When politicians tell you that issues are “above politics” and that they’ll “end the politicking”, your bullshit detector should be twirling like a low-carbon wind turbine.
The fact that the ALP and Coalition chose to release their policies for the Murray-Darling Basin in South Australia, and then riddled the rhetoric with issues pertinent to that state, tells much of the story. The story concludes with a marginal seats map, showing why the balance of the basin is effectively ignored.
Make no mistake; the future of the Murray-Darling Basin and its communities is being played out in the suburbs of Adelaide — a city that is over an hour’s drive from the Murray River.
The centrepiece of the Labor policy announced on Tuesday this week was a massive extension of the purchasing program that has transferred water entitlements from productive use to environmental use via the market. The announcement was generally welcomed by irrigators as it nears a goal that they’ve sought for 25 years — recognition of water entitlements as a property right.
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The unusual part of the policy was its lack of costing. In an election allegedly dominated by fiscal conservatism, an unfunded promise that even on the most conservative estimate stretches to billions of dollars seems at least unusual.
The genesis of the issue lies in the “independence” of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. That body is tasked with drawing a basin plan under the auspices of the Water Act. The plan will determine how much water is to be removed, in each valley, from productive use. It was to be released in early July but was delayed until August. Citing caretaker conventions (although refusing to specify which part and currently not responding to an FoI request for the legal advice it obtained), the authority has delayed the release until after the election.
On Tuesday, authority chairman Mike Taylor told an audience of northern basin water users that some information was too important to be a “political football”. Of course, Mike — you wouldn’t want people knowing their future when they cast their ballot, would you?
Independent? That bullsh-t detector is powering a small town by now …
The Coalition released its policy on Wednesday — in South Australia again. It contained the wonderfully crafted line “the future of the Murray-Darling should not and cannot be a choice between the environment and agriculture”. The only problem with that, of course, is that it is a choice between those two. Water can be used for one of two purposes — watering agricultural production or environmental assets. The future of the Murray-Darling Basin — and communities from Dalby in Queensland to Murray Bridge in South Australia — is permanently shackled to that choice.
The path to water reform in Australia started with the National Water Initiative, an Inter-Governmental Agreement executed by all states and territories. The centrepiece was the commitment to optimise the economic, social and environmental outcomes of our water resources. That aim survives in the objects of the Water Act, but nowhere else.
The big issue that has been missed in this campaign is how we, as a nation, will determine where the line is — does the environment take absolute precedence, or can we find balance? Who will make that choice — will it solely be those in marginal seats in Adelaide, or do the rest of us get a say?
The authority has made this election a detail-free zone, leaving politics to be the only interested party — which puts South Australia in charge to the detriment of all.