As 20 weeks of consultations on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan draft end — and just 12 hours remain for public submissions — it’s worth examining just how effective the latest lot of public meetings by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority have proved to be.

The searing image of furious town hall meetings and irrigators setting the first iteration of the guide on fire back in 2010 helped to inform how the MDBA approached public consultations this time around, in a bid to canvass public reaction to the draft plan released in November 2011.

There have been over 100 consultations since the draft plan was released including; 34 invitation-only round table meeting, 24 opening to the public meetings, 20-30 technical meetings working with particular groups, 18 open houses with indigenous communities, 10 bank  briefings and five water trade meetings.

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There’s been no public burnings of the plan this time — although rumours abounded that the MDBA had printed the plan on non-burnable paper (not true) and “I think someone tried to mulch it in Deniliquin,” Katrina Maguire general manager of stakeholder engagement at the MDBA told Crikey, “but the mulcher broke or it bounced back out quite quickly”.

Maguire attended over 90% of the more recent round of meetings and said she’d rate the authority a “slightly modest” eight out of 10 for its efforts. “I’d give it a ten but people might not believe me,” Maguire told Crikey.

It seems the authority learnt a lot about what not to do from the 2010 experience —  the director of groundwater at the authority, Peter Hyde, said he’d give the MDBA a rating of two for its initial attempts at consultation (Hyde didn’t work for the MDBA at the time).

Crikey attended the Melbourne meeting last week, the last of the public meetings. Four tables were set up around the room, each one focusing on a specific area including examining the Sustainable Diversion Limits, Environmental Watering Plans and socio-economics.

On each table a staff member from the Authority (and one from the federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) sat waiting to answer questions. It was all terribly civilised, despite the fact that both irrigators and greenies were sitting across from each other at the table and disagreed with each other fundamentally.

This was one of the Authority’s open house style meetings, a method first requested to the MDBA by the mayor of Mildura, John Arnold.

The set up afforded people the opportunity to ask technical questions or a fundamental question of the Authority (without having to stand up and ask it in front of hundreds of people from their community). An open house style meeting “becomes much more of a dialogue,” said Maguire.

“There were still some very wound up people but they left feeling that they could have a conversation and it was not just an opportunity to ask a statement and get back one response,” Maguire told Crikey. However she noted that some groups (specifically irrigators) preferred the town hall style meeting, partly for the media attention that they bring. A mixture of town hall and open house meetings have been held.

Some of the invitation-only round table meetings involved a meeting of farmers and irrigators in the morning, and environmentalists and NGOs in a separate meeting in the afternoon (although this depended on the size of each town and what the town council requested).

Mildura mayor Arnold attended last week’s Melbourne meeting to personally hand in his council’s submission on the draft plan. Over 5,000 submissions have already been handed in to the authority from different groups, with many more expected to arrive today.

When asked how many MDBA meetings he’d attended, Arnold replied: “I’ve been everywhere, all over the place”, adding that he was very concerned about the implications of the plan on his community. “There’s no doubt that people want a plan,” said Arnold. “But we want a plan that is going to be fair and equitable for everybody.”

Has the MDBA been receptive to his concerns? “I think the message is getting through,” he replied. “But it has to be. If you’re going to put in a plan and legislate it, surely to goodness all the detail has to be there.”

And the issue of detail has come up before. At Friday’s event I spoke to Hyde about the increase of groundwater extraction in the draft plan, a move that both the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and another group of 60 Aussie scientists have criticised vehemently in the media.

Hyde pointed me to a report by the MDBA — titled Groundwater Sustainable Diversion Limit Resource Unit Summary Report Cards — which he said explained the methodology and reasoning behind the groundwater SDLs. He dismissed the criticisms by the Wentworth Group and others as “an oversimplification” and says the MDBA uses “a completely different methodology”.

But where was this latest MDBA groundwater report to be found? It was to be uploaded online on Friday, but there were issues in which Microsoft Word release it was written in. It finally appeared over the weekend. But why upload it on the final day of consultations? “It probably does look suss,” admits Hyde, although he says it was a variety of reasons — including other priorities and lack of time — that delayed its release.

“We didn’t necessarily anticipate all the issues that were needed to be clairifed in detail,” said Maguire. She noted that the public is likely to see reports and further information released over the next six to eight months and that public consultations over the basin plan will continue forever.

Better consultation doesn’t make everyone happy though.”Personally I think the difference between the guide and now is that a lot of people would say the process of developing it and the engagement with people is far improved,” said Maguire. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean they like what’s in it.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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