Indi MP Helen Haines has been accused of betraying regional communities by supporting changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
But the independent member says she has improved accountability and support for impacted communities by successfully amending the government's bill.
Changes to the plans have passed the House of Representatives 85 votes to 50, setting up a Senate showdown on the reform. The laws would put in place a new plan with all basin states, except for Victoria, after it was revealed the old agreement was not on track to meet its water recovery targets.
The original proposal aimed to return 450 gigalitres of additional water to the environment by June 2024, but the new laws would push back the deadline to December 2027. The Murray-Darling plan outlines the amount of water that can be taken from the basin each year, while allowing for an environmentally sustainable amount to remain.
Dr Haines said her four successful amendments related to providing reviews of compensation payments and strengthening the independent auditing powers of the Inspector General of Water Compliance.
"This Labor government doesn't always get it right when it comes to regional Australia, so I worked hard to negotiate with the minister to get a better outcome for Indi and for regional Australia," she said.
Dr Haines also moved amendments explicitly stating that buybacks are targeted from across the whole Basin, but the government did not agree. The Indi MP is working with independent Senate colleagues to further this debate.
"If additional water is to be purchased, it must be from the where it is most effective rather than from where it is easiest," she said.
"Water policy is complex and contested. Delivering water when there are competing needs of agriculture, river communities and the environment is challenging."
While the laws passed the lower house, the coalition and Greens have criticised the proposal, meaning its passage through the Senate is uncertain.
Nationals leader David Littleproud said regional communities had been betrayed and torn apart in the Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023, supported by Dr Haines.
"Dr Haines supported more buybacks, just minutes after telling Parliament how harmful buybacks would be in her region," Mr Littleproud said.
"It doesn't matter if water is taken from the north or south - this bill will hurt regional Australians and impact food prices at the checkout for Australian families."
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the new plan would allow for more money and accountability for the scheme.
"With these changes, we're opening up the full suite of water recovery options we'll be able to invest in," she told parliament on Wednesday.
"Water purchase is never the only tool in the box, it's not the first tool at hand, but it has to be one of them."
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The government has faced criticism for the proposed voluntary water buybacks as part of the scheme.
Water buybacks allow farmers to sell their water directly to the government, but have been criticised for their ability to distort water prices and drive up the operating costs of farms.
Member for Riverina Michael McCormack said the passage of the bill was a "dark day for irrigation communities".
"Not only does this have a direct impact on prime agricultural farmland's access to water allocations, but the whole community's economy suffers - people sell their water allocations and leave, meaning less business for local cafes, hairdressers, mechanics and grocery stores," the Nationals MP said.
Mr McCormack strongly urged the government to reconsider water buybacks to achieve its additional 450 gigalitres environmental flow target.
"I crossed the floor in 2012 over water buybacks because all these amendments will do is distort the water market and drive people out of river communities," he said.
Member for Farrer Sussan Ley used Griffith as an example of one of the communities that would be among the hardest hit by the plan as she joined the debate on the issue in Parliament on Tuesday evening.
The Liberal MP accused the government of failing to visit the Murray-Darling Basin to consult with communities and said members of the Coalition's backbench met with 150 people at a recent meeting in Griffith.
"They couldn't believe that they were facing something as desperate as the very future of their town and region," she said.
As part of the legislation, an annual progress report would be carried out to show whether water recovery targets were being met.
The Greens, who have previously threatened to block the laws, abstained from the lower house vote, saying the party would reach its final position on the proposal following a Senate inquiry.
with Australian Associated Press
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