Reality, not greenies, the enemy of irrigation expansion

That’s the title of my latest piece in The Guardian, responding to a Matt Canavan spray against critics of a recent CSIRO report canvassing options for expanded irrigation in Northern Australia. Interestingly, although Canavan comes across as a typical North Queensland developmentalist (for whom I would have some sympathy) he’s actually from the South-East corner, a UQ economics graduate and a former senior official of the Productivity Commission. Ten years ago, he’d have been debunking CSIRO in exactly the way I do in my report.

After my piece came out, there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter over whether CSIRO had really proposed a dam on the Fitzroy. Their report didn’t do any new analysis of major dams (a point they stressed) but dusted off a couple of existing proposals, then did a more detailed analysis of a plan based on one or more smaller (25 GL or more) dams. None of them were economically sound, except when the magic of regional input-output multipliers was invoked.

10 thoughts on “Reality, not greenies, the enemy of irrigation expansion

  1. Canavan was a section head at the Productivity Commission. This was a mid level position, not senior.

    “Ten years ago, he’d have been debunking CSIRO in exactly the way I do in my report.”
    Maybe, but only to support the PC line, for career-advancement purposes.

  2. It is a shame basic ethics is not part of any economics degree. It might curtail some of the clearly unethical analysis and policy advice undertaken by economists.

  3. Does Smith9 believe that no-one acts from conviction, and no-one believes what they say, unless they agree with him? His comment on Canavan, like his comments on Shorten and on others on other threads, suggest this.

  4. Yes Bruce Davidson had it right. Intensive agriculture – and indeed extensions of most forms of existing agriculture – are uneconomic in the north and it is difficult to find any non-economic reason to support such developments. As he says in “The Northern Myth”, politicians push the pro-development line because groups, such as CSIRO, show the technical feasibility of intensive cropping and animal husband. But a supportive economic case is lacking. History is repeating itself with the addition of some flaky non-economics from the CSIRO. It is disconcerting that historical failures and good argument are disregarded.

  5. Why is N.Q. unsuitable for irrigation? My guesses are that rainfall and runoff are insufficient, good dam sites are hard to find, soils are poor, markets are too far away and tropical pests too much of a problem.

    I’d also like to see J.Q. write about grazing policy in this country. Something is clearly very, very wrong. Our grazing lands (often mulga turned into grazing lands) are now in a disastrous state. It seems to me it is incorrect to always just blame the latest drought. Much of it looks like damage from over-grazing for decades and from grazing on lands where grazing should never have been implemented. This country needs to radically reappraise its grazing industry and land-clearing practices. Otherwise, with the added impetus from global warming, desertification will rapidly accelerate across our landscape.

  6. Harry, Tom Lehrer (I think) had a one-liner about a friend who practiced animal husbandry until someone caught him at it.

    Back to the point, it was my understanding that those CSIRO studies said the proposal was technically feasible, but environmentally and economically completely unsustainable.

  7. Harry, my understanding is that this time round CSIRO is keeping the analysis clean. Their recent work does not support public investment in agricultural development in northern Australia, the musings and ravings of Matt Canavan notwithstanding. It would be interesting for someone to rework the empirics of Bruce Davidson’s The Northern Myth, and Australia Wet or Dry for that matter. My guess is that private investments in small scale irrigation on the large farms of northern Australia now have better prospects, although the economic fundamentals of large-scale public investment remain the same. The treatment of Bruce Davidson in the 1960s by a few opportunists in CSIRO management was appalling, although he did have plenty of support at the time from influential people who knew how to behave, and whose views were worth taking seriously.

  8. Al, they are doing regional input-output multipliers which is always dubious but more so when the idea is to attract people to an area where they don’t currently live.

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