Menindee Darling River Murray-Darling
Dead trees in Menindee Lakes (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

The report into the Murray-Darling, and the near destruction thereof — remember that? The killing of our largest river system? So last week — made for interesting if scarifying reading. The rot may have started with the Howard years, and the corresponding accommodation of National Party demands, but it was really accelerated in the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison period.

The Nationals’ determination to gouge everything they could for northern agribusiness, and Abbott’s cracked belief that basic attention to nature as a complex system is somehow pagan, combined to create a pure disaster. This was the nihilism of capitalism and the right in its purest form. As one reads the detail of how a system put in place to guard an essential feature of life on this continent was gleefully subverted, undermined and trashed, one asks: how can I not have noticed this going on? We knew that the wrecking crew had taken power; why did we not pay more attention?

The proximate cause is obvious. By the time the Murray-Darling came under sustained attack, Fairfax had declined as an investigative source and News Corp was actively opposed to anything resembling critical environmental coverage. Four Corners does great work, but it’s one show, and other ABC outlets get even less attention. What was needed was a two-week, multi-part investigation, in the old Insight-style, to thoroughly anatomise the disaster, show the history of it, and name the names.

But there was a deeper reason why it didn’t occur to me, and many others, that the whole river system was being trashed, and that was, I think, a lot to do with coming of age during the Hawke-Keating years. This was when the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was created, both as an example of a new common-sense form of government, and as a symbol of a new type of federalism. The creation of the Murray-Darling authority and the participation of multiple parties was not only a recognition that the river system was essential to life, it was a recognition that the continent could no longer be managed via a states-led federal system which saw the Australian ecosystem as a free gift to commerce. 

The creation of the system inaugurated 10 years of “water wars” in northern NSW and Queensland. There was good faith and bad faith on both sides, but ultimately what had to be defeated was the decades-long assumption of farmers that they had a right to as much water from the northern end of the system as their business needed. Once an agreement was reached, that seemed a set-and-forget sort of thing. Who would trash a whole river system?

We would, it turns out.

The tradeable rights that were built into the system became a series of mind-bending boondoggles and led to the perpetuation of forms of agriculture that should have been phased out for the general health of the system. The National Party has never needed an excuse to leverage the system, but the layers of water rights that got built onto the Murray-Darling system — the commodification of a common entity — did what it always does: utterly corrupted the management of it. The system dutifully coughed up 1 million dead fish, dying because the river was being killed.

Perhaps we should be perversely grateful for the Menindee fish die-offs, if that’s what it takes for the killing of the river to become visible. This event, and last week’s report should mark an end to the wanton trashing of the river system. But something more is needed than reform.

With the imminent change of government, barring disasters, what’s required is a renegotiation of relations between city and country in Australia. Due to political expediency, we are running an agricultural system based on a failed strategy concocted in the 1920s, when the population bias shifted decisively to the cities, and agribusiness began to replace mixed farming communities. That was the period of one bright idea after another. Rice and cotton, tobacco and God knows what, with scant regard for what specific regional systems could bear. The private farmer could do whatever they could get a permit for; the environmental impact was externalised.

That obviously can’t continue, and there is no economic need for it to do so. We need to reverse the emphasis from individual right and tradeable environmental rights, to ecosystem priority and hard limits on tangible use. That means that it should be mandatory for an environmental case to be made for any large-scale farming operation, with the virtual phasing out of whole operations and sectors over time.

Water and other rights should be specific allocations, tied to use and largely untradeable. Tens of millions of hectares should be taken out of production and rewilded, with family farmers fully compensated, and agribusiness partially compensated, and farmers re-hired as stewards and rangers of rewilded territory. Rewilding would restore rivers, and the wider ecosystems around them. The world will have to do this over the next century to avoid the collapse of the biosphere entirely — as this week’s story on the collapse of insect populations reveals (another story that will be gone by next week). 

Labor should have a substantial majority come May — or, good God, in five weeks time. It has already announced it will lift the cap on water buybacks in the system. It should go further than that. It should roll out a tough policy on city-country relations; one that is based on structural change in what rural Australia is, does, and how it is managed. That should make a return to basic rational national management, abandoned in 1996 when two decades of right-wing political vandalism began.

That may hurt some farmers and communities that are doing their best within the current framework. But that can no longer stand in the way of real change; we can’t put yet more patches on a century-old strategy designed for a different continent. The greatest contribution Cubbie Station — that vast, anachronistic insanity — could make to the national interest now would be to blow up its dams, and let the waters flow. That, on a systemic level, is what the country needs now.

What do you make of this radical proposal? Write to [email protected] with your full name and let us know.