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Battles in the bush test government’s mettle

The $13 billion basin plan was enacted with support of state and federal governments in 2013 to recover over-allocated irrigation entitlements for the environment. A portion of irrigators’ water rights was bought back from voluntary sellers with Commonwealth funding that was to be used for efficiency measures on farms.

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But since then, many irrigators have been pushed to the wall by drought, with two years of zero allocation to general security irrigation licences in NSW, years of very low allocation in Victoria, and sky-high water prices.

Deniliquin, NSW irrigator Jon Gatacre took time out from his busy grain harvest to attend the rally.

Like many farmers, he believes the Murray Darling Basin Authority has mismanaged its water entitlements, releasing too much from upstream dams for South Australia’s Lower Lakes and to flush out the Murray Mouth.

“We’ve been given short shrift by the Murray Darling Basin Authority and [Water Minister] David Littleproud. Enough is enough,” Mr Gatacre said.

Mr Littleproud has said the basin plan will deliver a sustainable balance between irrigation and the environment, arguing water sharing between states is governed by separate legislation under century-old laws.

“Scrapping the basin plan will not add any more water to the basin and will not change the way water is shared between NSW, Victoria and South Australia under the Murray Darling Basin Agreement,” a spokesman for the minister said.

“The reality is if we canned the basin plan, not one extra gigalitre would appear in a dam and a future government could implement a worse plan for farmers.”

On Monday afternoon, the government used its numbers in the Senate to block debate on One Nation’s Protecting Australian Dairy Bill 2019, which would have mandated a floor price for farmers’ milk.

One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts called on Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie to resign, while Labor’s agriculture spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, said the Nationals had “abandoned” farmers, and a man was ejected from the Senate’s public gallery for heckling Senator McKenzie.

Senator McKenzie says a floor price is counter-productive and fails to address the power imbalance between farmers and processors. She is under pressure to deliver on her promised dairy code, which she says will empower farmers in milk contract negotiations.

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