After floods, resignations and community consultations, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is slowly getting back on track thanks to the appointment of former NSW Labor minister Craig Knowles as the new head of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Knowles replaces Mike Taylor, who quit at the end of last year after declaring the environmental demands of the 2007 Water Act incompatible with social and economic impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Knowles, former state Minister for Infrastructure and Planning and also Minister for Natural Resources, immediately distanced himself from Taylor’s views:

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“No I just disagree with Mike Taylor, let’s be frank about that.

I’ve delivered on a lot of environmental legislation over the years – in forestry, in natural resource management, native vegetation, water, and all of those international agreements, all of those environmental imperatives are found in every piece of legislation. The Water Act is no different.

I am very comfortable that the scope of the legislation, the objectives of the legislation talk about optimising the economic, social and environmental outcomes as plain as day.”

Shadow Water Minister Barnaby Joyce said the appointment was “deeply concerning” and quickly dismissed it as a case of ‘Labor mates,’ noting that Water Minister Tony Burke previously served in NSW state parliament with Knowles.

However, as Danny O’Brien from the National Irrigators Council told ABC Radio’s PM, “In terms of jobs for mates, it’s not exactly a job you’d give to a mate. It’s going to be a pretty tough gig for him.”

With flooding in many rivers close to the Murray — and the Murray itself being very, very full — questions are being asked about whether the proposed water cuts, announced before the drought broke, are still relevant. Arlene Buchan-Harriss from the Australian Conservation Foundation says yes:

“Despite the current floods, the scientists are telling us we will be seeing a hotter drier future in the Murray Darling Basin and we need a strong Basin Plan which will properly rebalance water sharing between the environment and irrigators so that when we do find ourselves in the middle of the next drought we are much better prepared.”

Earlier in the month Gillard also agreed, saying that the time for reform was while Australia waited for its next inevitable drought to hit.

The National Farmers Federation remains unimpressed with the plan, no matter who holds the top job. “Regardless of who chairs the MDBA, it doesn’t change our position. Regional communities won’t accept what’s on the table. The Guide must change and change dramatically,” said president Jock Laurie.

The news comes as the National Farmers Federation appoints its own new CEO, Matt Linnegar. This is the same organisation that declared the current guide to the Plan as “riddled with holes” in its submission, and former chief executive Ben Fargher was vocal in his concerns over how the plan would affect regional communities.

To be fair to Knowles, he’s yet to declare how much support he will give the current guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, since he says he doesn’t have a “high degree of ownership” over the guide and wants to talk to communities.

But more community consultations will likely mean more delays, with the plan already pushed back to early 2012 before it will appear in parliament. Feedback from the previous community consultations — which were regarded as fairly fiery meetings, with many angry over the 27-37% proposed water cuts — is available online at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority website.

The Standing Committee on Regional Australia, the 12-person MP group chaired by Tony Windsor and focused on regional political issues, went on a nine-day meetings tour with residents over reactions to the plan last week. Over a thousand people turned up in Griffith for a seven hour public service hearing, with the overwhelming message being anti the guide in its current form.

Will Knowles be able to broker an agreement and satisfy all parties? It’ll be interesting to watch.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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