Today we have one of the biggest stories in the nation’s history. And it isn’t even on the front page of most of today’s newspapers, nor is it heading many news bulletins. I can hardly believe it.

No, I’m not talking about Collingwood football players, or Canberra political gamesmanship (although it is certainly relevant to that), or even the state of the dollar. I’m talking about the imminent release of the Murray Darling Basin plan, which is tipped to recommend average cuts to irrigation water use of more than a third — and more than that in some regions.

The plan, two years in the making, is the result of the first exercise ever in asking the vital question: what is sustainable use of this nation’s major river system? It has been an immense research undertaking.

And we knew, or should have known, that the answer would be “something very different to what we are doing now”. But how do we deal with that — with the human suffering, the wholesale changes to land use,  the unequal distribution of punishment for 200 years of mismanagement and ignorance and political stuff ups and lack of will? This is a story about fairness.

The results of the plan’s findings in terms of rural communities, the ability of Australia to continue as one of the few nations able to grow all its own food, and the national economy, let alone individual suffering, are immense. This is a story about our future.

I know this is a topic in which I have a particular and long-term interest, but still I can hardly believe how the story is being underplayed — or written up as though it were only about Julia Gillard and the Greens and  political games.

This story matters as much as the mining industry, and more than the mining super profits tax. It matters as much as any story about any business, industry or indeed environmental issue.

This is a story about how we exist in this nation. It is about history and the future. It is a landmark moment in our nation’s history.

The ABC breakfast program this morning did a reasonable job, thanks to Greg Borschmann. I was depressed to hear Michelle Grattan talk only about what it would mean for Gillard.

The Financial Review has solid coverage. So too The Australian. Coverage in The Age does not start until page 5, and the tabloids leave it almost entirely alone.

Am I alone in feeling that the nation’s landmark news and current events publications and programs should be throwing open their pages and their air time to this yarn? Special programs, live crosses, the lot?

Am I wrong in thinking that it is being underplayed merely because the locus of distress is west of Glebe?

Here’s a plea to my colleagues. Get across the issue. Do better when the plan is released. This is one story that is not spectator sport. This is that rare thing — a story that really matters, and where our reporting can make a real difference.

Peter Fray

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