The frightening thing about the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s current efforts is that they apparently spent about $60 million getting to where they are while ignoring almost every lesson about how to undertake consultation.

Community consultation has come a long, and circuitous, way over the past four decades. It really got under way in the 1970s with the gentrification of inner suburbs and the demands of new residents, professional and middle class, to be consulted about proposed developments — although the old Communist Party of Australia had used calls for consultation as a tactic in the 1950s in their front groups campaigning around local government.

The Whitlam government’s nationwide plan to renew and develop cities also involved widespread consultation and encouraged new and deeper forms.

At the outset, consultation was really just a matter of holding public meetings and asking for questions — the right to raise a question allegedly being a right to be consulted. As the MDB has discovered 40 years later, public meetings are easy to hijack. Many of us learnt from a combination of Saul Alinsky’s community activism, and Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, how extraordinarily easy it was to disrupt such meetings and turn them to your own ends.

A few boos and jeers, aggressive questioning, some shouting and anger and then take over the microphone to get the meeting to agree to resolutions that are the antithesis of what the proponent set out to consult about. Keep the pressure up with some Alinsky-inspired stunts and events and the campaign starts to attract media coverage and worry governments and proponents.

In Alinsky’s case, one of his most brilliant stunt ideas never even had to be implemented. Campaigning on an issue in Chicago, and knowing Mayor Daley had spies in the group, Alinsky let it be known that in the middle of the convention season hundreds of people would go to Chicago airport and occupy, and form long queues outside, the toilets. The thought of a few days of this tactic was enough to get Daley to re-consider his position.

The next phase in community consultation was inspired by academics and planners such as John Power, Lois Bryson and Faith Thompson who developed more structured ways of encouraging dialogue with people. Mainly characterised by small group discussions they were much harder to disrupt.

I described this history in a recent book, as going from “decide, announce and implement … (to) decide, announce, defend and then finally abandon or implement through some compromise … (to) decide, consult, defend and finally: consult, consult, consult” until everyone forgot what you were consulting about.

More recently consultation has been about being seen to be consulting while using facilitators as a mechanism to achieve pre-ordained goals.

None of the approaches was really successful because in most cases there were winners and losers and it required courage to make a final decision. In one area, however, there was a breakthrough. Governments in thrall to developer donations decided that if there was to be a political problem, they might as well take it in one hit and just force the development through, but this approach is less than useful when it comes to dealing with major national issues.

While it is probably too late to fix the MDB’s draft plan problems, and writing as a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, as well as with the benefit of hindsight, what they should have done was:

  • Been clear — backed by governments and third parties — that there had to be fundamental change in water usage in the Basin but, equally, that there had to be consultation about how, and how the impacts would be dealt with. Bill Heffernan has been better at articulating this than the MDB and governments.  Indeed, Heffernan and Tim Flannery would have been ideal joint ambassadors leading the third-party endorsement and Heffernan would no doubt have loved pointing out that Barnaby Joyce was talking nonsense.
  • Forgotten about arguments based on narrow legalisms and produced a series of option papers about how the environmental objectives could be achieved, what they meant to various areas environmentally, economically and socially, and what could be done about them.
  • Held many, many small group style meetings in partnership with local community groups and local representatives of peak organisations — whether local government, environmentalists or irrigators.
  • Refined the options through the meetings and put them back to the wider community while giving everybody in the area a chance to have their say through indicative polling.
  • Ensured a chorus of third parties were available to rebut instantly the more obvious nonsense opponents always spout — which normally range across a project causing cancer/impotence/financial ruin/sunspots/etc, etc — and get reported uncritically in the media
  • Taken the plan developed as a result of the process to government with the confidence that, while there was still opposition, there was a better chance of winning national and community support for the plan.

Many years ago my own firm did exactly that, admittedly on a smaller scale, to introduce the very first user-pays system for water in the Geelong region. It worked there and could have worked here.

The tragedy is that the authority and its predecessors have been trying to do something about the problems for a couple of decades. Successive governments have made it harder by their continuing fear of telling the public the truth about tough options, while successive oppositions have made it harder by pretending that there are easy options. But if you make it even harder still by coming up with a policy consultation process that not even Kevin Rudd could have dreamt it up, then you get a mess and another delay in fixing one of Australia’s most important problems.