The door is now closed for submissions to the MDB Authority for consideration in the revised Draft Basin Plan, and to the parliamentary inquiry chaired by Tony Windsor into the socio-economic impacts. The next round of research on the socio-economic impacts has been commissioned if it is not yet under way. Meanwhile we await the announcement of Mike Taylor’s successor as chair of the authority.

So as public servants in Canberra head for no doubt a well-earned rest, what can be gleaned from the debate at the end of act one?

There is now a broad consensus from the work of several separate and independent economic studies that at national and regional level the overall impacts of securing a sustainable environment through water reform will be negligible. There is agreement too that during the drought when farmers lost 70% of water allocations, agricultural productivity dropped by only 1%.

Australian farmers are resilient and resourceful and Basin communities are adaptive. Consequently the authority must put forward a more convincing argument to justify its 4000 G/Ly limit on water returned to the environment. Its claim that the socio-economic impacts will be too great beyond this level remains unproven.

However, we do know that for some Basin communities the impacts will be severe and their future livelihoods will be at risk. The 90 or so towns most likely to be affected are already known. No doubt many of these will be clustered together in identifiable sub-regional areas.

Yet in the absence of any robust plans to enable such communities to transition to a different form of local economy there is understandable reluctance to name these relatively few vulnerable places. To do so might only trigger a spiral of decline that would be difficult to reverse and give the impression that they had been abandoned by government. Impressions are important.

It seems unlikely that the additional research on socio-economic impacts will add much that is useful to what we already know and need to know. Rather its purpose is to show that the authority and government is doing something in response to public criticism.

The most troubling aspect at this intermission is the sense that government shows little sign of knowing what it should do about those communities that will feel the greatest impacts. The Commonwealth is willing to continue spending vast amounts of tax dollars to gather more probably unnecessary information yet is unwilling to explore strategies to address the consequences of water reform.

It is as though it has lost confidence in its capacity to solve problems. It has shown little confidence in the capacity of Basin communities to engage in a process of planned reform. Instead the limitations of its responsibilities seem to extend only as far as knowing about the socio-economic impacts and drawing a line beyond which it will not impose further change. Communities are then left to fend for themselves.

In Canberra, government departments continue to act in silos, public servants have little contact with basin communities and no attempt has been made to engage with those at the local level who can reflect the whole spectrum of community views and who are willing to embrace reform. Public servants seem overly anxious about such direct engagement, understandable without some political leadership, but over-reliability on private consultants to provide answers is a poor recipe for policy making.

While both departments claim to be talking with each other neither minister Tony Burke nor Simon Crean show any indication of offering a joint strategy to a situation that clearly cuts across both portfolios. Labour is no doubt it is feeling cautious after a year of policy and electoral setbacks but a policy vacuum in response to the human consequences of environmental reform is not good politics.

What is required is a federally driven regional investment strategy led by a cross-departmental team, overseen by Burke, Crean and Windsor, working closely with their state and local government counterparts and in partnership with basin communities. By working with progressive community voices that see the need for reform and the possibilities for re-shaping and re-energising the local economy such communities can secure a sustainable future. Those voices are out there in and beyond irrigated agriculture. If government can harness that energy and leadership such communities, supported with the right technical advise, can attract new investment capital and retain what is already there.

Bringing sometimes divided communities together to tackle what are indeed challenging issues requires a particular expertise. Across Australia, working in different settings, there are those with the required skills and experience. We need to appoint a team of the best of them to work over a sustained period to help bring about the necessary changes.

To make this real government needs itself to invest substantial funds; public money well spent on securing important parts of the Basin and regional Australia. Prime Minister Gillard has promised that 2011 will be a year of decision-making and clear policy direction. Securing the future of regional Basin communities would be a good place to begin to demonstrate political leadership.

Australia needs to rise above sectional interests for the common good and support those asked to bear the brunt of making changes in the wider interest.

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]