Murray Murmurings is back! During last year’s public consultations of the guide to the draft of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, Crikey’s environment blog Rooted published a series of articles from different interested parties — farmers, lobby groups, environmentalists. Now the draft plan’s been finally released (head here for an overview of it), we’re doing it again. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, please email ajamieson[at]crikey.com.au
Brian Ramsay writes: 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 over 1,000 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.
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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.
It remains to be seen whether the MDBA’s leadership or vested interests will prevail. Experience says that we can expect to see more of the latter. That would be disappointing, especially in the case of the state governments. Fundamentally, the draft basin plan is about fixing poor water governance in the past by state governments. The states are key parties within the MDBA and can’t shirk their responsibilities in implementing water reform and management.
There is hope yet. The MDBA is talking about an adaptive management approach to the implementation of the plan. This should involve a measured approach of implementing with milestones, monitoring and checks. It is about learning and adapting as implementation progresses. In this process, those adversely affected need to be supported through change in accordance with law, established policy and community standards of equity.
Basically, the narrative is that the draft basin plan is the best that our scientists, policy makers and water managers can design with what we know now. The call to action is for governments, interest groups and business and community leaders to buy into the draft plan (or something similar) and give it a go. Then, as we learn what works and what does not, we adapt accordingly as new information comes to hand. Sounds like common sense.
Brian Ramsay is the founder of the Basin Pulse initiative and Managing Director of Inovact Consulting a specialist consulting firm working at the interface of government, industry and the community on issues that impact on rural and regional communities.