Brian Ramsay writes: The publicity and noise associated with the release of the Guide to the Basin Plan must be kept in perspective. Two million people live in the basin. Not all are farmers, not all farmers are irrigators, not everyone is dependent on farming for their well being, not all regions are equally affected and not all impacts of water reform will be adverse. That said, many people living in the basin and in metropolitan areas will have an affinity with farming and also see benefits in water reform.

It is this affinity that has been heard loudly in the past couple of weeks. As the public narrative about the Guide to the Basin Plan unfolds, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the concerns of irrigators fully reflect the views of the whole community. It is not so simple.

The independent Basin Pulse survey of almost 500 people from across the basin in June this year sought a balanced perspective of community attitudes. It looked beyond the views of environmentalists and the irrigators to better understand what ordinary Australians living in the basin think is important.

It showed that people in the community are much more informed than they are given credit. 77% said they were aware of the forthcoming Basin Plan and 5% said that they had been involved in the process of developing the plan. These are significant numbers given the size of the population living in the basin.

The survey showed that there was community recognition of the need for change and support for the key reform objective. 80% of people agreed that water allocations should change so enough water is available for the natural environment. There was also a deep sense of urgency for change. 50% said that changes to water allocation should already be underway and a further 24% said it should happen without further delay.

People expressed a realistic grasp of the trade-offs associated with water reform. There was a general sense of too much water going to irrigators, but concern about the economic implications at the regional and personal levels if agriculture had less water. 68% of Basin residents believed that if less water was available to farms, then their region will be worse off.

While people considered water reform as important and urgent, many were sceptical about the likelihood of any changes occurring in the next five years. In fact, they were equally divided on whether anything would actually happen, with 12% being unsure. Of particular interest was the finding that most people see the Federal government as being responsible for taking action. Watch this space. The outcomes achieved with the Basin Plan could confirm or re-shape community attitudes towards the government’s ability to lead meaningful reform.

What hangs in the balance now is not so much the immediate interests of irrigators and environmentalists. It is the interests of current and future generations of Australians and the future of the basin. Tough decisions lie ahead, but that is the role of elected leaders.

Breaking through will require a sophisticated approach in leading the design and implementation of change. Critically, there is already a sense of urgency for change. What is now needed is stronger articulation of the new vision for the basin to get some buy-in. It will require leaders in government, industry and the community to rise above the noise, actively elicit the views of the silent majority and put some faith in the findings of Australia’s best scientists.

Brian Ramsay is Managing Director of Canberra company Inovact Consulting. The company launched Basin Pulse in August, which aims to support reform by better connecting people and decision makers in the Murray-Darling Basin. The next Basin Pulse report will be released in mid-November.

This is  part of a Rooted series from different interested parties — farmers, lobby groups, environmentalists, etc — discussing their reactions to the guide of the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the community consultations surrounding it, called Murray Murmurings. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, email [email protected]