The House of Reps Regional Australia committee’s report on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a showcase example of why politicians shouldn’t be let near serious policy making.

Hastily put together by a panicked — well, more panicked than usual — Government after it hopelessly mismanaged the response to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority guide, the Committee brought together a number of regional MPs, led by Tony Windsor, to channel community anger away from Labor.

The result is more or less what you’d expect if you asked a bunch of politicians to develop a policy on an intensely divisive and complex social, economic and environmental issue.

The most bizarre aspect of the committee report is the lengths to which it goes to berate the Murray-Darling Basin Authority over how it handled the release of the Guide.  The Authority, indeed, could have done a better job of explaining itself, but the Committee devotes an entire chapter to complaining about how the Authority allowed itself to be misinterpreted, leading to intense anger in MDB communities — remember the footage of those idiots burning copies of the Guide?

The Committee complains:

A common and significant misconception about the Guide is that it is the actual Basin Plan. However, the Guide is simply an expression of the MDBA’s thinking and methodology behind the preparation of a proposal. It is nothing more than a complex discussion paper. The Guide has no official status in regards to the Basin Plan that will be put to Parliament for consideration… However, the mode used by the MDBA to prepare and communicate the Guide did nothing to disabuse a common view that it was the final proposal.

The report goes on to chip the MDBA for, among other sins:

  • “presenting the Guide as a glossy, full colour print document and calling it a Guide to the Basin Plan, rather than a discussion paper or working document”
  • “presenting the Guide to the community through a series of ‘community information sessions’ rather than consultative workshops”
  • “failing to address misconceptions about the intent of the Basin Plan”.

In contrast, the report describes the “warm welcome” the Committee received, and how constructive communities were when the Committee consulted with them. Politicians and sensible, mature rural communities 1, out-of-touch bureaucrats and their glossy documents 0.

By the time the report chides the the Authority because it “repeatedly and consciously failed to adequately articulate how the Basin Plan would be realised once it passed the Commonwealth Parliament”, it feels like we’re in a particularly obscure Python sketch.

Let’s go back to the original document that so enraged communities. It’s called A Guide to the Proposed Basin Plan, which might have told even the casual reader that it was, um, a guide, for a proposed plan. The very first words of the document, in the introduction to the executive summary, are “the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (the Authority) is preparing the Guide to the proposed Basin Plan to present proposals to the community for discussion.”

Two paras later, the Authority says “the Authority is interested in the views of the community and stakeholders on the proposals in the Guide and on the quality of data and evidence used and the analysis that has been undertaken. The Authority will consider any feedback in finalising the Basin Plan.”

Just how much clearer did the MDBA have to be about what the purpose of the document was? What of course it didn’t figure on was irrigators, politicians and the media trying to whip up a frenzy about the document in an attempt — now plainly successful — to derail the only serious effort in Australian history to sustainably manage the Murray-Darling Basin.

The only serious mistakes the MDBA made were to treat communities as intelligent adults capable of reading the first paragraph of a document, and failing to be aware of the agendas of other players in the process to confuse, obscure and attack.

The other example of why you should never let politicians near policy making is that the overall recommendations of the report are that water buybacks should be dramatically cut back — indeed, it recommends the Government “immediately cease all non-strategic water purchase in the Murray-Darling Basin”. Instead, the committee wants a dramatic ramping-up of irrigation infrastructure investment.

Irrigation investment is the pain-free solution to the MDB’s woes. It reduces water loss, freeing up some water for the environment. Irrigators like it because it’s effectively a handout of capital to them to upgrade their infrastructure. Communities like it because it means areas don’t have water allocations sold away and it injects money into the local economy.

Trouble is, as the Productivity Commission has found, it’s also far more expensive than buying water. Last year, the PC looked at mechanisms for recovering water, and concluded:

Recent experience is that the cost per ML of government efforts to recover water for the environment through infrastructure upgrades is highly variable, but in most cases exceeds the cost for recovery through purchasing… the Australian Government may pay up to four times as much for recovering environmental water through infrastructure upgrades than through water purchases…  Funding irrigation infrastructure upgrades is generally not a cost-effective way for governments to recover water for the environment.

The PC also anticipated the argument that irrigation investment by government supports regional communities, pointing out there were most cost-effective ways of supporting communities as well.

Did the Committee acknowledge the PC’s criticisms in any way? The PC is only referenced once in the whole report, with a reference on water buybacks from a separate report. Instead, the Committee report serves up a bunch of anecdotes about great infrastructure investment can be, mostly sourced — you’ll never guess — from irrigators.

And just as an aside, here’s a nice example of media double standards. The whole MDB water initiative is costing billions of dollars. We’ve seen how the media reacts to claims of inefficiency in other big government programs, even when independent bodies like the ANAO discredit them.

We’ve seen the froth-mouthed fury from The Australian and the ABC’s “Online Investigation Unit” and 4 Corners over programs like the HIP and the BER — remember claims that the implementation of the BER saw NSW paying a whole 6% more for its construction than other states?

So why haven’t we seen 80 times the media outrage about a program where, according to the Productivity Commission, billions are being wasted on spending initiatives that are four times more expensive than alternatives? What, doesn’t fit the media’s preferred narrative? Forget about it!

Of course a bunch of politicians like irrigation investment in the MDB. They get to hand out money. No one has to make hard decisions, like those communities that have already become more productive and efficient in their water use (which, to its credit, the Committee includes some reference to). The only people out of pocket are taxpayers, and they don’t know about it.

On the other hand, to give the Committee a little more credit, they have wisely called for the mining industry to be placed under the same obligations are other water users and for no further mining activities affecting water resources to be approved within the Basin until the impact is understood and mitigated. This is one issue of which regional and rural MPs are much more aware than the rest of us.

The clash between mining and agriculture, and the communities the latter supports, is only going to get worse and governments have already been too reactive in curbing the insatiable demands and negligence of mining companies.

Peter Fray

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