The Guide to the Draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan should have been hailed as a historic moment. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority handed down recommendations that would lead to a federally driven basin-wide strategy to secure the long-term environmental sustainability of this precious resource while ensuring a sustainable future for irrigated agriculture, on which much of Australian food production depends, and offering the prospect of long-term sustainable livelihoods for basin communities, albeit a future with less water.

Instead, the guide and the credibility of the authority hangs in the balance: in danger of being put in the “too-hard” basket or worse still delivering some compromise package that satisfies no one, leaves the environment at risk and therefore leaves farmers and growers at risk as well. This is an extraordinary position to be in given the genesis of the basin plan — the 2004 National Water Initiative — had all-party support and the still near universal agreement on the need to restore the health of the river systems.

Much of the anger and frustration that has been expressed was predictable and, I would suggest, caused as much by a deep sense of grievance within the basin for what is felt to be a lack of respect shown by the authority of communities largely excluded from the process, their knowledge, expertise and know-how ignored and their futures determined from afar by those with little appreciation of rural life.

To date the debate has been framed in very negative terms — taking water from farming and destroying communities. This makes for poor adult-to-adult discussion which, as the political writer John Keane said recently, requires “new habits of the heart [and] mutual commitment to give and take” (interview in a Weekend Australian supplement, November 13-14). Instead we have a drama, reflected well in Murray Murmurings, in which environmentalists/townies are pitted against the farming lobby/ruralists, each accusing the other of being a special interest group hell bent on destroying the country’s resources.

As the debate has unfolded the complexity and uncertainty of what we face has slowly been revealed. The world is changing but needs to change faster and more radically in the face of climate change and even the next inevitable drought. Part of the change involves abandoning the idea that the “environment” is somehow separate from “people”, that we can compartmentalise environmental science, from economics, from social science, from social development. Even now I am not confident that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has grasped that complexity.

Yet what is clear is that there will be no water reform and therefore no environmental sustainability unless the impact on people is fully taken into account and in this instance unless there is a significant investment by federal government in the future of basin communities.

Only when Basin communities believe that there is a real opportunity for them to plan for a future sustainable livelihood, albeit with less water, will reform come about. Only when there is demonstrable respect for the knowledge, experience, expertise and resilience that is held within basin communities and when government begins to trust communities to come up with good solutions will they engage in the process of change. And we all need them to engage. It is to everyone’s benefit that this takes place as it includes a review of agriculture and farming policy. Sometimes it seems that contributors to the debate forget that farmers across the basin are responsible for producing a large proportion of the food and fibre in Australia. If we want to have any food security in the future than we need a sustainable agricultural sector just as much as we need a sustainable environment.

Remember too that basin communities are largely a creation of government policy.

This has not always been to the benefit of farmers and growers — as is demonstrated by the suicide levels, mental health stress, domestic violence figures, long working hours, low pay for many and sometimes very impoverished communities. Public policy does change and it needs to but that is no justification for turning one’s back on those who were previously actively encouraged to deliver products and services essential to the nation’s growth. This too needs to change and farmers themselves need to think about different ways in which to organise farming and not hang-on relentlessly to a paradigm that no longer applies and wasn’t always good for them either.

Peter Fray

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