South Australia does not need fresh water, Nationals claim in fiery Murray-Darling Basin plan debate

The Nationals have sensationally claimed that science does not support South Australia “needing fresh water” through the Murray-Darling Basin plan, while suggesting rising sea levels could replace environmental flows to the lower lakes.

The claims, made as part of an unsuccessful push to rewrite the government’s water policy, came at the culmination of a Nationals-led insurrection over the plan that was successfully killed off by the Liberals in parliament on Thursday.

On Wednesday the Nationals blindsided Liberal colleagues by introducing amendments to a government bill to reduce environmental flows under the basin plan, revealing they had been secretly working on it for “months” in a bid to change government policy.

After the controversial changes were rejected in the Senate, the chief Nationals whip Damian Drum attempted to reintroduce them in the House of Representatives on Thursday.

To support the proposed changes, Drum circulated talking points, which included a list of “problems” under current arrangements with a focus on the buy-back of an additional 450GL of water.

“The science no longer supports SA needing fresh water,” the notes say.

“Rising sea levels will mean the SA Lower Lakes system will not need environmental water.”

The claims were seized upon by Labor and the Greens as evidence the government was hostage to “water terrorists” in the Nationals.

Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, said the Nationals, under resurrected leader Barnaby Joyce, were intent on ensuring “upstream interests” dominated national water policy.

“The amendments moved by members of Mr Morrison’s own government, are all about blowing up the Murray-Darling plan,” Wong said.

The Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the Nationals’ approach was “wacky, dangerous, anti-science” and called for them to be stripped of the water portfolio in the forthcoming reshuffle, which is due after Joyce’s elevation as leader.

“Does the minister believe that science no longer requires fresh water for South Australia?” Hanson-Young asked the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, in the Senate.

Birmingham, South Australia’s most senior Liberal, said “very clearly fresh water is important to the survival of all civilisations, to state the obvious, and indeed fresh water flows are important for health and sustainability of river systems”.

“The policy of the government is clear in terms of its continued support of the Murray-Darling Basin plan.”

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The water minister, Keith Pitt, who sits in the Nationals partyroom but is bound by cabinet solidarity to support the government’s position on the Murray-Darling Basin plan, was asked in question time when he first learned of the Nationals “plot to shred the basin plan”.

“The National party has always been aware of what is going on when it comes to water, always,” Pitt said.

“We have been absolutely committed … to ruling out further buybacks. There will be no more buybacks while this government is in place … because it is the right thing to do. We are striking the right balance between irrigators, communities, business and the environment and we will continue to do that.”

The environment minister, Sussan Ley, also dismissed the Nationals push, saying rural and regional areas wanted to see the basin plan delivered. She said the decision on whether the minor party retained the water portfolio would be up to the prime minister.

“Government members from the Coalition understand the importance of working cooperatively and cohesively on the Murray-Darling Basin plan,” Ley said.

“And while it’s not perfect, and no one knows that better than me, what I do know is that when it’s suggested in rural and regional Australia in the basin that we don’t proceed with the plan, that’s not what people want.”

The Nationals’ changes would have banned the government from buying back water from farmers to return it to the environment, and remove the requirement that 450GL be returned to the river unless it achieves “neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes”.

The amendments stipulate that no further water be taken when the basin plan concludes in 2024.

On Wednesday, the Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie said the party would continue to agitate to make the changes part of government policy, and flagged the issue could form part of negotiations on a new Coalition agreement.

The move by Drum to move the amendments in the House on Thursday sparked a fresh battle with the Liberal party, with the leader of the House, Peter Dutton, moving to block the Nationals’ amendments.

Labor asked the Speaker, Tony Smith, to allow a vote on the amendments and, when he refused, moved to dissent from his ruling.

But in a strange turn of events, the Nationals ultimately refused to side with Labor to overrule the speaker, which would have seen the government lose control of the chamber.

Drum argued the opposition was trying to facilitate a “political debate that has nothing to do with the amendments” and noted that Labor would ultimately disagree with them if they were put to a vote.

“I am not going to be party to this grandstanding from the Labor party to produce dissension with the Liberal party,” Drum said, just minutes after reigniting the Coalition split.

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