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liberalism, water, interstate conflicts « Previous | |Next »
June 5, 2006

The Canberra Times has a good editorial on water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin and the powers of the Commonwealth to intervene. It highlights the central problem of liberalism----the harmonization of interests.

The editorial rightfully points out that:

...the pace of reform has been slow and disappointing, and to the particular detriment of the environment. While most players are agreed that the best solutions will come from market-based solutions which effectively price water to reflect its value and its costs, there is too little progress in devising completely new irrigation licensing schemes, and even less progress in using pricing as a way of forcing irrigators both to better conserve the water they get, and to clean it before it goes back into river systems.

There has been very little progress in returning water to the rivers in the Basin to increase environmental flows, we can add. It is not clear that market based solutions will deliver the needed environmental flows.

The editorial points out why reform needs to be addressed. Using the example of Queensland the editorial says:

What is involved is effective trapping of water by irrigation interests in south-western Queensland so that water no longer flows into NSW. The Balonne River system in Queensland ultimately collapses into a broad watercourse from which, eventually, five or six rivers and creeks form, most to join the Darling River upstream of Bourke. In average seasons, even before a major dam was built by cotton farmers near St George, in Queensland, little of this water would reach the Darling. Every few years or so, however, a major flood would come down the Balonne and spread out over up to 40,000 sq km of NSW, soaking the soil and proceeding slowly into the Darling system, from which, ultimately, it joins the Murray and travels into South Australia. Since the cotton farmers built the dams, the largest on Cubbie Station, floodwater, on which the grazing potential of the NSW land north of the Darling is very dependent, has been significantly reduced.

The consequence of this self-interest by Cubbie Station is harm caused to others. Though:
The irrigation in Queensland has been quite remunerative... the prosperity has been very much at the cost of farmers and graziers downstream, as it happens in a different state. But not only rival farming claims to river and floodwater are involved; the trapping of most of the water in Queensland has a significant capacity to embarrass attempts by the Commonwealth and the states to restore the health of Australia's major riverine system.

Utilitarian liberalism would say the federal government should intervene. John Stuart Mill, who was most concerned to establish a limit to the legitimate interference of government to protect with individual liberty in On Liberty says that 'the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others'.(pp.21-22). Mill clearly argues for freedom of individual action where externalities are absent.

Where externalities do exist, however, the situation is altered. Mill says:

Whenever … there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law” ( p. 147).

If we look at this principle from the perspective of the individual’s obligation, then the liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people” ( p. 101). In those instances where the individual does not exercise sufficient forbearance to accomplish this, a potential role for the state arises. Mill is not asserting this as a hypothesis to be examined and tested; rather, he says, is an indispensable principle. ( p. 134)

How come there is no intervention by the federal state in the name of the unreasonable use of water?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 4:44 PM | | Comments (2)


Anyone who has an opinion on water needs to visit a major cotton operation.

You honestly can't get a handle on what these farms are able to do to divert, store and utilise water.

At the cost of those downstream.

Bob, I've flown over Cubbie Station.It is huge. Since the Queensland Government won't do anything---its all legal cos its based on water licences, and the NSW Government is unable to change the situation, then it is about time someone (feds) took the Queensland state to the High Court based on the unreasonable use of water.