The MDB Ministerial Council (“MinCo”) is the highest interjurisdictional decision-making authority for water management in the Basin. The meeting on 12 October 2022 has been hotly anticipated given the number of new Ministers attending, the new Federal Minister Plibersek chairing the meeting for the first time, as well as tough questions about the implementation of the Basin Plan.

Compared to past meeting summaries, the communique from yesterday’s meeting demonstrates a renewed spirit of collaboration and commitment to working together to deliver the objectives of the Basin Plan. Ministers also acknowledged the need for a robust, science-led approach to underpin an effective and unified response to climate change.

We know Aither’s clients are interested in the environmental outcomes of the Basin Plan, as well as the implications of any further water recovery efforts on the availability of water for irrigation and other consumptive uses. Uncertainty and debate about the extent, timing, effectiveness and approach to further water recovery has been undermining confidence in the irrigation sector in the Basin for at least the last 5 years, and affecting Australia’s reputation for good water management frameworks more broadly. In that sense, the change in tone is a good sign. Key points from the communique concerning the Basin Plan include:

  • An acknowledgement of the challenges of meeting the current timeframes for delivery of the Basin Plan – put plainly, Aither’s view is that miracles would be required to meet these deadlines
  • A commitment for the Commonwealth to work together with states and communities on options to bridge the gap with water recovery, including flagging the potential for “strategic purchase” of water, without defining what this might include
  • A commitment for the Commonwealth to work together with states and communities on opportunities to recover water towards the 450 GL
  • A commitment to meet again in February 2023 to agree actions for delivering the remaining shared Basin requirements under the Basin Plan.

In addition, the Ministers agreed:

  • to work together on modelling the risks to the Basin’s water resources posed by climate change and potential response options
  • in principle, to implement all recommendations of the Quinlivan water market reform roadmap to improve confidence and deliver integrity safeguards in water markets
  • that a draft intergovernmental agreement on water market reform would be prepared by the end of the year
  • to deal with options for progressing resolution of Barmah Choke capacity issues at the next meeting
  • to support making available the $40m of Commonwealth funding under the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program.

Despite the wet conditions taking some of the political focus and heat out of the debate, and a more conciliatory tone from the new Ministers, there are still many difficult decisions ahead for MinCo. The meeting in February 2023 is likely to be more hotly anticipated than this one.

For our part, Aither will be tracking and reporting on policy developments in relation to the Basin Plan and Water markets roadmap closely over the next few months, as part of our Monthly Insights report. Feel free to get in touch with us if you have any questions about the reform options and their implications.