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Canberra Watch: water « Previous | |Next »
January 25, 2007

I see that the Howard Government has started shaping up for a federal election with a cabinet rehuffle that makes Malcolm Turnbull Czar of water and environment, or a water supremo. The next step was a Big Plan to seize control of the water debate and take the governance of water from the states. This centralisation of power is a strategy designed to sideline Rudd's earlier ALP initiatives for a water summit, drawing together all State and Territory leaders to have a summit.

Sean Leahy

Water is now definitely on the political and political agenda, and Howard's action plan indicates that climate change is now centre stage politically speaking. Howard and Co did need to claw back lost ground and reconnect with the shift in public opinion on climate change. Does that mean the Nationals will be sidelined on water?

They have resisted water reform, put a stop to the commonwealth government buying back overallocated water licences, and limited water reform in the form of claw back from efficiency gains. The viability of the irrigation districts is what is paramount for the Coalition. That leaves room for the ALP to move in the cities. What will the state premiers do now in their capital cities? How will they move beyond water restrictions?

Irrigated agriculture, such as cotton and rice, does need to start making the shift out of the southern Murray-Darling Basin to northern Australia. Though this is being considered by the Howard Government, its Big Plan involves $1.5 billion is going to promote more efficient water use on farms, the nation's biggest consumers of water. Around $6 billion is being used to modernise irrigation infrastructure to improve structures like pipes and channels in a project aimed at saving 3000 gigalitres of water a year.

What happens to that saved water? How much of that goes back to irrigators? How much goes to environmental flows? The proposal is to spend $6 billion on efficiency improvements aims t:o

achieve efficiency gains of around 25 per cent of total irrigation water use. This programme will generate water savings of over 3,000 GL per year, with over 2,500 GL per year saved in the MDB. Water savings will be shared 50 per cent with irrigators to help meet the challenge of declining water availability, and 50 per cent to address over-allocation and sustain river health.

So the implied return of water to the Murray-Darling Basin is around 1250 GL, which is close to the 1500 GL recommended by the Living Murray program as the minimum needed for sustainability. What is the time frame for this ambitious project?

What is less noticed, but of crucial importance, is that $3 billion is explicitly being used to help ease farmers off the land and to buy back water licences as farms are sold. So we have broken with the state's evasion of restoring environmental flows to the Murray-Darling Basin's rivers by buying back the over-allocation of water licences. Howard's $10 billion plan depends upon the governance arrangements for the basin are put on a proper national footing-- ie., all relevant state and territory leaders will have refer to the Commonwealth their powers of water management within the Murray-Darling Basin.

How will the ALP states approach federalism now. The federal ALP has always been deeply centralist. Will the ALP states give Canberra their control over water, only to see water policy continue to be along the lines of the Nationals---protecting irrigated agriculture and keeping the Murray-Darling Basin's rivers as irrigation channels? Isn't that the current practice of the states? If the Coalition is politically beholden to the cotton industry and the rice industry and the upstream irrigators are in control of water, then what will SA do?

Should the federal ALP respond by placing the emphasis on water reform in the capital cities, couple it to an increase in environmental flows by buying back water licences from the cotton and the rice industry, and encouraged the cotton and the rice industry to shift to northern Australia?

Then again, Howard could well be very serious in addressing the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin and more than willing to sideline the Nationals. Maybe.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:19 AM |