VFF Water Council chairman Andrew Leahy called the bluff of Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie at the Senate committee hearing in Shepparton on Thursday.
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Senator Deborah O'Neill at the committee hearing.

Senator McKenzie was responding to comments about what successive governments had been doing about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, when she said she could easily submit an amendment in the Senate to remove the additional 450 Gl of water from the plan but it was likely to be opposed by the other parties.

“Well, do it; at least we’ll know where everyone stands,” an exasperated Mr Leahy responded.

The VFF had been arguing that the 450 Gl of up-water should be removed from the plan.

The Federal Government and the Victorian Government have said they are against buybacks to achieve the 450 Gl, but the VFF is not satisfied with the promises and wants the Federal Government to conclusively remove it from the equation.

Several politicians could not contain themselves at the hearing.

Speaking over witnesses to argue with each other was common, and at several points the chair of the hearing, Senator Rex Patrick, asked for the sniping to stop, only to be ignored.

The Senate committee was in Shepparton to examine the management and execution of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

In attendance were Senators Bridget McKenzie, Perin Davey, Rex Patrick and Deborah O’Neill.

While Senator O’Neill was questioning the Goulburn Valley Environment Group, Senator McKenzie told Senator O’Neill to “stop trying to get the witness to say what you want them to say”.

When Senator O’Neill was remarking on the difference between testimonial heard in Deniliquin and Shepparton, Senator McKenzie said it was because Labor had failed NSW.

“McKenzie this isn’t helpful,” Senator Patrick had to interrupt, when the committee members started talking over one another again.

Several witnesses to the committee expressed their frustration with party politics, but Senator McKenzie and ALP Senator O’Neill traded interjections and critical remarks across the table.

Senator O’Neill asked several witnesses what they thought about the incumbent government’s inaction over the basin plan.

Some witnesses were loathe to be drawn into the party political debate and when Mr Leahy was asked if he blamed the current government, he at first said he was not going to blame anyone, but checked himself and said he blamed “all governments” for the state of the plan.

Speaking after the hearing, and asked if she would submit an amendment, Senator McKenzie said if she opened up a section of the Water Act for amendment, it could open up an opportunity for other parties to seek a change resulting in taking more water away.

“Once you open up a piece of legislation like the Water Act you also open it up to others who do not share a triple bottom line approach for water management,” she said.

Fruit grower Peter Hall turned the tables on the senators and asked Senator O’Neill if she would commit to abandoning the 450 Gl, but she replied she would not be making policy on the run.

VFF president Emma Germano came to the hearing concerned about how politicking was affecting any progress on improvements to the plan.

After hearing interjections and questions from the senators about who was to blame for the current state of the plan, Ms Germano said the panel was exploring which political arguments or how each political party engaged with the plan.

“We were trying to demonstrate that it was this attitude from our leaders that is one of the biggest problems with the plan,” she said.

“The plan is supposed to be non-partisan.”

In a re-assuring display of bipartisanship, Senator McKenzie said she took her hat off to the Victorian ALP Water Minister Lisa Neville for protecting irrigators in the state.

The committee membership on Thursday included independent South Australian Senator Rex Patrick and Nationals Senator Perin Davey.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is a member of the committee but did not attend the Deniliquin or Shepparton hearings.

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