The Importance of the River Murray - Speech to the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and Univeristy of SA Forum - Adelaide - 24/03/2022

24 March 2022

Acknowledgments omitted

The River Murray is truly South Australia’s lifeblood.

This river, and all of the waterways, lakes and tributaries that flow from it are critical to the future security and prosperity of our state.

For many South Australians, River Murray water flows to the taps in our homes.

Some years it supplies more than 80 per cent of the water to metropolitan Adelaide – more than 150 gigalitres.

And it’s not just those in the city who rely on River Murray water for drinking water, for agriculture, for our businesses and for our industry.

River Murray water is piped from Morgan in the Riverland, travelling some 641 kilometres up to Whyalla on the Upper Spencer Gulf.

From there, the water is piped even further.

Iron Knob.



When water is scarce in these communities it is the River Murray that keeps them alive.

Just as the River sustains our capital city, it sustains our regional and agricultural communities.

Primary industry relies on a healthy river as well.

Around three-quarters of South Australia’s share of River water is used in primary production – on farms, in vineyards, to support livestock, and so much more.

There’s a reason they refer to the Murray-Darling Basin as our nation’s food bowl. It’s true in South Australia, just as it is upstream.

Our primary industries employ more than 30,000 people.

Production across all the different types of agriculture – whether it’s grain, or livestock, or fruit – contributes more than $6 billion to the economy of our state and our nation.

And those jobs – that economic value – is fuelled by water from the River Murray.

But the benefits of a healthy River to our state are not just felt by our people.

Our River is the very heart of biodiversity in our state.

It sustains ecosystems and supports species unlike anywhere else in the world.

Just one example of this is the Riverland Ramsar site – listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. A site of international ecological importance.

This incredible piece of nature provides habitat for many threatened species – such as the endangered Southern Bell Frog, and the critically endangered Murray Hardyhead.

It is also a major breeding site for migratory waterbirds.

And, amazingly, our river provides a critical place of last refuge for many of these waterbird species.

On a continent as dry as ours, in a place where droughts are frequent and severe, it is our River that provides a safe haven for life.

For flora and fauna, for jobs. for economic productivity, and just to keep the tap on – that is why we must all work to save the River Murray.

And that is why the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is so important to our state.

Murray-Darling Basin Plan

I served as Water Minister in the Rudd Government, during the formation of the Basin Plan.

I’m proud as Water Minister to have purchased and returned almost 1,000 gigalitres of water to the river.

I know the hard balance that had to be struck, and the enormous challenges we must confront when managing our water resources.

And I know that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is our best chance for keeping the River alive.

All of us who remember the terrible days of the Millennium Drought know why it is so critical for us to limit extraction of water from the Basin.

Those images of dry riverbeds will remain in the psyche of our state forever.

And they remind us why our water resources must be properly managed.

It’s why the 450 gigalitres promised to our state under the Plan must be delivered – on time and in full.

Because even in a year that has seen floods devastate so much of our country – in a time when a La Nina weather event is bringing heavy rainfall, South Australians know that the next drought could be just around the corner.

Floods today don’t mean water security tomorrow.

Nationals Attacks on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

That is something the Liberals and Nationals unfortunately seem not to understand.

The Nationals – the governing partner to Mr Morrison’s Liberals – have never liked the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

Their ongoing determination to destroy it was laid bare when in June last year they walked into the chamber and sought to tear apart the Basin Plan.

The very day after Barnaby Joyce returned as Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party, his Senate colleagues moved amendments to a Bill seeking to deny South Australians our fair share of River Murray water.

They were seeking to amend a Bill that was supposed to strengthen compliance in the Basin.

A Bill which created the Inspector-General of Water Compliance, which they sought to amend to tear key components out of the Basin Plan.

Those amendments would have banned water buybacks and ended water recovery after 2024.

And perhaps worst of all for our state – it would have removed the requirement for South Australia to receive the 450 gigalitres of water we were promised.

And these weren’t rogue actions taken by some sort of disgruntled backbencher.

These changes were passed by the Nationals party room and supported by senior members of the government – including Bridget McKenzie – who now sits at the cabinet table as Minister for Emergency Management.

And when those amendments were – thankfully – voted down in the Senate, the National Party gave them another crack in the House of Representatives.

Talking points circulated by the Nationals Whip said that

“The Science no longer supports SA needing fresh water”

and that

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

These are outlandish, untrue and utterly outrageous claims.

And these actions should send a shiver down the spine of every South Australian.

Not just because they demonstrate the hostility of Scott Morrison’s deputy, Barnaby Joyce, to the basic water entitlements we so desperately need.

But because Mr Morrison’s government relies on a deal with Mr Joyce to keep them in office.

An agreement that is kept secret – that none of us can see.

And media reporting at the time suggested that water would be one of the things discussed in those negotiations.

Government failures on water

Of course, the actions in June of last year aren’t a one-off act of hostility to South Australia’s water rights by this Government.

Every round of Senate Estimates Labor Senators ask officials for an update on water recovery toward the 450 gigalitres promised to this state.

And once again last month the Government confirmed that just 2 gigalitres have been returned as entitlements to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder.

And they could only advise us of a contracted plans for up to 23.9 gigalitres.

23.9 out of 450 – under a plan that is supposed to be fully realised by 2024.

The alarm bells should be ringing for South Australians.

This Plan – initiated under John Howard, legislated under Julia Gillard, committed to repeatedly by this Government – is in serious danger of not being realised.

But there appears to be no urgency.

Basic accreditation processes have yet to be completed by the New South Wales government – when that state is so critical to the success of the Plan and the recovery of water.

A commitment secured by Labor in our negotiations as an Opposition in 2018 – to deliver $40 million of cultural water has still not been delivered by the Morrison Government.

There are some 75,000 Indigenous people living in Australia’s Murray Darling Basin and most are Traditional Owners from one of over 40 autonomous First Nations.

Despite this, Indigenous groups only hold 0.1% of the total value of the water market.

An Albanese Labor Government will ensure that cultural water is finally delivered.

We will work to increase First Nations peoples’ ownership of water entitlements in the Murray Darling Basin by providing a full response to the Productivity Commission’s recommendations in its National Water Reform report.

And we will ensure that First Nations peoples’ authority, knowledge and experience better informs the work of relevant agencies and is incorporated into planning for environmental watering.

This whole saga demonstrates a real failure by Mr Morrison and his team.

A complete absence of leadership by this Government.

Open hostility from Barnaby Joyce and the Nationals.

And no plan to deliver on this incredibly important agreement.

I get the sense that Mr Morrison is simply hoping that no one will notice.

That floods in Queensland and New South Wales will distract people from the ever-present risk of drought on this continent.

I think that approach fundamentally misunderstands South Australians and the memories we hold of those terrible days in the Millennium Drought.

So my plea to you all tonight is this: do not let them get away with this.

Do not let our state suffer under a Federal Government which is at worst hostile... and at best ignorant... of the pressing dangers to our water security.

Only by changing the government do we have a hope of delivering water for this state – and of keeping the whole Basin alive.

Thank you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.