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Weatherill pours cold water on Xenophon's Murray deal

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The State Government says Senator Nick Xenophon’s horse trading on River Murray flows has done nothing to allay its fears about the Federal Government walking away from its previous commitments.

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The South Australian senator has struck a deal on the Murray with the Federal Government in return for his support for legislation to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which passed the Senate today.

Xenophon had threatened to hold up the legislation restoring the building industry watchdog unless the government committed to the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s goal of delivering an extra 450 gigalitres of water to restore the health of the Murray River.

However, in negotiations with the Federal Government he secured an agreement from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to strengthen scrutiny of the basin plan.

Turnbull has written to Premier Jay Weatherill outlining details of the deal, including an agreement that progress of the plan would become a standing item at every COAG meeting.

The Federal Government has also agreed to establish a special estimates process to be held twice yearly in addition to the usual portfolio hearing, enabling Senate scrutiny of all the relevant agencies to review the progress of the river.

Weatherill said today that the deal-making had done nothing to allay his concerns that federal Water Minister Barnaby Joyce was walking away from the plan.

“Nothing I’ve seen in the past 24 hours satisfies our demands,” Weatherill said in a statement.

“All along, the Government has wanted the Murray Darling Basin Plan delivered in full and on time. This includes a detailed implementation plan with projects that deliver the environmental benefits promised under the Plan.

“Importantly, I don’t believe the Federal Water Minister is committed to implementing the plan. Just yesterday, Mr Joyce dismissed the Murray Darling Basin Plan as ‘a Labor plan’.”

He promised to fight for South Australia’s interests at next week’s COAG to ensure “SA gets every drop of water guaranteed under the plan”.

Xenophon responded to the criticism today by harking back to his role in negotiations over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan seven years ago when he secured a better deal for the state than Labor initially proposed.

“What occurred yesterday … was a commitment that the plan will be delivered on time, in full to ensure that those environmental flows would occur,” he told reporters.

Xenophon dismissed as “ridiculous” Labor claims he had backed down on his demands.

The Greens accused Xenophon of “squibbing it”, while Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong had a message for her SA colleague.

“I know having a few more votes gives you a lot more capacity to lean on Malcolm Turnbull but don’t forget where you came from,” she told reporters.

“South Australians expected you to stand up for the River Murray.”

Xenophon said he would not be lectured.

“I don’t need to remind Senator Wong about the negotiations I had with her on water in 2009 and how hard I fought,” he said.

“Senator Wong needs to look in her own backyard when it comes to issues of the lack of rigour in the plan.”

Meanwhile, the legislation to restore the building industry watchdog cleared the Senate today, thanks for Xenophon’s support.

The ABCC was first established by the Howard Coalition government in 2005 and replaced by Labor in 2007. It followed the passage last week of legislation establishing a registered organisations commission – the other bill used to trigger the July 2 double-dissolution federal election.

– with AAP

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