The draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan should surprise few people. The need for fundamental change to water management and the competing interests are well known by all. Now, the technical case for change is incrementally better than it was a year ago, except less water would go the environment under the draft plan.
There are now diminishing returns to the community for continuing and prolonged argument on the direction of the plan, although views and evidence should be presented during the 20-week consultation period.
The key issue is what has changed with the people involved after another year of consultation and communication and the injection of new leadership at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority — are we any closer to seeing momentum for reform?
Our Basin Pulse research in 2010 with more than 1000 people living in the basin revealed that most people wanted water reform, but were sceptical that meaningful change will occur. They have heard it all before and didn’t believe governments would provide the leadership for implementing reform. So far, the community expectation has proven to be a reliable predictor.
In the absence of evidence from recent research on basin community attitudes, we are left with the public dialogue by governments and interest groups as a guide to the likelihood of change. It is not encouraging at present.
Predictably, environmentalists are calling for more water for the environment, consumptive users want smaller cuts, scientists want more research, state governments want to shift reform costs to other states and academics want to critique and advocate the ideal. All assert or imply that their views are synonymous with and advance the interests of the wider community. If only it were so.
We are yet to see a genuine public dialogue emerge on how change will be implemented so that those most affected are guided and genuinely supported through the adjustment of change process. This must take place consistently with agreed policies on water reform such as the National Water Initiative. Water rights have been enshrined in our water institutions and must be respected in the adjustment process. When the public dialogue shifts to implementation, we will have reached the tipping point in the change process and communities may yet see their hopes realised.
Herein lays the opportunity for interest groups and governments to take the dialogue to a whole new level. They could choose the high road, which involves showing leadership and risking short term criticism from constituents. It means adopting a glass is half full mindset towards the draft basin plan and holding governments to account for how change is implemented.
Alternatively, interest groups could choose the path of creating confusion, delay, ridicule and fear mongering to preserve the status quo. Given the complexity of the issues and interests across the basin, leaders of major change are certainly vulnerable. Leaders can’t deliver substantially different outcomes in the basin without changing current practices. Conflict is inevitable and a normal part of the process of change.