My column in last week’s Fin was about the communication and policy failures surrounding the release of the draft plan for the Murray Darling Basin. I still hope that a solution can be salvaged, but the release was a fiasco.
No one will be forced out
Accidents of timing sometimes work out in interesting ways. Early this year, the Risk and Sustainable Management Group at the University of Queensland, which I lead, planned a workshop to review the draft plan for the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, then due for release in July. The rather optimistic title was ‘Water policy in the Murray-Darling Basin: Have we finally got it right?’ and the idea was to allow leading economists and scientists, with the hindsight of a few months, to review the plan and its reception.
Instead, because of delays to the election, the workshop was held only a couple of weeks after the release of the ‘Guide to the Draft Plan’, copies of which were still smouldering on the steps of community halls around the Basin. In this context, the sub-title ‘Have we finally got it right’ took on a tone of sardonic irony.
Surprisingly, though, the consensus of the workshop was that, in substantive terms, the draft plan did mostly get it right. Many of the problems we have seen are the result of poor communication and an excessive bureaucratic reliance on the provisions of the 2007 Water Act, under which the report was required. Others could be addressed with sensible government policy responses to the problems inevitable in dealing with the consequences of decades of largely failed policies.
The big communication problem was the media framing of the plan in terms of ‘cuts’ to water entitlements and allocations, resulting in a string of news stories of farmers saying their businesses would be ruined by cuts of the magnitude envisaged in the plan. The presentation of the draft plan by the Murray Darling Basin Authority did little to challenge this framing. As a result, the Gillard government was left to play catch-up, protesting that it had already committed itself to ensure that water would be acquired only through voluntary participation in purchases or water-saving investments.
The discussion of economic impacts was similarly misleading and similarly poorly handled. Model estimates of changes in employment levels were translated as ‘jobs lost’, when in reality they mean nothing of the kind. The most direct impacts will be on the number of irrigation farm operators. Given reliance on voluntary buybacks, the number of operators who will lose their jobs, or be forced off the land, can be precisely estimated at zero. The reduction in employment will primarily take the form of operators choosing to sell their water entitlements to fund either retirement or a shift into other industries.
For most towns and cities in the region, the ‘job loss’ estimates will be similarly notional. Total population in the Basin is growing, and so is employment. A small change up or down in projected employment growth over a decade or so is little more than a modelling artifact.
These purely notional estimates serve to distract attention from the more important results, focusing on the minority of communities in the Basin where a contraction in irrigated agriculture is likely to produce a reduction in total employment or to exacerbate existing adverse trends.
Communication failures are never the whole story. The government should have had, at the ready, a regional development package that would address both unmet needs in regional Australia as a whole and the specific needs of communities in decline, regardless of the cause of this decline.
Instead, policy responses have been narrowly focused on irrigators and irrigation infrastructure. Billions of dollars have been allocated to projects to improve the efficiency of irrigation, despite evidence that very little water is ultimately lost to the system through processes such as leakage and seepage, which mostly return water to rivers and groundwater systems. If even a fraction of this sum were allocated to improvements in social infrastructure, it could generate enough new jobs and social returns to more than offset the adverse impacts of a contraction in irrigated agriculture.
A solution to the environmental, economic and social problems of the Murray Darling Basin is within our reach. A combination of voluntary repurchase of excess water entitlements and investment in social infrastructure could be funded from the $10 billion already on the table for the Water for the Future initiative. Success or failure will tell us a lot about the capacity of the Gillard government to deliver meaningful reform.