Prime Minister Julia Gillard has declared cuts to water use in the Murray-Darling food bowl inevitable and accused the coalition of trying to wreck the reform process started by the Howard government.
Farmers have reacted angrily to a Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) guide flagging a cut in water usage by up to 37 per cent to boost the health of the iconic river system.
Government ignoring unrest: Coalition
The opposition focused on water reform during question time in parliament on Monday, accusing Water Minister Tony Burke and Ms Gillard of ignoring unrest in the Murray-Darling basin communities.
Labor was also accused of pushing up the price of food and putting rural property values at risk through the proposed changes.
But the government turned the attack on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, both of whom signed off on new water laws as coalition government ministers.
In her first parliamentary appearance since the MDBA’s guide was released, Ms Gillard said Labor would stand by its election pledge to implement the final plan.
“No change is not an option,” the prime minister said.
“No change is not in the interests of rural communities … (or) Australian farmers.”
Ms Gillard said she understood the reform was difficult and had “inflamed community passion”.
“But it is not in anybody’s interests, not the interests of any Australian, any farmer, any regional community for the leader of the opposition to use his status to wreck this process,” she said.
Mr Abbott accused Water Minister Tony Burke of failing to turn up to consultative meetings being held by the MDBA across the basin.
“Is water reform the responsibility of the government or is it the responsibility of the government?” Mr Abbott asked.
“If it’s the responsibility of the government, why won’t he lead the debate and actually visit the affected communities?”
Mr Burke told parliament that he planned to visit “every single one of those irrigation communities”.
Meanwhile, a new survey shows voters are starting to tune into water issues.
An Essential Media online survey of 1,901 people showed only 17 per cent believe that existing water allocations in the Murray-Darling system should be maintained and 53 per cent think the government should buy back water rights either compulsorily (17 per cent) or from irrigators willing to sell (36 per cent).
Support for maintaining existing allocations was a little higher among Liberal voters (24 per cent).