Our political leaders — at least, the Prime Minister, the Premiers of NSW, Victoria and South Australia, and the mayor of Canberra — issued a statement yesterday on the Murray-Darling Basin.

It abounded with words like “serious”, “deteriorated”, “below average”, “severe problems”, and “low availability”. It painted a bleak picture of a system that was under extreme stress and which needed prioritisation of critical needs.

It also merited the perhaps over-worked rejoinder “no sh-t, Sherlock.” Thanks guys — even we city folks had noticed that the Murray-Darling is up sh-t creek. In fact, pretty much is a sh-t creek at the moment. And the communities living along the river have to live that reality every day.

The very last sentence at the end of the statement was illuminating. These joint statements have an interesting way of burying the bad news and dodges:

In managing the impacts of dry conditions, water trading markets should be used to the maximum extent possible.

What it should have read was “to the maximum extent that John Brumby will allow.” Which is 4%.

Oh, sorry, I forgot that there’s an “ambition” to move this to 6% in a couple of years. If John Brumby and the irrigators — who benefit financially from the water trading cap, which forces up water prices — allow it.

The sight of politicians issuing statements abounding with concern and recognition of the gravity of the environmental problems unfolding about us but then doing precisely nothing about it because it will upset industry or key constituencies is probably going to become a lot more common in coming decades.

Perhaps we should call this sort of statement a “murraydarling”, because it’s been going on longest there, for well over a decade. But in future we can probably expect our politicians to deplore the dearth of rain in south-eastern Australia, or the slow death of the Great Barrier Reef, with similar expressions of concern and commitments, couched in suitable bureaucratese, to immediately establish a plan to look at doing something.

Malcolm Turnbull kept up the attack on the Government’s Green Paper over the weekend — Brendan Nelson presumably having jumped on his bike and gone back on holiday. Turnbull’s comments come from pretty much the same mindset as that which evidently informed the Government while it was drafting the paper — this must be a scheme that doesn’t impose any pain on anyone. Turnbull labelled parts of the proposed scheme as “absurd” — quite correctly — but you get the impression his fix would be to make it even softer on industry.

Yes, it’s hard Malcolm — and Kevin and Penny and Wayne — for politicians to impose pain on the community or industry. We know that goes contrary to every fibre of your political being, and it’s easy for people like us who will never face an election in our lives to bag you for cowardice. But you can’t keep declaring in abstract that emissions trading must impose hardship, but then ensure each sector that complains gets looked after.

That is truly winning every battle and losing the war. This is already a scheme that will operate at 70% capacity — in fact, take another 15% for transport in the early years of the scheme. It will operate at just over half capacity until someone down the track, a leader with guts, gets us to 100% auctioning of permits.

Rudd told Greg Sheridan in an anodyne interview for the few pages of the Weekend Oz not given over to WYD propaganda that he wasn’t overly hopeful of an international climate change agreement any time soon. It doesn’t take too much pessimism, merely some downbeat realism, to suspect that humankind isn’t going to do anywhere near enough about climate change, especially if some of the gloomier projections turn out to be right.

Which, as Ross Garnaut has pointed out, is particularly bad news for Australia. The Green Paper talks airily about adaptation being one the pillars of the Government’s approach to climate change but there’s not much evidence it is taking that seriously. Apart from emissions trading, we need a national Plan B to help us adapt to a significantly hotter, drier continent.

This isn’t so much an environmental issue as a basic economic issue, because some of our fundamental production inputs will be changing significantly. The most significant of these will be water — we need to change the way we manage our water in order to…

Oh, hang on… that’s where I came in.

Maybe we should all move to New Zealand.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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