Murray-Darling: keep the pollies away
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.
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