The message was delivered loudly and clearly by 1000 passionate farmers and community supporters, backed up by nearly 140 trucks, at a rally in Albury last Tuesday.
Pause the Basin Plan, because it is not working for communities or the environment, was the cry.
Frustration had boiled over following a summer in which water authorities tried to push huge quantities from dams east of Albury down the Murray River to South Australia, to the point where it was running over the river’s banks and flooding forests.
At the same time, the region’s farmers had a zero general security water allocation for food and fibre production, and as a consequence have suffered immense economic pain that has flowed on to the local communities.
Their peaceful rally was held in QEII square, before everyone marched around the block with their placards, behind a hay-laden semi-trailer which also carried the ‘Pause the Plan’ plea.
It was led by Southern Riverina Irrigators, whose chairman Chris Brooks had a strong message for both Coalition and Labor politicians — ‘‘you haven’t been listening, and we’re up for the fight’’.
The anger from Mr Brooks and many others in the crowd was directed firmly at federal Member for Farrer Sussan Ley, who stood alongside the trailer on which speakers stood as she copped a barrage of criticism.
‘‘We want our water back and we want all parties to know we are going to fight for it,’’ Mr Brooks told the crowd, to rousing applause.
He was especially critical of Labor water spokesman Tony Burke, who recently said in South Australia that a Labor Government would reintroduce water buybacks and scrap the neutrality test, which was introduced by state water ministers in December to protect rural communities.
‘‘We will not be intimidated by Tony Burke and the Labor Party with their ridiculous threats to further undermine our water rights,’’ Mr Brooks said.
Other speakers included Barooga farmer Carly Marriott, Southern Riverina Irrigators deputy chair Darcy Hare and ‘pause the plan’ instigator John Lolicato, who outlined why a five year moratorium and review of the Basin Plan is so desperately needed.
He explained the Pause the Plan movement was calling for all basin state governments and the Federal Government to immediately implement a framework that will ensure no further water acquisition for a period of at least five years. It also wants a comprehensive review of the plan and river management by independent consultants approved by the affected communities.
Mr Hare highlighted the waste of water with four million megalitres being sent to South Australia, being ‘‘water they don’t pay for and they don’t own, to waste in transmission losses, dilution flows and massive evaporation from once estuarine lakes’’.
He also slammed the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for its management of water, which allowed those in South Australia to ‘‘yacht about on our water sipping their chardonnay, while we go broke and lose our farms, our families and our children’s future’’.
The Voices for Farrer independent candidate in the federal election, Kevin Mack, highlighted the importance of water to keeping rural communities prosperous and strong.
‘‘We are here today to look after our future and make sure our young people are looked after. The message from this gathering of farmers and small business owners is clear ... regional Australia is being neglected and the major parties in control of our country have lost sight of what is important to country communities.
‘‘We are continually ignored at the highest level of government by both parties.
‘‘The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a disaster and the latest issues with water allocations are indicative of this. Regional policy is about providing for our regions and ensuring we are all given the same considerations as our urban electorates.
‘‘Water is critical to this policy and to every city, town and hamlet of Farrer,’’ Mr Mack said, as he stuck with the theme of the rally and urged politicians to ‘pause the plan’.
A petition organised by the Speak Up Campaign which calls for a balanced Basin Plan that protects food production and the environment was read out by Speak Up chair Shelley Scoullar and handed to Ms Ley. It has generated more than 85,000 signatures as it asks governments to put politics aside and start governing for the whole Basin by treating rural communities, family farms and the environment with respect and on an equal footing.
Ms Ley asked for an opportunity to address the crowd but received a hostile reception. She was continually heckled as she tried to explain that ‘‘every single day of my political life I get up and fight for water’’.
Ms Ley rejected claims the Prime Minister does not understand water issues and said he ‘‘understands the pain of these communities’’.
She said after the rally she was taking the Drought Envoy Major General Stephen Day to Finley.
‘‘I said to Major General Day I want you to come and see the difficulties, the challenges and the awful situation that my communities are in.’’
She continued: ‘‘I want to tell you I understand your frustration’’.
In closing the rally Mr Brooks urged everyone in attendance ‘‘don’t lose faith, don’t stop supporting, don’t stop more people getting on board and getting involved. We need to inform these politicians that we will not tolerate any more. Most especially to Tony Burke ... we will not be intimidated,’’ he repeated.
Mr Brooks said after the rally it was disappointing that the federal Water Minister David Littleproud was just across the river at Wodonga while the rally was being held.
‘‘I know he probably wanted to avoid us, but if he’d ventured across the Murray he may have gained further evidence of our anger which led to his party losing the seat of Murray in last month’s state election, and why we want to replace his Liberal colleague Sussan Ley, who I think will lose Farrer at the upcoming federal election.
‘‘The Coalition is not listening, so we have no choice but to continue venting our anger through the ballot box. We’ve done it once in recent weeks and we’ll do it again next month.’’