Professor Chris Miller, School of Social and Policy Studies, Flinders University, writes: Has Labor given up on meeting the requirements of the 2007 Water Act to ensure the environmental sustainability and long-term health of the Murray-Darling Basin?

On November 28th the Murray-Darling Basin Authority finally published the draft of the basin plan to be followed by a twenty-week period of consultation before the final draft is presented to the water minister. The initial reaction to the draft plan from irrigators, farmers, businesses located within the basin, environmentalists, scientists and all sides of the political spectrum has been largely negative.

The draft plan satisfies no one. Yet judging by the reaction of both Craig Knowles, CEO of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and federal water minister Tony Burke this was not only predictable but a sure sign that they had got things just about right. Dismissing all opposition as “extremists” and unlikely to ever be satisfied they placed themselves in the position of being the only reasonable people left standing and in the business of finding a sensible compromise. Labelling someone “extremist” is, of course, a well-established but crude way of trying to silence any opposition. 

Burke’s early comments on the day of publication indicated that he had already embraced this version of the plan with the small proviso that the proposal to allow more use of ground water to enable coal seam gas exploration was still a recommendation of the Authority and not yet his. Obviously that one still has too much risk associated with it. It was noticeable too that Knowles was no longer speaking of securing enough water for the environment to ensure its health and sustainability but rather in terms of making “a first step” on a “journey” to improve water management in the basin.

This might reflect the compromise solution but it is not what the Authority was tasked with under the Act. This is a blatant attempt to impose a “fix” when it is said people can’t agree in the hope that ultimately the majority will accept the outcome despite grumbling, “it could be better, but it’s a start” or acknowledging that “it could have been worse, but we can manage with it”. As a strategy it might work when sorting out which TV channel to watch between two squabbling eight-year-olds but it doesn’t work in determining how much water is required to secure the long-term health of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The volume of water required to be returned to the environment has to be determined by the best available science with due regard for the socio-economic impacts of such a decision. So where does the Authority get its figure of 2750 gigalitres of water that it now proposes should be diverted to the environment? It is clearly not driven by science and has already been dismissed by CISRO and other leading scientific experts both on the grounds that it has no scientific evidential base and will fail to meet the environmental and hydrological targets.

The Authority’s refusal to submit their work to independent peer review, a standard procedure in preparing scientific data, led directly to the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists withdrawing from the Authority’s review process. We should not forget either that it was only a year ago that the Authority published its guide to the draft basin plan in which it laid out a range of options from 3000 to 7600 gigalitres of water to be returned to the environment, supported it said by both national and international peer review and hailed as the global leading edge of scientific evidence and modelling.

At 3000 gigalitres, the Authority argued that there was a high risk of failure and conversely at 7600 gigalitres a near certainty of success. Its preferred option was for 4000 gigalitres, as to go beyond that figure would have too severe socio-economic impacts. I argued then that this was poor policy because it fell short of offering an investment strategy to basin communities to enable those most badly impacted to move to a local economy with less water. But at least there was logic to the Authority’s position. At least it’s scientific modelling and projections had credibility, nationally and internationally.

The scientific modelling presented a number of projections and likely outcomes depending on the decision taken. We knew where we stood: if we took 3000 gigs the likelihood was that we would fail to secure the required environmental outcomes. At 7600 we were pretty damn near certain that we would secure them. At 4000 gigs we were making a judgement about what basin communities could bear in terms of socio-economic impacts if we didn’t do anything else.

So where does the 2750 gigalitres amount come from? This is even 50 gigs short of the figure the Authority had been using in briefing anybody willing to listen in the days leading up to the release of the draft plan. Perhaps a further 50 gigs reduction was how the final shake of the hand with the farming lobby ended?Since the figure is not based on scientific inquiry one can only speculate.

Is it a figure Knowles and his board felt would satisfy the farming and irrigator lobby because it was below the figure previously published and could be sold as a significant ‘victory’ by those leading the lobby? If so, this is a serious misreading of that section of the farming and irrigation lobby that has always been determined to kill the plan and sensing weakness will only go for further reductions. Meanwhile it undermines those farmers associated with such groups as the Environmental Farmers Network and all those committed to working in ways that ensure the long-term sustainability of the basin.

Is it a figure that Knowles felt would be accepted reluctantly by the scientific community who despite knowing that it won’t meet the environmental and hydrological targets, don’t have much political clout and don’t expect much from politicians? Perhaps this is the figure they think they can push through parliament with the current Coalition leadership apparently less committed to securing the basin that that under John Howard?

Yet the Greens are already threatening to derail it in the Senate and South Australia’s new Premier Jay Weatherill has been taking advice over a possible High Court challenge that the draft plan fails to meet the requirements of the Water Act and has stated publicly that the plan must be driven by science.

Whatever the thinking, and I use that word advisedly, this smells of a figure agreed by the Board as the one to go with and to defend it against all comers by dismissing them as extremists. Knowles has no science to back his draft plan so he projects himself as “Mr Reasonable”.

We have yet to see whether Knowles will be able to sweet talk and bully the opposition into submission but we do know that as it stands the proposed Plan will fail to secure the long-term sustainability of the basin. Such a failure will not only come back to damage severely those in the basin who reject reform but unfortunately the wider basin communities and Australia’s food industry as well as creating perhaps irreversible damage to its extraordinary environment.

And the immediate price of failure is $9 billion of tax payer money. A strong government would reject this draft put on hold any unspent public money and start again. Any government that is spends $9 billion on a policy that will fail deserves all it gets not only in the next election but in years to come.

Murray Murmurings is back! Crikey’s environment blog Rooted is publishing 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. Stay tuned for an article from the NSW Irrigators Council this week. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, please email ajamieson[at]