The colonial governments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia met in Melbourne in 1863 to discuss a management plan for the Murray Darling Basin.

River Murray Commissioners and Staff before the first Commission meeting at the Department of Works and Railways in Melbourne on 14th February 1917. – From Left to Right: J.S. Dethridge (Victoria); H.H. Dare (New South Wales); Senator the Hon. P.J. Lynch

The conference concluded that the commerce, population, and wealth of Australia could be largely increased by rendering navigable and otherwise utilising the great rivers of the interior such as the Murray, Edward, Murrumbidgee and Darling.

There was nothing concrete decided, mind you. Just the agreement that something needed to be done. It would take the great drought of 1914-15, when memories were still fresh of the “Federation drought” from 1885 to 1902 which devastated bush and city communities at a time when the national economy depended almost entirely on agricultural production, for the three states and the Commonwealth to actually set up a joint management body.

The River Murray Waters Agreement, providing for the construction of a number of storages, weirs and locks was signed and on 14 February 1917. The first meeting of the River Murray Commission was held in Melbourne.

And the Commonwealth and the States have been talking about the problem ever since as the Brief History of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement on the Murray Darling Basin Commission website outlines in depressing detail.

Reading it leaves little doubt about why Prime Minister John Howard decided that if his government was to put in $10 billion to try and solve some of the river system’s problems that it should also be in charge. More than a century of “cooperation” between states has been an abject failure.

That state parochialism still reigns was put neatly by Victorian Premier Steve Bracks when he announced his alternative to the Howard management plan. What Howard proposed was not, said Premier Bracks, in the best interests of Victoria although he made no comment about the best interests of the nation as a whole.

As best I can work it out the reason is that NSW might have more of the federal money spent in its state than will go to Victoria with Bracks objecting to his state being penalised for spending more money in the past to improve irrigation practices than its counterpart across the border.

Prime Minister Howard now has to try and stop all such nonsense when he meets with the Premiers tomorrow. Perhaps commonsense will prevail but there are 143 years of history that says otherwise.

Peter Fray

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