Some had come across the border from New South Wales, but most were not far from the homes they had lived in for decades.
- Politicians face a hostile crowd in Mooroopna where farmers think the food bowl has turned to a dustbowl
- The gathering hears stories of how farmers are being forced to sell off entire dairying herds
- There are calls for a rethink on the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan
There were dairy farmers and fruit growers among the 100-strong crowd and a few who were still growing crops. Others had just given up on farming.
They gathered beside a fruit-packing shed at Mooroopna in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley in the hot, late-morning sun at the invitation of their local Nationals MP Damian Drum.
The former AFL coach became a darling of his party when at the last election he delivered it an additional seat in the House of Representatives.
Murray, which at this year’s election will change its name to Nicholls, was once home to Country Party legend Black Jack McEwen, but for the two decades from 1996 had been held by Liberals stalwart Sharman Stone.
Mr Drum had brought Agriculture and Water resources Minister David Littleproud and his special drought envoy, Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, to northern Victoria to discuss the impact of drought.
Mr Drum acknowledged that the area hadn’t actually been drought-declared, but it didn’t matter.
Complaints boil over
From the get go, it was clear the meeting was going to be about water, and how expensive and scarce it had become.
It was also going to be about those irrigators who felt they had been left high and dry after decades of reform at state and federal level.
“It’s bullshit,” yelled one man just moments into the meeting. “It’s not rain, it’s water. You’ve taken our water away, we see it in the reservoirs, we’re nearly rooted.”
With an arm across his forehead to block the sun, a 60-something farmer who said he “fell out of the cradle milking cows” called for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to intervene.
“There are people here going out the back door. This is a serious problem. Why can’t ScoMo talk about it?”
For close to two hours the complaints boiled over and some voices boomed from the crowd as though spoiling for a fight.
Struggling to be heard at times, Mr Drum said he was acutely aware of the pressure irrigators faced.
But for the most part the MPs listened rather than spoke.
A dairy farmer with a young family explained how “at the moment the future is bleak, dire straits actually”.
Someone called out “our food bowl has become a dust bowl”.
One man suggested the Government invest in buying water that could be on-sold at a discounted rate to irrigators.
“Let us grow something, we’ll create the jobs, you’ll see the value returned three-fold,” he suggested.
Others took aim at state policy which, years ago, allowed water to be traded separately to land.
Time to reflect on Basin Plan
Its legacy, according to those who had gathered, was that corporates and speculators had priced mum and dad farmers out.
Others used the catch cry “pause the plan,” — a desperate plea to take a breath and reflect on where half of the $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan had left communities up and down the river system.
When Mr Littleproud finally spoke, he told the crowd: “I get it.”
But a young man yelled back: “I don’t think you do.”
“The easy thing for me would be to come here and tell you want you want to hear and fly out,” Mr Littleproud said.
“But what I am telling you is the plan that we’ve got isn’t perfect, but be careful what you wish for.
“There are forces that do not want the plan we’ve got at the moment. They want a bigger plan and that is the political reality.”
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The meeting was hostile and few complaints seemed new, but they kept coming.
Farmers cheered each other on, as more people grew brave enough to tell the politicians what was really going on.
They spoke about rising unemployment and farmers selling off entire dairy herds.
Heads would nod in unison, as if to say ‘we won’t take this, we won’t be forgotten, our livelihoods matter’.
That message was clear, but the path forward less so.
As the politicians left to catch their flights one dairy farmer was asked what she had made of the meeting. After a moment’s contemplation, with her head bowed, she said: “It won’t change a thing.”