Community members and representatives have been left aghast at the latest actions by a federal agency as they seek to drain more water from the southern connected region.
“It is probably one of the best examples that I’ve come across that proves the point that the MDBA are actually all about dividing communities and making sure that they limit the amount of consultation that they have with communities,” said local farmer and Wakool River Association Chair John Lolicato.
The meeting, held by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water (DCCEEW), was to be an information session about the latest rounds of government water buybacks. The only problem was the meetings weren’t advertised, only 48 hours’ notice was given, and only a select few received email invitations.
“I don’t think they could have structured it much better to make sure that they had people stay away from the meeting,” said Mr Lolicato.
“One of the worst examples of community consultation in the 40 years I’ve had with resource management, I just think that the way it was handled was absolutely appalling.
“I think Minister Plibersek told her departments to go away and consult and whatever you do, make sure that you get the right answer, make sure that you’ll be able to get that box ticked, we’ve consulted and move on.
“If we take another 16,000 megalitres out of the New South Wales Murray, it is going to devastate those communities, additional to what’s already happened.
“I don’t think they care. I think they think we’re dispensable.”
What possible reason could the department have for announcing a meeting so late, attendees reported that more than eight staff were present from the DCCEEW, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. To have so many department staff coordinated to attend hardly seems like they went to Deniliquin on a whim, so why the lack of engagement?
Such was the secrecy, even Intereach, where the meeting was held was unaware of the meeting’s intent. A DCCEEW spokesperson reported that a lack of alternate venues and Covid-19 were the reason that such a small venue was selected, a claim that other venue providers debunked, stating “rooms were available and no inquiry from the department was received.”
After registering as an irrigator and as the Deputy Chair of Speak Up for Water, my own ticket was cancelled as an attendee, despite arranging a post-meeting media debrief (which never eventuated). I travelled to Deniliquin to meet with the department on Wednesday, the door staff ushered me outside and did offer a hope of entry, providing the audience was okay with a journalist not acting in the capacity, not even a note pad, be in attendance. A short while later, all hopes were dashed as the attendees had reportedly refused my entry.
The afternoon got more interesting when a Country News journalist, who had registered, attempted to enter. The door staff stated to the journo they would have to ask the audience, again. After a long wait, he too was expelled from the meeting. In talking with four of 13 attendees after the meeting, all reported to have not been asked if the presence of a journalist was okay, not once, but twice.
Another attendee who was frustrated by the poor community engagement was Bullatale Creek farmer and knowledgeable water advocate Louise Burge. Despite being a representative on the executive committee of Murray Valley Private Diverter, a Bullatale Creek Trustee, Chair of the CRM Committee of NSW Farmers, a member of NSW Farmers Presidential Water Task Force and representing NSW Farmers at the National Farmers Federation, Mrs Burge did not receive an invite to the Deniliquin meeting, instead having to rely on the bush telegraph.
“I am not sure why there was such a lack of public knowledge about the meetings, nor where meetings were to be held,” said Mrs Burge.
“I heard about the meeting on the grapevine and applied for the morning meeting, but was put on a wait list.
“I later applied for the afternoon session and was accepted.
“I found it very disappointing the manner in which the organising of the meeting was handled, and I think this is problematic of government departments who know that the Murray Valley and Goulburn Valley wear the risks of the plan’s political nature.”
Ms Burge attended her first Basin Plan meeting in Canberra in 2009 and has spent the following 14 years attending all state and federal government meetings.
“I have pleaded with the MDBA to work collaboratively with farmers and local communities to work together in developing the Basin Plan; sadly, it has proven to be the opposite.
“It’s riddled with mistakes and political deals, deals that now not only impact general security irrigators but have and will continue to elevate flooding risks in the Murray and Edward Wakool River system.
“We have many examples of where collaboration to achieve environmental outcomes can be done.
“I will continue to encourage governments to work with our communities to achieve smarter ways to achieve environmental outcomes.”
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 16 March 2023.
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