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Water reform: conservatives rise to the occassion « Previous | |Next »
October 19, 2010

The conservative commentariat is so predictable in their response to the water reform in the basin, as they endeavour to rise above their cartoon understanding of water reform and show their grasp of policy. The basic position is that there does not need to be any change to the current levels of water extraction; or if there is to be change, then it should be others not us) who change business-as-usual.


For Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald it was simply a case of the culture wars:

the plight of "these people" involved not only farmers in the basin but also that of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. . It was the classic disconnect between the inner-city, well-educated professional with a secure job and guaranteed superannuation and the less-educated small business operator or employee in the regional centres or outer suburbs.

Yawn. For Henderson water reform has nothing to do with the overallocation of water entitlements by state governments or the need to return the basin to ecological health in order to protect its economy.

For Niki Savva in her Lead on reform or lose way in The Australian it was an example of Julia Gillard's bad leadership:

Gillard's inability to lay out a clear agenda for Labor and for the government - the penchant for committees, reviews, round tables, guides and the need to take deep breaths - means she is in danger of being swept along by events either outside her control or initiated by others...Labor's problems run wide and deep. It has a profound identity crisis, the kind political parties usually undergo in opposition and which government often masks. It has yet to work out its policy program, formulate its strategic thinking, prove its administrative capabilities or devise credible media management.

Savva says that Gillard failed miserably to take charge and to shape debate or lead the national conversation on at least two critical issues----pricing carbon or water allocations---confronting the government and the community. It was just a case of the Gillard Government using bureaucrats as human shields in the water debate.

Really? Savva does not mention of the work being done by Tony Burke, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Or the Gillard Government's clear statement that it is determined to push ahead with water reform as it is developed in the forthcoming basin plan. There was no mention of the parliamentary inquiry into the social and economic impact of the cutbacks in water allocations.

What is probably happening here is that Gillard Labor is allowing its opponents to frame the debate on water reform with their talk of "getting the balance right", even though "getting the balance right" is irrigator talk. The irriigators refer to getting the balance right between between social, economic and environmental goals, by which they mean that the reform process has prioritized the environment too much, and "the balance" needs to be swung back to the social and economic big time. It's the environment v the economic for the irrigators, and they use it like a sledgehammer to crack skulls to resist reform.

What the Gillard Government should be saying is that the destruction of the ecology of the basin by taking too much water out for irrigation causes the decline in the economic base of regional towns. This is especially so in the content of climate change which is drying out the basin. That is why the environment has to be given priority and irrigators have to adjust to making do with less water. As Tim Flannery said on Q+A:

Over the last decade the water for agriculture has decreased by about 68 per cent. Value of the produce produced in irrigated agriculture has decreased by about one per cent or less. So and that's because water trading allows you to trade up to the most valuable crop.

In the absence of this kind of reform narrative from Gillard Labor, the tactic of relentless, strident and aggressive negativity cuts though and fill the vacuum. It is being deployed with great effect by the regional populists fighting their never ending war against Canberra.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:21 AM | | Comments (25)


As you said yesterday, conservative thinking in the hands of these people becomes an alibi, a bit like the whoring of social democratic theory by many labor politicians to undermine or exploit the civil society's wealth and egality for base reasons.
Late capitalism chews up rationality the way a compacter disintegrates an impounded car.

not all are as childish as Gerard Henderson in covering up their ignorance of water issues with cliches to support the backlash from the irrigators burniing the guide for headlines in the nightly news channels. No doubt big agribusiness will be funding an orchestrated campaign.

On Q+A Jennifer Marohasy argues the lack of water in the lower lakes in SA can be properly addressed by a local solution:

The lower lakes were in trouble and there was a local solution for the lower lakes to solve the acid sulphate soil and other problems and that was to open the barriers, to open the barrages that currently block the flow between the southern ocean and the lower lakes. That was a local solution that could have and would have solved the lower lake the barrages and let the water come in from the southern ocean..and you'll be returning it to a more natural situation.

Therefore, there is no need to reduce water allocation in the upper parts of the basin is the inference.

The problem is that the lower lakes were an estuarine system of fresh and salt water before the barrages were built. If the barrages are to be taken away there has to be a flow coming down the river to mix with sea water inflows.

Increased flows means reducing the allocations to irrigators. Marohasy endeavors to block this by claiming that there has been flow all the way down to the lower lakes.

The Water Act forces the MDBA to prioritise environmental flows over socio-economic factors, even if an in-house study or a parliamentary inquiry finds the plan will be damaging to regional towns.

The socio-economic studies would not influence the amount of water deemed necessary to purchase back at the lowest end of the range--3000 gigalitres are needed to deliver the environmental objectives of the Act.

And it's not just agri business.
There's a collusion or constellation of vested interests gathering, including coal and other energy sources, merchant banks with ideas for what should happen if a tory goverment gets back and offhore interests.
Couldn't stomach the sight of the panel. Went and did some thing relatively pleasant, like retiring to a closet and whipping myself one hundred times with a cat o' nine tails.
Savva just reminds me of the worst of led zeppelin.

What vulgar guinea-pigs the cartoonists seem to have become.
Bring back Pryor, the others can return their balls to the stores in the bags these came in and then, forthwith leave the premises.

I think the "irrigator talk" is being well and truly sidelined by small business and community member comment. The realisation that so much regional wealth will be exported downstream, or worse simply lost, with such unexpectedly massive cuts has hit home.

The govt message that water will be bought from willing sellers has allayed some of the financial fears associated with compulsory purchase. Farmers are now more concerned with trying to save their towns.

The media and cartoonists have caught on to the impending disaster should the plan be implemented predominantly through buybacks as economists suggest. It might just take a while longer to filter through to the populace given they've been isolated from that part of the story thus far. I don't think even our own towns had thought the basin plan could sell them so short.

It will be interesting over the coming weeks and months to see how closely the eventual MDB Plan resembles this guide to the draft plan.

The Water Act can be reformed as necessary. The Water Act was created during drought in a period of world economic strength and prior to food shortages hitting the news. It was created with science that indictated between 500 and 1500GL was required.
Commodity prices in 2006/7 were approx half what they are today - it's no wonder the total economic output of the MDB is largely unchanged according to Flannery et al.

The Gillard Government is already backtracking on water reform under pressure from populists in Griffith and Shepparton etc.

The Water Minister, Tony Burke, is now saying he could amend the Howard government's Water Act if it prevents him from protecting rural economies in the Murray-Darling Basin.

It is Malcolm Turnbull who is now defending the Act

the farm groups are grossly exaggerating' and making false claims about job losses and the death of rural towns. They don't seem to realize that the party is over. Have they been sleepwalking during the last decade?

Quentin Grafton, the Australian National University economics professor, has pointed out the proposed water buybacks were far less than communities had endured during the drought. They were taking place when the value of production and total employment in the basin had risen and that the water reform process had $9 billion to spend on infrastructure and buybacks.

Here's some cotton irrigator nonsense---from a Mike Carberry, a third-generation cotton grower, at a meeting in Narrabri on the Queensland border of western NSW. He said:

This (Murray-Darling Basin) plan is flat-out communism. What's happened to our society when you make somebody else responsible? You have got the situation here where people who are performing badly with their actions down there (South Australia) are looking to blame someone else.

He hasn't got a clue about the tragedy of the commons. I suppose he is proud of his know nothingness.

Carberry can't want any subsidies from the government because that would be communist. It is communist to want the state to invest public funds in upgrading irrigation infrastructure. Carberry must also oppose the state's blocking water trading--eg., SA irrigators buying water--- because that regulation of the free market by the NSW state is communist.

Irrigators with substantial debts facing pressure from their banks can sell some or all of their water licences. After all the buybacks are voluntary.

Finally, Judith Sloan is starting to talk sense on water reform-she must have been doing a bit of research. She says:

For practical and financial reasons, the truth is there is absolutely no hope infrastructure spending alone can produce sufficient water to meet the targets of the MDBA.

She says that on the face of it, the infrastructure program might also be seen as assisting irrigation communities, in addition to recovering water for the environment. In the short term, at least, there may be some spin-offs for these communities as the infrastructure is being constructed.

However, and this is a key point:

in terms of providing sustainable support, there is little doubt infrastructure spending is a poorly targeted instrument. There is also the distinct possibility some of this infrastructure may become stranded and uneconomic as a number of irrigators within an area take up the option of selling their water entitlements in the buyback.

She then goes on to mention the magic word 'balance'.

Of course, she says nothing about how the prosperity of the affected communities can be achieved with the cutbacks in water allocations. Presumably, 'regional development' is a bridge too far.

The Coalition is running a fear campaign using the issue to destabilise Labor. They are saying no to reform and showing have no interest in water policy .

The policy they took to the last election was similar to Labor's. The Coalition introduced the Water Act and set up the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

Gary, yes drought has been a big factor in job losses. However when the drought ends those positions are again open.

This is the challenge. Small businesses remain open with slimmer margins knowing that when water returns customers return. When presented with a plan that suggests those good times won't return anyone on the borderline will simply say "too hard" and leave. The ramifications flow on to every part of these small towns.

I employ 1 full time staff equivalent per GL of entitlement, and would suggest other types of farming like Dairying would be higher. Lose a hundred farmworkers from an area, you lose their partners, and any kids. Suddenly you lose a teacher here and a nurse there becuase numbers are down. The newsagent sells less papers and drops off an assistant. It just compounds.

The job losses predicted by abare are net losses, and include jobs created for infrastructure development. Problem 1. Joe, or Pete or whoever might be the worlds best tractor or cotton picker driver but might not be the computer technician in the making for drip installations. This is about turmoil for families as much as simple job numbers.

2, infrastructure jobs are not ongoing, expended largely over 10 years I would say. Similarly mining jobs last only until resources are stripped bare.

3, It's hard to say whether everyone will return to normal staffing levels this year however a near normal, almost maximum, cotton crop is being planted in the Northern Valleys at present. Drought affected numbers no longer apply. The numbers below "normal" will now reflect current buyback levels and future uncertainty created by an uncertain Basin plan.

no one contests the negative consequences of cutbacks of water allocations on the economy and social life of the regional towns that rely on irrigation. The effects will be similar to a mine in a a mining town cutting back production because it is no longer economic to mine.

The standard neo-classical economic response is to let the towns slowly die and tell people to shift to Sydney or Melbourne.

What needs to be done is what the three regional independents talked about --regional development.

How can you diversify the regional economies in a global world so that regional towns are not completely dependent on the one industry (irrigation).

Few are talking about regional development or getting research in place to explore the options/possibilities as the Australian economy becomes more of an information economy and shifts to a low carbon one.

If the irrigator groups were smart they would sit down with the Greens, talk through the possibilities of regional development, and then get The Greens to use their political muscle to push the Gillard Government to get some proper inquiries up and running.

Not band aid stuff, but using the best researchers in the country to think about long term economic diversification. Bob Katter's idea of a northern Queensland energy grid built around solar energy is one example.

I don't see this--irrigator groups sitting down with the Greens + Wentworth group) happening. (Behind the scenes, maybe?) Nor do I see Tony Burke talking this way.

The balance of power is there to be leveraged for the long term benefit of regional Australia. Saying no no no to water reform---eg., the Nationals in parliament-- ain't going to deliver regional prosperity through a diversified economy.

Gary, no arguments there. Regional development has been lacking over many years, Govt depts gradually gravitate to larger centres, and lets face it, if you aren't achieving out here you may as well be not achieving at the coast.

Regional development and irrigation aren't mutually exclusive. It shouldn't suddenly become a priority just to placate irrigation communities. Any development has to be self sustaining, and if our land, water and realistic wage expectations haven't been enough to spark interest thus far the success may be short lived.

The cotton irrigators north western NSW aren't interested in talking to the Greens. At the Narrabri town meeting t-shirts read "Save the Murray -- Remove the Barrages", structures designed to divert water to the lower lakes. The implication is that the Basin plan is a South Australian ploy to cover up that state's long-term maladministration of its water assets.

These guys are way off beam.The Murray-Darling Basin plan is not about applying a Band-Aid to South Australia or just about fixing the mouth of the Murray River. The environmental issues are widespread across the basin and the Murray-Darling plan is about the health of the Murray-Darling Basin overall.

Nan, what will cotton growers get from the greens?

The barrages don't divert water to the lakes, they keep the lakes at close to 1 metre above sea level, and keep sea water out of the lakes when river flow is low. They are a dam. A dam that may be the cause of the mouth closing due to insufficient tidal volume exchange. And consequently affect the Coorong.

The Lakes and Coorong are presented as the damaged icons of the system, when in reality they'd look after themselves but can't now because of the barrages.

I went to the Moree meeting, which wasn't so much about the barrages because the Gwydir does not contribute significant water to the MDB, and water is not being sought by the MDBA for Darling flows.

The problem the Irrigation Industry faces is a credibility one. It says that though it wants to see a healthy river, it won't say what level of reductions it would like to see in water use.

Their tacit message is no reductions despite a drier climate in the Basin.

annon, i, if this is a drier climate I'd hate to see a wet one. Hard to get all our cotton in the ground this season due to constant rain.

ii, if irrigators and their communities have no credibility why did Tony Burke seek advice on, and have confirmed, the social and economic considerations the authority must take into account.

iii, we've had our allocations affected time and time again. The NSW water act 2000 stripped 11% on top of a 7% loss in the early 90's. In the last 2 years govt has purchased a further 17-20% of entitlements in the valley. And apparently this still isn't enough. It isn't clear that more water is needed until past reforms are proven not to work.

Yet as soon as the govt got an allocation on their purchased licences the sold it on the temporary market.

The Commonwealth Water Holder elected not to take it's supplementary entitlement so far this year(no guarantees there will be more flow) which is just as well because wheat farmers are losing their crops to flooding even with full wetlands and irrigators getting their share.

Rojo re your comment:

"Nan, what will cotton growers get from the greens?"

Help with restructuring/adjustment in the basin to adapt to a changing world. The issue is one of transforming regional economies. Talking and negotiating to make the basin more sustainable is much better than shooting the messenger (the MDBA) or irrigators yelling that they face a total loss of their economic future or consigns regional communities to a total drought when that is not the case.

What is lacking is research/plans /programmes etc that provide strategies to help support adaptation to a drier future other than the government purchasing irrigators water voluntarily and helping people walk off the land.

sorry rojo,
business as usual is not an option. Rural futures depend on transformation and restructuring which, in turn, depends on community capacities. That requires investment.

re your comment:

we've had our allocations affected time and time again. The NSW water act 2000 stripped 11% on top of a 7% loss in the early 90's. In the last 2 years govt has purchased a further 17-20% of entitlements in the valley. And apparently this still isn't enough. It isn't clear that more water is needed until past reforms are proven not to work.

The regions where the majority of our irrigated agriculture is currently based are expected to become drier as a result of global climate change over the coming decades. Bill Young, the Director of the CSIRO’s Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, put it this way:
How we use water and how we value water has changed in recent years and must continue to change.The realities of climate change have forced urban water managers to rethink strategies to secure water supplies and meet future demand for water. There is broad agreement that in some places we have over-allocated water for irrigation leading to environmental degradation. This has been exacerbated by the recent drought. In spite of good recent rains in the southern Murray-Darling, the expectations are for more frequent and more severe droughts in the future.

Australia is on a long water reform journey; one that is being underpinned by a scientific understanding of Australia’s water assets and their use.

I don't have a problem with reform, nor buybacks if required. The MDBA just better have it's science right, because it's already admitted being wrong on job losses, lost production values and now has been found to have taken the wrong perspective altogether by basically ignoring social and economic impact because that was how they interpreted the Act and wasn't part of their brief.

In the MDBA meetings Mr Taylor and Mr Freeman had consistently said that the Plan was an interpretation of the Act, which did not allow them to focus on anything other than the environment and told us that if we wanted it to be different we had to change the Act. Tony Burke's legal advice suggests otherwise.

Let's have some time to look at the science shall we, this political friction is no good for anyone.

On the Greens, what will the greens do that the other 140 something other MP's can't?

policy 17. "remove as far as possible all GMOs from the Australian environment and food supply.."

as 96% of Australian cotton is GM i think we'd be on a hiding to nothing.

Predictions to future climate are all well and good, but if the CSIRO give you a range(Gwydir valley) of -30% to +20% and say their best guess is -9% what real value do we place on that 20 years out?

A -9% maybe in 2030-2050 is a bit easier to accept than a 27-37 cut now, some of which is based on that maybe.

We can't have the excesses of human civilisation and not have an impact on the environment. A plan that does not accept that the environment pays a price for 7 billion mouths is doomed to failure.

Will our major cities pass an environmental audit that has a 33% impact on the environment as a maximum? How is the wildlife diversity going in the average CBD? Sorry lawns and exotic gardens don't count.

Perhaps we should listen to scientists that suggest Australia's human carrying capacity is 7-10 million and get on with displacement.
We chose what science we wish to act upon, and any science that doesn't affect someone personally is pretty easily accepted.

I have expect the placards to read 'Keep science out of the political process'.

So our hard-won understanding of how the ecology of the basin works should not influence our decisions on how to organise the reform process!

We need more science in the political process, not less.