Senator John Madigan on last week’s listening tour.Jobs at riskVICTORIAN Independent Senator John Madigan has been warned hundreds of jobs and vital income for regional towns are in grave danger, if the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) Plan strips water from agricultural production for environmental purposes.

Senator Madigan toured various MDB communities last week asking leading stakeholders to give him their unambiguous thoughts on the Basin Plan.

The former blacksmith is one of eight crossbenchers in the federal Senate who holds a critical position in determining the final fate of government legislation.

He’s seeking crossbench support to help establish a new federal Senate inquiry to examine whether the Basin Plan’s basic aim to deliver 2750 gigalitres in environmental water flows will cause irreversible damage to agricultural production and river communities.

Senator Madigan will synthesise the key messages from various meetings in NSW and Victoria and take them to Canberra to present to other politicians.

At a community meeting in Deniliquin on Wednesday, Senator Madigan explained to about 30 community stakeholders why he abstained from voting for the Basin Plan when it was signed into law in late 2012.

He said he asked his fellow Senators – including those from the Coalition and the ALP – what they were voting for and nobody could provide him with a coherent response.

“So I refused to vote,” he said.

“I’m not into political expediency – I don’t like it when people suffer. I’m here to listen and I’ll do my very best to try and get you a result.”

Senator Madigan said he had strong personal interest in water as the lifeblood of agricultural production and a family connection to the Deniliquin community.

Facts, not rhetoricWednesday’s meeting saw eight speakers from various community interest groups offer their key messages for Senator Madigan to prosecute in the nation’s capital this year.

However, the public forum’s tone contrasted sharply to a visit the previous day by new Secretary to the Environment Minister Bob Baldwin and Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) chair Neil Andrew.

Mr Baldwin and Mr Andrew toured various irrigation sites and facilities in the region, gathering views and advice from stakeholders during a crash course on water policy session.

However, simmering tensions hit the surface at the following day’s meeting community leaders expressed a growing lack of confidence in the Basin Plan to the Senator.

They also ventilated frustrations about the recent change of water leadership which has effectively seen four federal water ministers appointed in the past two years.

Backlash towards Mr Baldwin focused on a local media report which claimed he toured Basin communities to listen to their concerns and wanted to be persuaded by facts rather than rhetoric, about the Basin Plan’s failings.

But the article also reported him as saying the Basin Plan wouldn’t be changed and instead would be delivered in full and on time, despite those concerns.

A bit of a contradictionSouthern Riverina Irrigators (SRI) chair John Bradford said he believed Mr Baldwin was “very much a straight shooter” who came out to listen to the community’s concerns, but at the same time the new water boss said he would be forging ahead with the Basin Plan.

Mr Bradford said Mr Baldwin’s comments came a day after embattled Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s speech at the National Press Club in Canberra, where he promised all government members would listen more closely and consult better with their constituents in 2015.

He said Mr Baldwin’s comments to the Deniliquin community were “a bit of a contradiction” to Mr Abbott’s key message.

Local business representative Harold Clapham was also critical of Mr Baldwin’s comments, saying they were “insulting and demeaning” and his reference to a rain dance was “unintelligent and certainly not funny”.

“We know what happens in this district when we don’t have water, far better than you, Mr Baldwin,” he said referring to the rice mill’s closure at Coleambally this year.

Wakool on the marginsWakool Shire Council chair Neil Gorey told Senator Madigan an economic impact report on the Basin Plan’s proposals had highlighted potential community fall out from water entitlement reductions and retiring significant areas of irrigation land.

Mr Gorey said the report highlighted that from 2002 to 2014, water entitlements in the Wakool Shire had halved from 304,000ML to 152,000ML.

He said, during that time, the Shire’s population had also declined by 814 people, or 17 per cent, of which a vast majority came from the rural sector.

Mr Gorey said the community’s towns have “stayed relatively static” despite losing 294 jobs (a 24pc decrease), with ag sector jobs falling by 328 or 40pc of the agriculture work-force.

“Our fear is that, if water entitlement reductions continue that are to meet the water recovery target of 1048GL in NSW, Wakool Shire could experience a further 38pc reduction in water entitlements,” he said.

“If this occurs, we can expect another 223 job losses resulting in an annual loss of wages of $11.2 million and reduced consumer spending in the Wakool Shire of $6.7m per year.”

Mr Gorey’s message was for Senator Madigan to convey to the minister, crossbenchers and Mr Andrew was that his Shire recognised the need to transition to a new future.

But he asked that future water entitlement reductions be postponed five years, to allow assessment of the Basin Plan’s impacts on the regional community and to build resilience from future reductions, to meet targets.

He also requested the federal government provide funding and policy support for the structural adjustment package needed to transition the Shire’s economy to “a future with less water”.

Plan ‘skewed to environment’SRI’s Mr Bradford said the Basin Plan had failed to deliver on its key goal of a triple bottom line result, as it contained an imbalance towards environmental water delivery, at the expense of social and economic outcomes.

He said 25pc of the district’s water entitlement had already been removed, with irrigators already feeling “distressed” and confidence levels low, in terms of future outlook.

“If we don’t get this right, what legacy do we leave for the future?” he said of the Basin Plan.

Mr Bradford said existing environmental water needed to be used better and any water taken from productive use must be accompanied by benchmarking to ensure any adverse third party impacts are identified.

“Water buybacks are a bad deal – full stop – so we need your help to legislate the 1500GL cap on buybacks through the Senate,” he told Senator Madigan.

Irrigation infrastructure iconicMurray Irrigation Limited chair Bruce Simpson said his organisation’s infrastructure was iconic and of “national significance”, not just for its 1200 shareholders and the local community “but to this nation”.

“We must protect it and its productive capacity,” he said.

Mr Simpson said politicians had promised to deliver the Basin Plan on time and on budget but time and money were both running short and “we need to get good politics into this”.

He urged Senator Madigan to use his crossbench influence to ensure “common sense” was applied to the issue.

“We carry all the risk of bad politics so we encourage you at cross bench level to support the 1500GL cap legislation,” he said.

“God help us when the next drought comes along and we have no fat in the system.”

Mr Simpson also said the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder needed to be more flexibility with application of environmental water trading rules.

He said irrigators get “rapped over the knuckles” if they don’t use water efficiently and operate under enormous regulation and responsibility – but environmental water use wasn’t held to the same standards.

“We’d ask from your point of view, to apply pressure to ensure (Environment) Minister (Greg) Hunt genuinely understands that if environmental water use is not brought to account, it is poor use of public funds,” he said to Senator Madigan.

Irrigators need a championMr Simpson implored Senator Madigan to be a conduit for Basin communities and carry their messages to Canberra.

“Those people perceive we are greedy (and) we are singularly focused on building our balance sheets at the expense of every other bloody thing, including the environment,” he said.

“But we are quite the contrary, and that’s what really hurts me – and it hurts everybody else in this room.

“We need a champion – and if you can be the champion John, and provide facts through to your colleagues on the crossbench, we will do everything we can to help you.”

SunRice chair Laurie Arthur said the local rice mill had been forced to close as a result of the millennium drought, but was back in business now.

Mr Arthur said the local rice industry used water more efficiently than any other in the world and also spread its economic benefits throughout the community.

He said his key message for Canberra was about the ongoing “distortion” caused to water markets by the Basin Plan and urged a period of stability for agriculture to “essentially sort itself out”, given there was now 25pc less water available.

Basin Plan ‘flawed from day one’Riverina and Murray Regional Organisation of Councils executive officer Ray Stubbs said the Water Act which underpinned the Basin Plan’s creation was flawed.

Mr Stubbs said it favoured environmental considerations over social and economic outcomes that were “easily overlooked” by the MDBA.

But he said the MDBA can’t be blamed for acting according to what was prescribed in the Act.

“The Act needs to be stronger; we need to get triple bottom line considerations into the Act,” he said in urging the government to reconsider findings of an expert review of the legislation.

Mr Stubbs said the MDBA’s current consultation mechanisms with communities were working OK, “but can be better”.

Murray Valley Private Diverters chair John Lolicato said Mr Baldwin’s comments were an example of “how far out of touch our politicians are”.

“We should not be putting up with that kind of rubbish,” he said.

He said the Water Act wasn’t about producing the best environmental outcomes but was all about, “how can we squeeze all this bloody water down the other end so we can put 2000GL straight out to sea, and we can keep the salt levels of an estuary system way above what it should be”.

“We’ve had three successive governments now who are prepared to actually live the lies of the Basin Plan and it’s all about providing water for the bottom end,” he said.

“The uncertainty and the mistrust that is going on at the moment, is just unbelievable.

“So 50pc of our entitlement has already gone and as we all know water is the basis of production.

“How much money I make a year is directly related to how much water I’ve got in my kitty, so every drop that we will lose is going to have an impact.

“The Water Act is flawed and it’s been flawed from day one and it has been driven by people who don’t understand what they’re doing and that’s why we’ve ended up where we are.”

Third party impactsSpeakers also raised fears about the Basin Plan’s Constraints Management Strategy causing negative third party impacts, to achieve additional environmental water flows.

Mr Clapham said the Basin Plan was the largest irrigated agricultural industry restructuring ever under taken by a developed economy.

He said was on the basis that it takes commercial water out of production and allocates that water to a non-productive sector of the economy.

“This is not to belittle the need for environmental stewardship; it is simply to highlight the need for accountability and ultimately the consequences,” he said.

“And as far as I can see, there has never been an attempt on this scale, to utilize the existing infrastructure and the imperial data surrounding modern water flows that were developed for commercial purposes, in an attempt to produce an environmental outcome that never existed prior to the industrial development of the existing infrastructure.

“In simplistic terms, the MDB environment was irrevocably altered forever the moment the river flows were changed and the first weir was built and it has been changing ever since.

“It is arrogance beyond belief to think that we now have a comprehensive understanding of an environment that in reality is less than 100 years old.

“In its simplest form, access to temporary water from the Commonwealth Water Holder, would provide the economic arbitrage necessary to lessen the economic and social consequences associated with the implementation of plan.

“It would also provide a much needed circuit breaker for all parties to meet the obligations to their constituents.”

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