'Don't export our rivers': Push for export ban on cotton
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'Don't export our rivers': Push for export ban on cotton

Australia should phase out exporting cotton within three years to save a Murray-Darling basin "in deep crisis", according to the Central Alliance party.

The South Australian-based party plans to introduce legislation into both houses of the Federal Parliament to amend the Export Control Act 1982 to ban the crop, circumventing complex jurisdictional controls between federal and state governments.

Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick says 'it's not in the national interest to export our river'.

Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick says 'it's not in the national interest to export our river'.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

"Something needs to be done and no-one's taking action," Rex Patrick, the Central Alliance's environment spokesman, said. "It's not in our national interest to export our river."

According to the alliance, the cotton industry accounts for about 27 per cent of the entire water allocation across the Murray-Darling basin, making it the biggest water extractor. About 90 per cent of the crop is exported.

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“Exporting cotton is like exporting water,” Senator Patrick said. "We are quite literally sucking the life blood out of the Murray-Darling river system at the expense of downstream food producers, the towns and cities dependent on our rivers for water supply, and the overall environmental health of the river system all the way to the Coorong lagoon in South Australia."

The Central Alliance demand comes days after the South Australia Royal Commission into the basin released a report highly critical of the "maladministration" of the $13 billion basin plan.

The report's failure to shift the Morrison government and basin states - Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia - was a key reason for the Central Alliance to proceed with its cotton export plan.

"The reaction, the disrespect, the dismissal and at best weak response [to the report by Commissioner Bret Walker SC] - you can see nothing will change," Senator Patrick said.

Still dying: a dead Murray Cod found near Weir 33 at Menindee on the lower Darling River on Monday February 4.

Still dying: a dead Murray Cod found near Weir 33 at Menindee on the lower Darling River on Monday February 4.Credit:Maree McCrabb

The proposal also comes after Menindee on the lower Darling River in far-western NSW last week suffered its third big fish kill in about five weeks. The latter two may well have killed more than 1 million fish each, including endangered silver perch and giant decades-old Murray cod.

Adam Kay, the chief executive of Cotton Australia, rejecting the Central Alliance's plan as "a dangerous political stunt".

The move was "not only an attack on our industry, but a reckless attack on rural communities
and hardworking Australian farmers," he said in a statement.

Michael Murray, general manager of Cotton Australia, stands near the dry cotton fields at Darling Farms near Bourke in January 2019.

Michael Murray, general manager of Cotton Australia, stands near the dry cotton fields at Darling Farms near Bourke in January 2019.Credit:Kate Geraghty

"We thoroughly condemn this move and call on the Federal Government and Labor to stand up for our farmers and denounce this outrageous assault on our industry."

Labor's support, though, is unlikely. Environment spokesman Tony Burke took to Twitter to state that the "key issue is for total water entitlements for irrigators" to be reduced, rather than the banning one crop's exports.

In a non-drought year, the industry employs up to 10,000 people and Australia is up among the top three cotton exporters, behind the US and India, according to Cotton Australia's website. Over the 2009-2014 period, the crop averaged $2 billion in annual value, it said.

But Senator Patrick has provided photographs of recent flights over cotton farms further up the river system in Queensland, such as the Bullamon Plains, where large areas have been sown and dams are full.

Bullamon Plains cotton farms, fed by the nearby Moonie River.

Bullamon Plains cotton farms, fed by the nearby Moonie River.Credit:Rex Patrick/Central Alliance

Rebekha Sharkie, the Central Alliance MP for Mayo in South Australia, said the latest fish kills on the lower Darling River and the fact that some townships are now without river water, left "no doubt that the Murray-Darling system is in deep crisis through over exploitation of water resources”.

“This is without question a consequence of gross mismanagement and the excessive diversion of water to support export cotton crops produced in Queensland and western New South Wales," she said.

Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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