The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been overwhelmed by numbers attending its ‘consultation’ sessions in towns across the Basin. While media reports have focused on them being “angry” and “burning copies of the plan”, the vast majority of the thousands that have turned up have been there to listen and to show their concern by numbers.

Who could blame them? From Dalby in Queensland to Murray Bridge in South Australia, towns exist because agricultural use of water to produce food and fibre provides an economic base. Remove that base and you remove the town, their business and their family home. These people know that there are only so many times the town hall can be painted with ‘structural adjustment’ funding. Take away the water and you take away the economic base — and that removes the social fabric.

Critics of irrigated agriculture argue that current practices are “unsustainable” and that the environment is on the brink of collapse. Interestingly, the health of that environment seems to improve when it rains. Critics say that dramatically reducing the amount of water extracted from rivers is necessary to save the environment. The more strident argue that farmers aren’t interested in the environment, but only lining their own pockets.

It’s a convincing argument, on the face of it — but it’s also completely wrong.

Agricultural water users have not been resistant to change. Over the past decade, they have engaged in massive change processes that have returned large volumes of water to environmental use. In NSW, water has been rediverted to environmental use both through market mechanisms (Riverbank, Living Murray, Commonwealth ‘buyback’) and by compulsory reductions through Water Sharing Plans. Moreover, they don’t oppose further change.

That’s right — they do not oppose further change. They merely question the rationale behind it, as should all Australians.

In 2004, the Commonwealth and each of the states signed an agreement known as the National Water Initiative. The NWI was nominated at the time as the “blueprint” for water reform across the country, including the Basin. Farm groups welcomed the agreement, which would be implemented by an act of the federal parliament. The primary aim of the NWI was to maximise the social, environmental and economic outcomes of the use of our natural resources. That’s the ‘triple bottom line’ approach which is clearly sensible.

The aim of the NWI is contained within the Commonwealth legislation but unfortunately that’s as far as it goes. You’ll have heard farm and community groups point out that the environment is the primary and sole consideration of the Basin Plan (which is an output of the Act), so how did that occur?

The NWI was predicated on a referral of state powers to the Commonwealth over water to enable the Commonwealth to pass and implement an Act that delivered a triple bottom line. Unfortunately, politics being politics, Canberra and the states had a falling out and the cooperative approach disintegrated. The then Liberal prime minister had a problem: abandon an issue that he’d said was critical or plough ahead? He chose the latter.

The result was the Water Act had to rely on a power within the Constitution. The power that they found was the External Affairs power. This power gives the Commonwealth the capacity to make laws to enforce international treaties and conventions to which it was a signatory. The Water Act relies primarily on the Ramsar Convention.

Here’s where we have our first problem — in the debate to date, the definition of ‘the environment’ has been assumed as objective. It isn’t. Instead, the Water Act relies on an obscure convention negotiated in Iran in 1974. As a nation, we should be doing a bit better than that. We should be having a discussion about which parts of the MDB environment we want to keep, how we should do that and whether answers other than water (land management, for example) might assist.

Peter Fray

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