Home > Economic policy, Environment > Giving up on the Murray Darling Basin

Giving up on the Murray Darling Basin

June 3rd, 2011

The Risk and Sustainable Management Group, which I lead at the University of Queensland, launched our Annual Report for 2010 last night (link to large PDF coming soon). I’ll quote from the Foreword

As 2009 drew to a close, it seemed reasonable to expect that 2010 would see a resolution of the Australian political debate over the two environmental issues central to the work of the Risk and Sustainable Management Group: climate change and the management of the Murray–Darling Basin.

In the event, neither of these issues was resolved. The bipartisan agreement in support of an emissions trading scheme collapsed, and the policy was abandoned by the government. Following the August 2010 election, the government restated its support for a carbon price, but the main short-term focus was on the idea of a carbon tax.

Developments in water policy were equally confused. Under the Water Act 2007, passed by the Commonwealth Parliament with bipartisan support, the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) was required to produce a plan for the sustainable management of the Basin. The release of the Basin Plan was delayed by the election. The MDBA produced a Guide to the Proposed Basin Plan in October 2010 which met with a very hostile response, with copies of the Guide being burned at public meetings of irrigators. The Draft Plan is still under development.

I’m feeling a bit more hopeful about carbon prices than when I wrote that. Labor, Greens and the Independents seem to be holding together, and the public debate shows some increasing recognition that Abbott is an opportunistic hack and that while preferring prejudice to science may make for good talkback radio, it is not a good basis for public policy.

By contrast, the situation regarding the Murray Darling Basin has gone from bad to worse to pretty much hopeless. We had everything needed for a plan that made just about everyone better off: more water for the environment, a good deal for farmers who wanted to switch out of irrigation, no compulsory acquisition, and enough spare money sloshing into country towns to more than offset any reduction in agricultural output. Instead, the process was spectacularly mishandled, most notably by the Murray Darling Basin Authority, who managed to scare everyone into thinking the government was about to confiscate their water. That handed power back to the most reactionary irrigator lobby groups who just want to stay on the old, unsustainable, path as long as possible, while extracting as much money as they can from the public purse. The release yesterday of the Windsor Report suggests that they will get their wish. The central point of the report is that the government should abandon all “non-strategic” purchases of water, while pouring even more money into so-called “water-saving” schemes, which will cost 5-10 billion while delivering little if any additional water.

Perhaps there is a way back from this but I can’t see it at present. For the next couple of years, at least, I plan to give up (or at least scale down) my work on the Basin and focus on more tractable problems like stabilising the global climate, saving the Great Barrier Reef and fixing financial markets.

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  1. fred
    June 3rd, 2011 at 13:50 | #1

    “Perhaps there is a way back from this but I can’t see it at present. For the next couple of years, at least, I plan to give up (or at least scale down) my work on the Basin …”

    An entirely understandable reaction that I can fully sympathasize with having made the same decision myself a few a couple of years ago with respect to the politics of the Murray.
    I was involved in a couple of groups attempting to improve the state of the environment and the local economy along the river.
    But we, the groups involved and several members within the groups, came up against what you accurately describe as ‘ reactionary irrigator lobby groups’ whose power both locally and basin wide is overwhelming.
    Their pervasive blindness and control of local and national media stymied any attempts at discussion based on the reality facing the river and all the ramifications that flow from that.
    A complete refusal to consider anything other than their own vested interests and never that of other groups, tourism for example, meant that several projects were rendered futile before they got rolling and others were simply out of the question.
    I got so disheartened at the window dressing and cute PR projects that hid the reality, weighed what was actually been achieved shod of the shiny platitudes against what was desperately needed and realized less than nothing was being achieved espite the efforts of many and the endless flow of money and resigned in despair.

    I might quibble with your comment that the MDBA ‘mishandled’ the process but really the MDBA and its predeccessor were so hamstrung that the outcome was predetirmined and I’m surprised the little that has been achieved ever happened at all.
    It one way its unfortunate that we have just had an exceptional inflow of water in the last year that has temporarily replenished the river because all it has done it verified the unrealistic understanding of the lobby that all that was needed for the river was some good rain. I get sick of hearing that “things are good now/we’ll be right” etc.

    So having said all that it may seem to be a little strange of me to ask you not scale down your work on the Basin.

    We, the river, most of the locals nay all including even the short sighted reactionaries, need the political influence of those whose opinions are not controlled by selfishness and ideology to increase, not decrease, their efforts to achieve positive change despite the fact that the difficulty level of such has increased.
    You have a strong voice in this field, your input is needed and despite my own lousy example I would ask you to keep trying even with minimal hope.

    Sorry to chuck a load of emotional blackmail at you so maybe I better thank you for your work in the past on behalf of the Basin.
    It was appreciated.

  2. Ikonoclast
    June 3rd, 2011 at 14:26 | #2

    I am not a religious person but sometimes wisdom quotes are appropriate to our environmental and climate (in)actions.

    “They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.
    Meaning: A warning that we must expect to suffer serious consequences as the result of our own bad actions. We get back what we give out.

    Origin: The idea of cause and effect is expressed by several religions or philosophies. This particular proverb is an allusion to The Bible (Hosea 8:7): “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind…”" – englishclub.com

  3. Goricans
    June 3rd, 2011 at 14:40 | #3

    Ikonoclast, if it were just us that suffered it wouldn’t be so bad. What is maddening is that it is us who suffers least, for the moment anyway.

  4. may
    June 3rd, 2011 at 15:45 | #4

    this is the second time in a couple of days the term “vested interests”
    is being aired.

    they seem to be like cockroaches—see one,you just know there are more around and a cockroach hunt has to be scheduled forthwith.

    having policy shoved down the throat of the elected representative govt by unelected
    “vested interests”,be they irrigators,miners,financial planners,patented genetically modified plants owners or purveyors of mug punters paradises etc , we pick up the bill.

    wordy two cents worth.

  5. June 3rd, 2011 at 17:35 | #5

    The Windsor parliamentary report signals the death of the Murray Darling river system. Two phrases sum up the doom of the rivers – “the health of the river system can be protected without the cuts” “all non-strategic water buybacks be put on hold”. If you had a glimmer of hope left, this would put an end to it – “National Irrigators Council chief executive Danny O’Brien has welcomed the findings. He says irrigators are finally being listened to.”

    I agree with you John, the situation is hopeless. Was indeed hopeless from the moment Knowles was appointed as a man with a mission.

    Ben Eltham agrees http://newmatilda.com/2011/05/31/real-lives-real-votes-not-real-science in a thoughtful but equally gloomy piece. I don’t see a way back from this. As I said on Ben’s thread – “this sequence of events shows it is no longer possible to enact conservation measures. Those who profit from the status quo, their enablers in the media, and the responsive politicians, have learnt the techniques (also adopted in relation to the mining tax) to put a stop to any recognition of ecological concerns (http://davidhortonsblog.com/2011/03/27/disturbing-the-peace/).

    A similar process has swung into action to prevent, once again, any actions to stop live animal exports. Those of us on the side of the angels have to get better at this.”

  6. Marginal Notes
    June 3rd, 2011 at 20:31 | #6

    I share your reaction. My confidence in Tony Windsor’s acumen and/or sincerity has taken a battering. On the one had he castigates the Authority for miscommuication, and on the other he talks of avoiding the ‘cuts’ and moving to ‘win-win’!! He’s become an embarrassment to the agricultural economics profession (of which JQ is the esteemed leader). The only hope is that it is not in fact a ‘win-win’, as both environmental groups and irrigators who will lose the opportunity to sell up will oppose the recommendations. However, as one who works on the problems of agriculture in the Greater Mekong region, i would not give up on the Murray Darling!

  7. Donald Oats
    June 3rd, 2011 at 22:04 | #7

    This comment by fred is exactly right:

    It one way its unfortunate that we have just had an exceptional inflow of water in the last year that has temporarily replenished the river because all it has done it verified the unrealistic understanding of the lobby that all that was needed for the river was some good rain. I get sick of hearing that “things are good now/we’ll be right” etc.

    I live down the bottom end (SA) of the Murray, and the way in which the upstreamers continually capture (literally) the goodies at the expense of the downstreamers is legendary. Unfortunately, another good drought would cost SA fairly dearly, but sometimes shock and awe is what is required. This year isn’t looking like drought, however, so the point is moot.

    Probably the saddest thing is the way in which scientists were so sidelined that they felt they had to chuck it in. Even worse, in spite of some eminent scientists being involved, the sidelining and country radio/print media behaviour just increases the rural public’s cynicism with respect to scientists (both water and climate specialisations). I hope the public is, overall, above the self-interested stupidity of some radio and print media…

  8. rojo
    June 3rd, 2011 at 23:36 | #8

    Donald, I don’t understand how you you can realistically hold this view when SA has had a near 100% allocation record for it’s irrigators, and its been significantly higher than their upstream colleagues when there is scarcity. This past season excepted, payback is painful.

    John, I’m no economist, but I would have thought that as a nation we would be better getting some return on more expensive water – via savings- than by buying entitlement and getting no return- less GDP, less tax receipts.
    We also know according to the basin plan that the environment only needs 1400GL and that the rest of the proposed 3000-4000GL was going to be lost flooding non-target property and raising sea level.

    Anyway in a hundred years sea level will have risen high enough to come back over the barrages, won’t it?

  9. pablo
    June 4th, 2011 at 09:53 | #9

    The Federal Government has been spooked by the imagery of those Griffith ‘irrigators’ collectively burning the MDBA guide to the plan and as Don @ 7 suggests, the media will use such imagery ad infinitum. Regrettably Knowles has impugned the science contained in the guide with a NSW Right politicians’ headkicker approach. And Windsor is all ‘win-win’ for both sides as you would expect an ‘independent’ polly to be. I think the pessimism of posters is justified. I await the next drought to do a bit of headkicking of its own.

  10. June 4th, 2011 at 14:49 | #10

    Pr Q laments:

    As 2009 drew to a close, it seemed reasonable to expect that 2010 would see a resolution of the Australian political debate over the two environmental issues central to the work of the Risk and Sustainable Management Group: climate change and the management of the Murray–Darling Basin.

    In the event, neither of these issues was resolved. The bipartisan agreement in support of an emissions trading scheme collapsed, and the policy was abandoned by the government.

    Developments in water policy were equally confused. Under the Water Act 2007, passed by the Commonwealth Parliament with bipartisan support, the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) was required to produce a plan for the sustainable management of the Basin.

    The release of the Basin Plan was delayed by the election. The MDBA produced a Guide to the Proposed Basin Plan in October 2010 which met with a very hostile response, with copies of the Guide being burned at public meetings of irrigators.

    My sympathy extends to Pr Q for seeing all his yeoman work in M-D conservation policy going down the drain. But it all goes to naught if you don’t have good conservative politics to make it work.

    And what is the missing common denominator for ecological policy between the high hopes entertained in 2007 and the pit of despair sunk to in 2010? Why it is none other than John Winston Howard!

    If He was still PM by now we would have some sort of CPRS in the works and there would be some sort of federal-state agreement on Murray-Darling water conservation & allocation.

    But of course certain Left-liberals (no name, no pack-drill) spent the better part of the noughties screaming their head off at him, all to some avail. They got Gillard and Abbott for their troubles.

    The results speak for themselves: incompetent policy and impasse in politics.

    Howard got things done, by hook or by crook. His successors just dither about.

    Don’t blame me, I told you so.

  11. frankis
    June 5th, 2011 at 14:33 | #11

    ” … focus on more tractable problems like stabilising the global climate, saving the Great Barrier Reef and fixing financial markets”

    Not forgetting world peace, and a pony for every child.

  12. John Quiggin
    June 5th, 2011 at 14:39 | #12

    @frankis Too easy to mention, I thought. The ponies are in the mail as I type.

  13. John Quiggin
    June 5th, 2011 at 14:44 | #13

    Jack, as a general point, I’m sick of silly gotcha/”I told you so” comments and will delete them without notice from now on.

    In this case, as in many others, you are flatout wrong. It was Howard’s Water Plan that caused the fiasco

    * To override state opposition, he relied on the treaty power under the Ramsar convention to pass the Water Act. It was that that gave rise to the claim that “the environment had priority”, which was one of the biggest reasons for the failure of the plan

    * The billions for wasteful infrastructure are all down to Howard. Labor at least managed some buyback before Howard’s timebomb exploded on them.

    Far from getting things done, Howard achieved nothing and left a poisoned chalice for his successors.

  14. June 6th, 2011 at 14:37 | #14

    All this talk of water reminds me of the other great source of water in this country: the bore.

    Olympic Dam’s extraction will probably triple from 35ML/day. Is BHP paying for this water yet?

    Also, it’s estimated coal seam gas companies could extract 281 gigalitres of groundwater (usually contaminated with unknown effects on aquifiers and long-term disposal/evaporation) from Queensland if gets fully up and running.

    Makes you wonder what happens when the river runs dry (or is poisoned).

    And today Adelaide Now’s running the article “Australia faces food shortages within a decade”

  15. June 6th, 2011 at 14:38 | #15

    * 281 GL / year

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