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Jun 3, 2011

Murray-Darling: keep the pollies away

The latest Murray-Darling report shows why politicians can't be trusted with serious policy-making.

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The House of Reps Regional Australia committee’s report on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a showcase example of why politicians shouldn’t be let near serious policy making.

Hastily put together by a panicked — well, more panicked than usual — Government after it hopelessly mismanaged the response to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority guide, the Committee brought together a number of regional MPs, led by Tony Windsor, to channel community anger away from Labor.

The result is more or less what you’d expect if you asked a bunch of politicians to develop a policy on an intensely divisive and complex social, economic and environmental issue.

The most bizarre aspect of the committee report is the lengths to which it goes to berate the Murray-Darling Basin Authority over how it handled the release of the Guide.  The Authority, indeed, could have done a better job of explaining itself, but the Committee devotes an entire chapter to complaining about how the Authority allowed itself to be misinterpreted, leading to intense anger in MDB communities — remember the footage of those idiots burning copies of the Guide?

The Committee complains:

A common and significant misconception about the Guide is that it is the actual Basin Plan. However, the Guide is simply an expression of the MDBA’s thinking and methodology behind the preparation of a proposal. It is nothing more than a complex discussion paper. The Guide has no official status in regards to the Basin Plan that will be put to Parliament for consideration… However, the mode used by the MDBA to prepare and communicate the Guide did nothing to disabuse a common view that it was the final proposal.

The report goes on to chip the MDBA for, among other sins:

  • “presenting the Guide as a glossy, full colour print document and calling it a Guide to the Basin Plan, rather than a discussion paper or working document”
  • “presenting the Guide to the community through a series of ‘community information sessions’ rather than consultative workshops”
  • “failing to address misconceptions about the intent of the Basin Plan”.

In contrast, the report describes the “warm welcome” the Committee received, and how constructive communities were when the Committee consulted with them. Politicians and sensible, mature rural communities 1, out-of-touch bureaucrats and their glossy documents 0.

By the time the report chides the the Authority because it “repeatedly and consciously failed to adequately articulate how the Basin Plan would be realised once it passed the Commonwealth Parliament”, it feels like we’re in a particularly obscure Python sketch.

Let’s go back to the original document that so enraged communities. It’s called A Guide to the Proposed Basin Plan, which might have told even the casual reader that it was, um, a guide, for a proposed plan. The very first words of the document, in the introduction to the executive summary, are “the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (the Authority) is preparing the Guide to the proposed Basin Plan to present proposals to the community for discussion.”

Two paras later, the Authority says “the Authority is interested in the views of the community and stakeholders on the proposals in the Guide and on the quality of data and evidence used and the analysis that has been undertaken. The Authority will consider any feedback in finalising the Basin Plan.”

Just how much clearer did the MDBA have to be about what the purpose of the document was? What of course it didn’t figure on was irrigators, politicians and the media trying to whip up a frenzy about the document in an attempt — now plainly successful — to derail the only serious effort in Australian history to sustainably manage the Murray-Darling Basin.

The only serious mistakes the MDBA made were to treat communities as intelligent adults capable of reading the first paragraph of a document, and failing to be aware of the agendas of other players in the process to confuse, obscure and attack.

The other example of why you should never let politicians near policy making is that the overall recommendations of the report are that water buybacks should be dramatically cut back — indeed, it recommends the Government “immediately cease all non-strategic water purchase in the Murray-Darling Basin”. Instead, the committee wants a dramatic ramping-up of irrigation infrastructure investment.

Irrigation investment is the pain-free solution to the MDB’s woes. It reduces water loss, freeing up some water for the environment. Irrigators like it because it’s effectively a handout of capital to them to upgrade their infrastructure. Communities like it because it means areas don’t have water allocations sold away and it injects money into the local economy.

Trouble is, as the Productivity Commission has found, it’s also far more expensive than buying water. Last year, the PC looked at mechanisms for recovering water, and concluded:

Recent experience is that the cost per ML of government efforts to recover water for the environment through infrastructure upgrades is highly variable, but in most cases exceeds the cost for recovery through purchasing… the Australian Government may pay up to four times as much for recovering environmental water through infrastructure upgrades than through water purchases…  Funding irrigation infrastructure upgrades is generally not a cost-effective way for governments to recover water for the environment.

The PC also anticipated the argument that irrigation investment by government supports regional communities, pointing out there were most cost-effective ways of supporting communities as well.

Did the Committee acknowledge the PC’s criticisms in any way? The PC is only referenced once in the whole report, with a reference on water buybacks from a separate report. Instead, the Committee report serves up a bunch of anecdotes about great infrastructure investment can be, mostly sourced — you’ll never guess — from irrigators.

And just as an aside, here’s a nice example of media double standards. The whole MDB water initiative is costing billions of dollars. We’ve seen how the media reacts to claims of inefficiency in other big government programs, even when independent bodies like the ANAO discredit them.

We’ve seen the froth-mouthed fury from The Australian and the ABC’s “Online Investigation Unit” and 4 Corners over programs like the HIP and the BER — remember claims that the implementation of the BER saw NSW paying a whole 6% more for its construction than other states?

So why haven’t we seen 80 times the media outrage about a program where, according to the Productivity Commission, billions are being wasted on spending initiatives that are four times more expensive than alternatives? What, doesn’t fit the media’s preferred narrative? Forget about it!

Of course a bunch of politicians like irrigation investment in the MDB. They get to hand out money. No one has to make hard decisions, like those communities that have already become more productive and efficient in their water use (which, to its credit, the Committee includes some reference to). The only people out of pocket are taxpayers, and they don’t know about it.

On the other hand, to give the Committee a little more credit, they have wisely called for the mining industry to be placed under the same obligations are other water users and for no further mining activities affecting water resources to be approved within the Basin until the impact is understood and mitigated. This is one issue of which regional and rural MPs are much more aware than the rest of us.

The clash between mining and agriculture, and the communities the latter supports, is only going to get worse and governments have already been too reactive in curbing the insatiable demands and negligence of mining companies.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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68 thoughts on “Murray-Darling: keep the pollies away

  1. AR

    Just to get this into perspective, the MIA is own main inappropriate farming area, growing really high value stuff like RICE, FFS!, of which we vainly attempt to export/dump >90% at reduced prices into Asia (most of which has some slight experience with the crop) coz we eat so little. A monsoon climate crop (actually rice can be grown as a dry crop, just like wheat & other grains but the yield is 1/4 of flooded paddy) grown in an arid area.
    The majority of the MDB (excluding the obscenity that is Cubby – why, oh WHY didn’t the Feds buy it during the drought?!?, now the bastards are gonna rip another couple of years of cotton out of the flood plain withheld dams before going broke AGAIN) tends to use its waters for broad acre grazing, in the Western Division which has an evaporation rate rivaling the Sahara to produce meat, the vast majority (>70%) of which we export.
    In plain terms, we mine our water, and depleted soils, to export at least 3/4 of our agricultural output.
    I can’t believe the way the meeja repeats the refrain of ‘world’s most efficient farmers’ – like most BigBiz polluters and environmental rapists, it only <I?seems efficient to the ignorant, purblind or innumerate of the Raving Right who ALWAYS privatise profits and socialise losses when their unsustainable methods come up against reality.
    ABARE’s figures, read by anyone with half a brain and no ideological bias, show that Oz soil mining, west of the GDR (and what ever the equivalent is in WA) is a losing game.

  2. beetwo77

    So lets have a look at some information from the natonal water commission for your all the commentators out there telling us city folk to fix the problem with desal, pumping, less water use, our tax dollars on your infrastructure etc…

    – agriculture uses anywhere from 50-65 % of all water consumed in australia
    – households use abou 12 % and this is decreasing
    – the murray darling basin uses around 50% of all water consumed in Australia even though this area has only 6% of Australias surface water reserves

    source http://www.nwc.gov.au/www/html/236-water-use-in-australia.asp.

    Yet we are the problem? And yes us city folk consume much of the output from the MDB that the water consumption is driven by but…

    According to ABARE, export of Australian agricultural products accounts for about 60 % of the value of production. It doesn’t go into details about quantities etc and there has been some significant debate about the accuracy of these figures. But lets assume that this figure is in the ball park and that say 50% + agricultural production in the MDB is exported, you want me to pay for infrastructure out of my taxation dollars while I implement water and energy efficiency measures in my house at my expense so MDB producers can export 30 + % our environmental quality overseas and somehow this is in the ‘national interest’? I’m fairly certain this is only in the interest of irrigators in the MDB who have known for about 80 years that the river was deteriorating and that something drastic would be done some day to sort the mess out.

  3. fredex

    Wrong again.
    Another furphy.

    Some time ago Bernard here had the actual figures for the food produced by irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin.
    Its minimal, nowhere near the quantities that the irrigation lobby allows people to think.
    The “food bowl’ of SE Australia produces most of its food without irrigation.

    The main crop produced by irrigation along the river is money.

    Think along the lines of a hydroponic system in a semi-desert growing dollar notes for export.

    The wrong crops grown in the wrong places for the wrong reasons using the wrong methods.
    Grapes for example.
    There is a glut of grapes in Australia and quality wine producing grape vines are being bulldozed elsewhere because their value has dropped in recent years on the world market.
    But huge quantities of water are sprayed onto dry land on stinking hot windy days just to keep vines alive along the river. Only some of that water gets to the plants but hey, who cares.
    They have lots of water you see.
    The water seeps into the water table collecting salt and other nasties [fertilizers,insecticides] and back into the river and has to be removed at taxpayer expense before its fit for humans to drink.

    Look CA you appear to be regurgutating myths and furphies emanating from the irrigation lobby.
    You need to think outside the box and inform yourself of the reality not the spin.
    If you wish to continue the furphies thats your right but please don’t address them to me, I’ve heard them all before and its boring.
    Sorry to be so harsh but …

  4. fredex

    Sorry Competitive Australia but you are completely wrong.
    You have been sold a furphy.

    Desal is an enormously expensive environmentally destructive method of obtaining tiny irrelevant quantities of water in the wrong places at the wrong times for the wrong reasons and if all such minimal volumes of water was put into the river [which won’t happen] or used to replace water taken out of the river [which won’t happen] then the effect on the river will be virtually zero.

    The same applies for all other furphies [storm water capture for example] that are used by the irrigation lobby to hide the reality.

    So much water is taken out of the river by irrigators that there is not enough for the river.

    Thats the numbers.

    We must decrease the quantity of water taken out of the river by irrigators.
    We won’t [at least not in any meaningful quantities] and so the river will continue to degrade taking its toll on all other users [there are more people involved than just irrigators you know] including the irrigators themselves and we will only begin to wake up after irreversible damage has been done.
    We are probably at that point already of the damage I mean, not the awareness.

    The temporary respite that is current due to abnormally excellent rains of the past year, will be wiped out as the normal inflow returns which is well below sustainable levels for irrigation, urban and domestic needs, torism and recreation and last and least of all the river itself.

    People forget, or deliberately ignore, that in 2005 the dams along the river were near 100% full and yet within 18 months and for years thereafter until late last year the river was emptying, lagoons were dried out, irrigators were on quotas because there was insufficient water for their voracious apetites, tourism economy suffered and the river was dramatically degraded.

    That scenario will reoccur in the near future.

    Unless we dramatically decrease irrigation.

    Which ain’t gonna happen.

  5. Acidic Muse

    Yeah, good idea Bernard. More media outrage is exactly what we need isn’t it.

    The primary reason this issue got so bent out of shape in the first place was the media response to a staged book burning. “Outrage” became the narrative because the media made it so. Because large sections of the Australian media obsessively masturbate over controversy as if were celebrity dwarf porn.

    Whether it’s putting a price on carbon, the mining tax debate or this one, most of the Australian media will always be inextricably drawn to placing whatever stage-managed outrage contrived by vested interests makes the best emotive content for the six o’clock News.

    But of course, like most journalists, you speak with a line that it’s all the politicians fault that we can’t have a serious substantive, thoughtful and mutually respectful public discourse around issues of such great importance to our nation’s future.

    How on earth can you criticise politicians for being reactive when large sections of the Australian media are constantly beating them around the head with whatever often completely contrived outrage that gets handed to them in a press kit by a vested interest group?

    For cooler heads to prevail in these debates, we actually need journalists to start focusing less on calling the horse race, less on the bumper sticker slogans, less on the hysterical theatrics and the politics of personal attrition … and more on the substance of the issues at hand viewed through the prism of our national interest, not how they impact the latest poll results.

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