The first of a scheduled 23 community consultations by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority kicked off today in Shepparton. The future of water allocation in the MDB will thus be first discussed in a town most recently in the news because of flooding.

There are a number of issues to bear in mind as this consultation process rolls out and the issue drops from the headlines.

  • There’s a false divide between cities and regions on water. The Federal Government has been driving the development of a cross-border water market — furiously resisted by the states — for several years, but in major cities, state governments refuse to price water efficiently, instead relying on the politically-palatable mechanisms of regulation to curb water use, and infrastructure funded without user charges. What’s good for regional communities is, in effect, not good enough for residential water usage in cities. This hypocrisy undermines investment in water efficiency and recycling technology.
  • If you hear the words “food security”, reach for your gun. Almost certainly, whoever is using it has an interest to protect or promote, along with the media outlets and journalists who unthinkingly repeat it. As the Productivity Commission has shown, the “food security” line in the water debate is a myth — irrigated agriculture only forms 12% of our agricultural produce, of which we export 60% anyway. Talk about food security is particularly rich coming from Barnaby Joyce, who is in effect the Senator for Cubbie Station. Cubbie sequesters nearly 470 GL of overland flows — much of which would otherwise enter the rivers of northern NSW and the MDB — to produce Australia’s largest crop — not of food of any kind, but of cotton.
  • The Coalition’s ability to play a constructive role in the water debate is fatally undermined by Joyce, whose conflict of interest is apparent to all. Tony Abbott’s should end this bizarre juxtaposition on water policy of the South Australian Simon Birmingham and the wingnut Queenslander — as if, somehow, between them they’d average out into a policy acceptable across the Coalition and the Basin. If he can’t bring himself to promote Birmingham, who under any sensible process of developing talent would be being groomed as future Senate leader, then Abbott should at least install as senior minister a National who isn’t so painfully conflicted as Joyce is. He should also find a role for Bill Heffernan, who knows more about water issues than most of the rest of us put together.
  • Failing that, Abbott can simply be oppositional, run a scare campaign on food prices and thereby condemn the MDB to death by political paralysis.
  • Cubbie Station is only the symptom of a more basic problem in Queensland — an unwillingness to take responsibility for water regulation by state and some local governments. This is having more than economic consequences for some communities: as Crikey reported in July, unregulated levee construction in the St George area by farmers and irrigators keen to divert overland flows for their own use has increased the size of floodwater levels during major rain events, threatening property, livestock and lives. As the National Water Commission pointed out last year, the Queensland, NSW and Victorian Governments seemingly have minimal interest in trying to find out exactly what the scale is of illegal water diversion going on.
  • Irrigators must be pressed to identify the reduction in water allocations that they support. It was noticeable on the weekend that irrigator representatives were loathe to nominate a figure, preferring to concentrate (not unreasonably) on the methodology that led the MDBA to suggest significant cuts to water allocations across the Basin would only lead to 800 job losses. But vague commitments to making the Murray-Darling sustainable, without identifying what reductions in allocations they regard as acceptable is reminiscent of prominent businesses declaring support for a carbon price but then objecting strongly to any model the Government comes up with.
  • Most of all, this is all about hidden costs. We are supporting regional communities and keeping irrigated agriculture produce prices lower through unsustainable water allocations. The cost of that over-allocation may be being kept out of sight because it is borne by the environment and diffused among communities downstream, but it is there nonetheless, and it is growing. Failing to take action to address over-allocation won’t wish those costs away. There’s no free lunch here, nor magic solutions.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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