Tensions around the Murray-Darling Basin are rising as the basin with state government ultimatums and threats of physical violence towards ministers and staff by local communities.
State and federal ministers have reportedly been assisted by police when visiting parts of the river system due to spouts of aggression.
Interim inspector-general for the basin, Mick Keelty, condemned the behaviour.
“That some ministers have had to engage police protection, and some departments have directed staff not to visit certain parts of the basin for fear of physical violence, is not acceptable,” he said.
“Our democracy is better than that.
“I happen to agree with some of their concerns, but I will not advocate change for those wishing to use threats or violence or intimidation against our elected representatives and public servants.”
On a recent visit to the basin in Swan Hill, Water Minister David Littleproud was approached by a group of roughly 200 angry protesters carrying a noose. Several days later, a crowd of 1500 in the New South Wales town of Tocumwal threw a homemade doll of Littleproud into the river.
But it’s not just the local community that is fed up.
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Water Minister Melinda Pavey have made an ultimatum to the federal government which could end in the state backing out of the Murray-Darling Basin Water Plan.
“We have said for months that our communities are hurting and if this plan isn’t right for NSW, then we would walk away. It’s taken a protest of over 2000 farmers and irrigators to descend on the steps of Parliament for the federal government to respond and, for me, that is disappointing,” Barilaro said on Tuesday.
He demanded the federal government allow NSW to be excluded from the 450 gigalitres of additional water recovery efforts, for barrages on the Lower Lakes be lifted, for transmission losses to be taken into account as water returned to the environment, and for NSW water resource plans to be halted until the drought has broken.
At a doorstop on Tuesday, Littleproud said he would “probably need to let [Barilaro] know” that the federal government does not have the power to approve or decline demands in the Murray-Darling Basin.
“That is done by all basin states,” he said.
“It’s not a decision the federal government can take unilaterally and I think this is an important point, that while everyone points their guns at us they can understand my job in many respects is to herd the cats.”
Keelty also confirmed he would be conducting an inquiry into the impact of policies on water availability, until March 31.
“It’s an ambitious deadline, but we hope through the Ministerial Council to have the powers available to us that we require, if not available to us in that period of time, because it is only a short time frame, to gain their cooperation to be able to report back to the ministerial council and to the stakeholders, the farmers and the irrigators, whether or not the current policies are inhibiting their access to water,” he said.
The former Australian Federal Police commissioner was appointed interim inspector-general for the Murray-Darling Basin in August.