Professor Chris Miller, School of Social and Policy Studies, Flinders University, writes: 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 whilst 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.

Of course farmers, but not farm employees, have made money and have not been engaged in a philanthropic exercise, certainly no more than anyone employed as a teacher, social worker, nurse, doctor, public health worker, planner etc. They all earn salaries — and need to do so — but they still provide a public service. Food production and therefore farming is also part of public policy and governments have a responsibility to ensure that high quality food is produced to ensure food security. Maybe we need to think more about the farmer in the way we do the teacher?

So where to from here? The Guide is deeply flawed in one major respect. It fails to follow through on the logic of its own argument that so-called ‘mitigating’ but rather transformative strategies are essential to the process of change and adaptation. There are many times in the Guide where emphasis is made of the centrality of such strategies and the Authority even offers two of its own.

Unfortunately, one is not a community transitional strategy as such and the other is more likely to have the opposite effect sending communities into a spiral of decline by prolonging the time taken to put new diversion limits in place so that the full plan, as proposed, would not be in place until 2019. There are plenty of well-tested examples from around the world, often from developing countries, of strategies that facilitate change toward sustainable communities and local economies but these don’t seem to have been considered. What is required is a strategy that can best ensure – there is no guarantee – that Basin communities can secure a sustainable future for themselves with a more diverse economy.

Federal Government must play a critical role to play in such a strategy. It would need to create a ‘Basin Investment Fund’; to make available technical and other expertise to be provided by those who have been there themselves; to recruit a ‘Basin Task Force’ of outstanding practitioners to work with those communities hardest hit and who can deliver such a program that requires bringing very diverse and competing communities together to work for a different and hopefully better future; it requires working in partnership with state and local government, as well as communities and it means setting out the timescales and parameters for such a process. It requires a whole of government approach with, for example, Federal Ministers Simon Crean and Tony Burke working closely together.

All parts of each community need to be engaged in and central to the process, especially those who have so far been excluded such as young people, new migrants and women, to be able to determine what structures work best for them and to identify, nurture and promote local leadership. Communities would be expected to bring together local knowledge, capacities, know-how and experience to be placed that alongside expert scientific, environmental and social science impact knowledge. The combination of such knowledge and the identification of market opportunities provide the basis on which to generate Local Adjustment Action Plans that would shape the allocation of the Investment Fund.

The whole process would be underpinned by on-going deliberative dialogues throughout each community. There are, however, no magic bullets, no short-term fixes. What is required is long-term, sustained and incremental investment in rural futures. It needs to be built upon a vision for development that creates a framework of confidence in the future. It needs to deliver realistic and comprehensive plans for economic re-structuring that will undoubtedly require attitudinal change on all sides.

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]