So let’s, for just a moment, be fair to the Government.

Yes, the Government has managed more in six months than all previous governments. Yes, the previous Government did nothing about the over-allocation of the Murray-Darling (which is “allocated to hell”, according to Kevin Rudd, channelling the Duke again). And yes the new package of measures is a welcome step forward. The Government appears to have finally understood some of the urgency with which everyone else regards the issue.

The initiatives announced last night are in effect a speed-up of current processes. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission will complete an audit of both private and public storages — the information that everyone has complained has been missing from the debate so far. The audit will be reviewed by one of the big auditing firms.

The purchasing of water will be sped up, particularly in Queensland and South Australia with extra money available in Queensland, and the roll-out of water-saving infrastructure will be accelerated, including a pipeline from Tailem Bend to the Lower Lakes area to end the community’s reliance on the Lakes themselves for water.

These initiatives are unlikely to get to the Coorong the amount of water necessary, but it’s a start.

The most significant new elements of the initiatives are commitments to offer a premium to entire communities willing to move out of irrigation, offering the opportunity for potentially significant water rights purchases. Amy Hankinson from the Inland Rivers Network says there are communities that would be interested in such a shift if assistance is available to help the transition to non-irrigation based production.

The Government also committed to co-funding the purchase of properties as well as water rights in the northern basin, potentially tapping into existing storages that could be used immediately for environmental flows.

Co-funded, that is, with state governments.

Hmmm. Therein lies the problem. State governments aren’t merely the ones who f-cked the Murray-Darling in the first place, they continue to do everything in their power to resist the Commonwealth’s attempts to bring a system-wide perspective to its management. The idea of them signing up to spend money purchasing properties with the Commonwealth looks improbable at best.

Still, it’s not a bad idea. The first property they should look at buying is Cubbie Station. It would, sadly, reward the owners who have exploited the Queensland Government’s profligate approach to water management and ripped off countless downstream farmers and irrigators, but that’s the unfortunate reality we’re stuck with. (Images of Cubbie Station below. Notice the width of the drain channel compared to the Darling)

However, the package of measures does nothing to address the structural impediment posed by state governments to managing the Murray-Darling sustainably. Asa Wahlquist in The Australian has a spray today at the Queensland Government but it’s the Victorian Government, and its iniquitous adherence to its anti-competitive 4% water trading restriction, that is most responsible for this crisis, particularly as water from Victoria has much less distance to travel than water purchased up north. Let’s be clear about this: John Brumby’s 4% restriction — an anti-competitive mechanism designed to artificially lift water price for owners — is preventing purchases right now that could be sending water down to South Australia.

In response, Cabinet declared that “the Commonwealth will actively pursue the implementation of water reform initiatives necessary to ensure the lifting of the 4 per cent limit on water and the application of that limit on a consistent basis as soon as possible.” Mere words, which don’t get us anywhere closer than the notorious COAG “ambition” to lift the restriction to a whopping 6% earlier this year.

The Government is also still refusing to come at compulsory acquisition or loans of water rights. Nor has it expressed interest in determining whether the NSW Government is gaming circumstances around the Menindee Lakes.

Of equal concern is the performance of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission so far. It doesn’t say much for the body that is supposed to be shortly transformed into a new entity to manage the whole Basin sustainably. The Commission has been bureaucratic, cautious and feeble in handling the emerging crisis in the lower Murray — perfectly demonstrating the point Ross Gittins regularly makes about how the lack of “proprietary rights” in environmental issues prevents policy makers in a market economy from dealing adequately with problems.

Instead, it has taken a growing sense of outrage among South Australians — fuelled by a strong perception that other states are ripping off their water — to force the Government to look harder for solutions.

However, as Greens senator Rachel Siewert told us, the state government water allocation plans remain in place; the dominant role of the states in the management of the system remains in place, and the 4% trading restriction is still blocking water purchases. The structural causes of the problem are there, and unless they’re addressed we’ll be facing the same crisis, in the Coorong or somewhere else, in another year or two.

Peter Fray

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