New Plan Same Old Thinking


The Prime Minister’s recent announcement of a $10 billion plan for the Murray-Darling basin  acknowledges what most Australians already know: climate change is real, the drought is unprecedented and current arrangements are not working.

Considered individually, it is difficult to disagree with the 10 points that are the centrepiece of John Howard’s proposal. But together, the 10 points are somewhat of a dog’s breakfast. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.


What’s more, Howard’s plan perpetuates a form of thinking consistent with ‘doing the wrong thing righter.’ It contains no vision for the Australian landscape in a climate-change world, nor does it consider what is urgently needed: a national rural development strategy to deal with the nature and sustainability of rural livelihoods. Such a strategy would have to involve thinking about the types of relationship urban Australians wish to have with rural Australians and with the bulk of the food they eat, the water they drink, the balance of payments and, ultimately, the country they will inhabit in the future.

Howard’s plan recognises the need for a new set of governance arrangements a revamped Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) is proposed. Managing the Murray-Darling basin as a whole system is a good idea, but the record of Federal bureaucracies is not always good (witness immigration and defence-force procurement). So can a Federal bureaucracy, oversighting a revamped MDBC, achieve what it was unable to do in the past?

Recent history suggests that the new agency would not be sufficiently independent of the short-term election cycle, political manipulation and control. South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, recognises this with his call for the basin to be controlled by an independent body. Water and its management need arrangements that are suited to the long-haul. Moreover, the MDBC may have a history from which it is unable to escape worldviews and practices that are no longer relevant.

The PM said his plan will only work ‘if the governance arrangements for the basin are put on a proper national footing.’ And the espoused aim is ‘to significantly improve water management across the nation.’ These are noble aims but ones we have heard before. The first wave of investment in Integrated Catchment Management Committees, (to some extent) Landcare, and the recent formation of Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) had similar aims. Where are these entities in the new proposals? What role will they play, if any?

The old thinking epitomised by Howard’s plan believes in ‘magic bullets,’ but this exacerbates complexity rather than managing it. Today, by contrast, we need a different kind of thinking a systemic thinking which is at the heart of ecology and which succeeds in managing complexity.

An example of this new kind of thinking is the European Union’s ambitious Water Framework Directive (WFD) which started in 2000 and runs to 2027.

Reflecting a political struggle between two views of water’s value, the WFD asserts: ‘Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage, which must be protected, defended and treated as such.’ The result is a hybrid between communitarian and utilitarian concerns for instance, the WFD states that ‘sustainable, balanced and equitable water use’ is to ‘safeguard and develop the potential uses of Community waters’ and ‘will provide economic benefits.’

While it is clear that, in Australia, water is well on the way to being a commodity like any other, the WFD protects European citizens from outcomes based only on market mechanisms. No longer is water management restricted to the water running between river banks or channels (the traditional domain of engineers and chemists), the WFD recognises that water flows through catchments on and below the surface; is linked to groundwater and estuaries; and that farming and other practices affect it just as much as pollution from industry or sewerage works.

In other words, in Europe, water is now the means to consider whole landscapes and human practices in those landscapes. Water and its management is now a socio-technical issue.

So, when Howard asks the States to hand over control of the Murray-Darling river system, what is he asking for? Is it merely pricing policy? Or co-ordinating the buy-back of water rights? Or the management of water, land-use, planning and the entire social development of the Murray-Darling basin?

And what about Australia’s other river systems?

In effect, the PM’s plan suggests that our current federal form of government does not work. Should power be ceded to the Federal Government for every complex issue emerging through climate change? By all means, let’s debate the future of the States and the need for stronger regional government, but in the meantime we can learn from the Europeans and ask: how can we best run a federal system in the face of climate change?

Thanks to Sean Leahy

The WFD is being implemented in a giant federal system. It is a unique piece of legislation, a kind of social technology just like the score for a piece of music, it is orchestrating a performance. In Europe, all agencies involved in water management (within and between countries) now have to ‘play together.’

The WFD is a vehicle for the adaptive management of Europe’s water. It will run over several cycles and in each cycle, and in all countries, implementation will change as people learn, work together and respond to changing circumstances. But taking this learning-based approach is not the incrementalism deplored by the PM, it is what is required in complex and uncertain situations.

Abolishing the States or ceding all power to the Commonwealth will not allow us to escape the inescapable that people will have to work together to deal with the uncertainties we face we need to develop practices and understandings with supportive policies and institutions which enable this to happen.

Market-based mechanisms may be necessary but they will not be sufficient. The recent conclusions of the Stern report on climate change are testimony to market failure in the face of complexity.

Current farming methods and irrigation schemes within the Murray-Darling basin were conceived out of a romanticism for making a dry continent green and productive and as means to extend engineering expertise. It is easy to see this with hindsight but hindsight is neither ethical nor equitable. Residents of the Murray-Darling basin, especially land managers, deserve to have a stake in the future. Even so, conserving current practices and even whole industries may be untenable. Many within these communities and sectors will realise this, but may not feel able to say it.

Funds for buying back water and addressing historical over-allocation (as proposed in Howard’s plan) are to be welcomed, but in the absence of a broader rural livelihoods strategy the proposals run the risk of merely creating winners and losers.

European Australians have transformed the Australian landscape and collectively we must take responsibility for it. As a society, we need to determine how best to encourage, reward and relate to those to whom we delegate responsibility for manag
ing the land. The essence of this is a social contract which market forces alone cannot negotiate.

Howard’s plan also has to be considered as a political act. As someone who has lived much of the last 12 years outside Australia, I may not be well placed to divine all of the plan’s political implications, but I perceive many of the elements of ‘wedge politics’ for which the Howard Government has become infamous. It is an election year, after all!

Perhaps Kevin Rudd’s ready endorsement of the proposal is symptomatic of this? Or perhaps it is consistent with his views on a new Federalism? If so, then both Rudd and Howard have in common the conservation of a way of thinking that is well past its use-by date.

What has to be discerned is whether old money (and proposals) have been repackaged to look like new? Despite $10 billion, the stubbornness of old politics has little to offer in the face of significant changes to our future way of life.

Australia would do well to consider a version of the WFD overseen by an independent facilitator/regulator concerned with the environmental, economic and social roles of water.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.