Opinion – Murray Darling debacle shows the failure of federalism

The current standoff over water allocations in the Murray Darlin Basin is as good an example as you could ever find of how Australia’s federal system is broken.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan was supposed to be the epitome of how Australia’s states and territories could work with each other and the Federal Government for the good of all Australians. Instead it has descended into the infantile bickering and name-calling that seems to be the norm in public debate in Australia in the 21st century.

Instead of evidence-based analysis and rational argument, we have partisan posturing and cherry picked facts. There is a real danger that the whole Murray Darling Basin rescue strategy will come crashing down, and that Australia’s agricultural heartland will be ruined.

The issue is pretty simple, though many try to complicate it. At the bottom of the problem is the inescapable fact that there is a finite amount of water to go around, and that it must be allocated in such a way to satisfy as many stakeholders as possible, who unfortunately have competing and incompatible aims.

Everybody wants as much water as they can get, but it is a zero sum game. Even with increase efficiencies (which is happening) and total transparency of usage (which is most definitely not happening), there would be problems.

As it is, greed and stupidity and short-sightedness are winning out. Efforts to redress the balance and come up with a water allocation system that will disappoint the smallest number of people are failing.

So, what are the facts?

Fact: There is a finite amount of water. Efficiencies in its use are increasing, but rainfall will always be variable and climate change will probably make things more difficult.

Fact: The river system needs a certain amount of water flowing through it to the sea top remain viable. There comes a point at which insufficient water causes silting, salination, the loss of animal’s habitats, and in extreme cases the drying up of the river altogether.

Fact: Upstream users are taking more than they should. The big cotton growers in Queensland are simply selfish and greedy and don’t care about people downstream. They call any attempt to reduce even their legal allocation ‘extreme environmentalism’.

Fact: The NSW Government has actively colluded in the theft of unmetered water by rogue farmers. A seniotr bureaucrat lost his job, but a continuing inquiry is turning into an exercise in obfuscation.

Fact: The former Federal Water Minister and current Deputy Prime Minister, lately in the news for other reasons, told NSW farmers not to worry about the agreement, and that he would make sure they got aa much water as they wanted.

This week in Federal Parliament the ALP voted for a Greens amendment to prevent the Federal Government reducing the amount of water being left in the river. By any measure it is the minimum need to keep the river healthy. The Government and the upriver farmers are crying foul – even though it is they who are trying to change the rules.

Meanwhile the NSW Government has announced it will build a pipeline from the river to Broken Hill, bypassing that city’s natural water supply of the Menindee Lakes. It refuses to offer any business case, or to even meet with the city’s mayor and civic fathers to discuss the project.

It is a god-awful mess. If ever anything in Australia was worthy of a Royal Commission, this is it.

A couple of years ago I was involved in writing a book about Australia’s agricultural potential. I interviewed the head of the Murray Darlin Basin Authority and I did some research on the area’s importance to the country. This is what I wrote:

“The Murray-Darling Basin is one of the largest river basins in the world. It covers just over a million square kilometres, or 14 per cent of Australia’s land area. That is around the same area as Spain and France combined. It is home to more than two million people.

“Total river length is 77,000 km, including Australia’s three longest rivers. It includes virtually all of inland NSW and the entire northern half of Victoria. It takes in the Darling Downs and the Warrego in Queensland, and South Australia’s Riverland. At its eastern end is Canberra – Lake Burley Griffin is formed by the dammed Molonglo River, which flows into the Murrumbidgee, the Murray’s greatest tributary.

“The Basin produces one third of Australia’s food supply. It contains 40 percent of Australia’s farms and 70 percent of its irrigated farmland. It produces almost all of Australia’s rice and cotton and two thirds of its grapes. More than half Australia’s fruit is grown in the Basin, and it is home to most of the country’s sheep.”

And now it is all at risk. But don’t worry. The Government will fix it all.


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