I sat through yesterday’s COAG press conference and want to comment on one of the “outcomes” — water. The other COAG agendas are for others to judge.

For me yesterday’s COAG was a test of whether our Federation is capable of managing Australia’s water resources. They failed again. Once again there was an historic agreement on water reform at this COAG. Instead of accelerating water reform all Australia got from was yet another agreement to yet another plan to fix the Murray Darling Basin.

The Prime Minister and Premiers made it sound complex and difficult when we all know what needs to be done.

Instead of another announcement to sign another agreement to do yet another plan, our Prime Minister and our Premiers should have dramatically fast tracked the $3 billion acquisition of environmental water.

That would have allowed people who wish to exit the irrigation industry to do so with dignity, in their time of greatest need, and at the same time it would have helped secure the long term needs of the river. Once that process is in place, they could then have used the $7 billion to build a regional investment package underneath, to support those rural communities transition to a new system.

It’s that simple. They had an opportunity to fix a river system. And they baulked. Blocking progress won’t fix anything. The losers are our rivers and irrigators who are struggling to cope with the financial crisis they are now facing.

As for Premier Brumby’s role, Victoria has some of the most unhealthy rivers in Australia and these reforms would have led to significant long-term improvement in the health of these rivers, and also the Murray. This money would have also provided immediate financial support to struggling Victorian irrigators at the time they most need our support.

The current state of the Murray is the endplay of the shameful history of the management of Australia’s greatest river system and it brings into question whether our governments and our constitutional arrangements are capable of managing Australia’s water resources. Of the 23 rivers in the Murray Darling Basin, only one, the Paroo, is in good health.

We know that the dams that feed the Murray, apart from Burrinjuck, are close to empty, and once again the irrigation season opens along the Murray in July with effectively a zero allocation.

We know that many irrigators borrowed money last year to tide them over last year’s lack of water. If water doesn’t come down the system this year, I think we can read between the lines what that will mean for many of these people.

From an environmental perspective, just look to the catastrophe that’s happening in the Coorong, an international wetland of global significance, at the bottom end of the Murray.

For me there was one positive outcome from the meeting: the Commonwealth has agreed to support Premier Rann’s urgent intervention to avert an ecological catastrophe at the end of the Murray in the Coorong and Lower Lakes.

I would now encourage Premier Rann to take personal control of the lower lakes – because how to fix it is far from settled. The last thing we need is a war between the local communities around the lakes and the bureaucrats in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. South Australia needs to take control of its own destiny and make a decision.

Of course the Federal government did not cause the problem, the State’s pursuit of their narrow self interest and short term thinking did.

However the reason that the political heat is on the Federal government is simply because nobody believes the states are capable of fixing their mistakes without a big stick from Canberra.

The Premiers had an opportunity to put the national interest ahead of parochial short term politics in managing Australia’s water resources. But they didn’t.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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