central priority’ for the government, in response to a critical new NFF campaign arguing against ‘anti-farming’ policies.

The Australian government will consider the needs of local communities when pursuing further water buybacks in the Murray-Darling Basin, agriculture minister Murray Watt has said.

Speaking to the National Farmers’ Federation 2023 National Conference in Canberra on Thursday, Watt acknowledged there is disagreement among many in the agriculture sector over the government’s plan to implement the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, including the recovery of a further 450GL of water for the environment.

“We both agree that we must save this vital economic and environmental asset because we’ve seen the results of a decade of inaction,” Watt said.

“Contrary to the claims being made by some […] our plan involves more time, more options and more funding to deliver the remaining water. It’s true that voluntary water buybacks are required to deliver the plan – but it’s not true, as is being claimed by some, that there will be forced buybacks, that they are the only option we’re considering, or that we’ll ignore the social impacts involved.”

While Watt did not discuss the MDB Plan further, his comments come in response to significant criticism from many in the sector, with several stakeholders in MDB water markets arguing that further buybacks will inevitably damage communities in the region that rely on irrigation for agriculture.

The NFF this week called on crossbench senators in the Australian parliament to vote down the Restoring Our Rivers Bill 2023, the Labor government’s proposed legislation to implement the MDB Plan. Newly elected NFF president David Jochinke repeated the request in his address to the National Conference.

Watt also pushed back against a broader campaign launched on Thursday by the NFF at its conference, titled ‘Keep Farmers Farming’, which calls for the Labor government to enact policies more supportive of Australian farmers and to remove red tape and other perceived ‘anti-farming’ measures. Opposition to water buybacks will be a central plank of this campaign.

In his speech, Jochinke said: “In the coming months, decisions by the federal government threaten to shave billions off farm production. We need support to ensure we have the right policies that help keep farmers farming.”

Watt acknowledged the new NFF campaign but argued that agriculture was a “central priority” for the government, pointing to the nearly A$3 billion ($1.9 billion; €1.8 billion) in extra funding that Labor has provided for the sector since taking office in 2021, as well as the restoration of Australia’s trading relationship with China.