SUNRAYSIA’S version of the ‘Quad PAC’ came together this week with the region’s two Mayors, Member for Murray, Helen Dalton and Member for Mildura, Ali Cupper meeting on the banks of the Murray River at Gol Gol.
Amongst the issues and concerns discussed was the risk of COVID outbreaks occurring in the region once NSW opens up, allowing Sydneysiders to travel to regional areas.
“It is inevitable that when Sydney opens up we will see a spike in COVID-19 cases which to me is incredibly concerning,” Mrs Dalton said.
“We spelt it out to Gladys Berejiklian very plainly that we need to be more than 70 per cent vaccinated − we need to be more than 80 per cent right across the regions. If not, our health system will be overwhelmed with cases and so the Premier has listened I’m pleased to say and has moved that to 80 per cent.”
All four politicians expressed relief at Monday’s decision by the NSW Government to prevent Sydneysiders travelling to regional NSW until late October.
“This is a good decision, but we are still concerned,” Mrs Dalton said.
“For the past two years, as soon as COVID case numbers rise, we see a hard border closure.
“We are one community across the Murray and can’t afford to have more random, harsh border closures, while the rest of Australia is eased into normality.
“We’d like the Victorian and NSW Government to consult with us and work out a way for our small businesses and communities to continue to function.”
Ali Cupper said that she was at one with Mrs Dalton on this issue.
“COVID has been a traumatic experience and we all want to get out of it,” she said.
“The question is how we do that in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our system?
“If that massive spike was to happen in our region, our health system can’t cope with that.
“If we are all double vaccinated, it’s like the flu. If we’re not, it’s a whole different story and that’s why we have had to have the border shut downs. We saw the images coming from Italy last year and we’ve seen the images coming from India and America where the case numbers have overwhelmed the system.
“As an island nation, with really secure ocean borders, we’ve be able to shut down international travel in ways that other countries haven’t been able to and we’ve locked down and are safe because of those things.
“But as Helen says, we need to open up. We just have to and the way to do that, is for everyone who can, to be double vaccinated.”
Floodplain harvesting fury
The other issue discussed by the group was floodplain harvesting – the practice of farmers diverting water into their private dams before it reaches the river – something they are all vehemently united against.
“Floodplain harvesting in the NSW Northern Basin impacts on us here, on the Murray and the Lower Darling,” Mrs Dalton said.
“More water taken upstream means less water for downstream communities.
“We saw mass fish kills in 2019 in the Lower Darling and mothers bathing their babies with bottled water, because towns had run out of tap water.
Mrs Dalton said that NSW Water Minister, Melinda Pavey, has said she will go ahead and licence floodplain harvesting this week.
“This is very concerning as the NSW parliament isn’t even sitting right now,” she said.
“We have an inquiry going in NSW at the moment into floodplain harvesting.
“Last week, that inquiry heard Northern Basin farmers are taking more water than the Murray Darling Basin Plan allows. We are united in asking the NSW Government to wait for the inquiry recommendations before changing our laws.”
Ms Cupper said she had made a submission to the floodplain harvesting inquiry.
“One of the things that I said in that was about democracy,” she said. “Trying to explain to the NSW Government why some many Australians are so offended by the outrageous sorts of practices that they have been trying to get away with.
“We saw the fish kill at Menindee, we saw farmers having to walk off their properties in the Lower Darling.
“We see a state that just doesn’t seem to care about that and it is an outrage to Australian democratic values.
“To me, fixing up floodplain harvesting isn’t just about ensuring that the logistics of the river work and everybody gets a share of the water they need, it’s about fundamentally being Australian about this.
“And for the NSW Government to be putting up these amendments before the inquiry is complete, is just bizarre and an outrageous insult, not just to the users of water along the river, but to Australians more broadly.”
Mildura Mayor Jason Modica said that there needs to be a moratorium on permanent plantings in the region.
“We gave water a monetary value when it was commodified and we have an ephemeral system that has such variable intakes, that we are on a precipice and we could get into trouble like the Millennium Drought and all of our communities will suffer if we don’t identify that democracy and have the transparency that’s needed,” he said.
“We can’t be led by the NSW Government who have a vested interest in protecting those who control the northern connected basin for so long.”
Councillor Modica said that there had been inquiry after inquiry into the Murray Darling Basin.
“You’ve had the Citizen’s Inquiry, The Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission, Post Truth Water, Richard Beasley’s book ‘Dead in the Water’ and as Helen said to me earlier, more than 300 inquiries have been held since 1989, and yet we still have no transparency,” he said.
“Why is it up to our mayors and our state members from two regions to have to actually call for the transparency needed and to actually implement a plan to keep this river as beautiful as it is?”
Wentworth Shire Mayor, Sue Nichols, added that people look at the river in Mildura or Wentworth and it looks great.
“At the moment they are letting water go from the Hume and Menindee Lakes and so there is a lot of water flowing down the system,” she said.
“This is a huge problem because we did this in 2016 and now we are looking like doing the same thing again.
“We’ll see those fish dead again. I have been around a long time and these things have been ongoing for years and the policy round the Menindee Lakes needs to be changed.”