Giving up on the Murray Darling Basin
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.