I have read the latest Quarterly Essay: Cry Me a River by Margaret Simons, about the Murray-Darling basin.
This was really insightful, given that I was just starting my legal career when the buy-back of water licences was occurring, and the uncoupling of the water licences with the land. And I’ve been working with farmers over the last 8 years with farm infrastructure upgrades and payments. Farmers had clearly spoken about how it was when they were just handed hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for upgrades, and then did none. Then it went the complete opposite way.
It’s the incompetence and the corruption surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan that astounds me, with no one accountable. And such huge consequences … let alone the financial consequences on money spent and impacts on the economy.
Rural Australia, no longer the heart of our national narrative, is too easily neglected. It has been governed piecemeal, and with cynicism, and the National Party was contributed to that. Some of the producer groups have made positive contributions, and some have been aggressive and short-sighted – on the wrong side of history. Developing visionary policies for rural Australia would take courageous leadership and enlightened politics. It is hard to find much evidence of either in the history of the Murray-Darling Basin. The exception, perhaps, is the face that we have a Basin Plan at all.
Because of the allegations of water theft and corruption, and what farmers have seen with their own eyes, their willingness to sacrifice has been eroded. I can see why locals are weary, defensive and cynical.
If there’s anyone that has more to blame from Margaret’s essay than anyone else, it’s the New South Wales State government. That government has not merit’s requirements, has not done what it promised, and has been making noises about ‘Can the Plan’. It also appears that the most water theft has occurred in NSW because of unregulated pumping. (Although the diverting of surface water runoff in QLD is very interesting).
There weren’t many offers of solutions or recommendations in the essay, but the one I’m most keen on is hopefully going to go to a referendum by the end of 2020 or in 2021 – and that is for the Constitution to be amended for the Commonwealth to take back all power over water from the States.
The political obstacles, the hate, the unfairness and the potentially catastrophic gaps in our knowledge obscure what an achievement it would be for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to succeed. A voluntary scheme to peg back use of an overstretched resource would be close to unprecedented in the world. Perhaps, in the face of the evidence, it might mean there is hope for our system of government, for our policies, and for us all.
Having survived with my only water supply being rain water tanks for more than a decade, and looking to the sky for rain during draught, and watching the Goulburn river run so high because it’s all being letup of Eildon for the irrigators, and then going to fish the dam and having it extremely low … I have some personal feelings about the management of water, and I’m not even relying on water for my livelihood like our farmers are.
I can only hope that others can fix this, because I don’t want to weigh into this political mess myself.