Don't Buy The Farm, Penny


If you drive seven hours west of Brisbane you get to St George, a pretty, dusty little town on the Balonne River where Senator Barnaby Joyce lives. Drive another hour or so south-west and you reach Dirranbandi, near the NSW border on the vast open floodplains of south-west Queensland. It’s big sky country where the horizons shimmer in heat haze and you almost feel that you can see the curvature of the earth.

The main industry out there is not beef or grain, but cotton, and the really big local business is Cubbie Station, an enormous cotton and grain producing property just south-west of Dirranbandi. The scale of Cubbie is vast — so vast, in fact, that you don’t have to do much zooming to see its gigantic irrigation plots on the Google Maps satellite image. All up, Cubbie has the capacity to divert 537,000 megalitres of floodplain water and river-flow into vast holding pans, where it is used to grow cotton on a truly industrial scale.

Cubbie was the result of the merger of two big family holdings, of the Brimblecombe and Stevenson families. Under the Chairmanship of former Goss government treasurer, Keith De Lacy, Paul Brimblecombe and John Grabbe built a massive cotton and grain complex throughout the last decade.

Unfortunately for its owners, Cubbie is losing money. In a good year, Cubbie can produce hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton, with some wheat thrown in. But long years of drought have meant the good years have been few and far between. With debt getting harder to finance, the station is now up for sale.

But Cubbie is more than a financial problem — it’s a political one, thanks to the massive volumes of water that it takes from one of our most crucial river systems. Sitting at the top of the Murray-Darling Basin, Cubbie draws huge amounts of water from the Balonne and Culgoa Rivers that might otherwise make their way downstream. Partly because Cubbie is so big, and partly because Cubbie enjoys the lucky quirk of being in the irrigator-friendly state of Queensland, the station has become a lightning rod for those critical of the way Australia’s farmers and governments manage our precious but dwindling inland water resources.

There’s much to be critical of. As the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson explained in a fine Four Corners report late last year, entitled "Buying Back the River", Australia’s system of water allocation rights for farmers and irrigators is hopelessly compromised. The reason is simple: governments in all states have given out too many water rights. The result was a rights system so unrealistic that few irrigators received their full allocation even in relatively wet years. Now the whole continent is drying, and there’s even less water to allocate. It’s not coming back, either. Australian rivers are dying and as a country we must collectively make do with less water.

Clearly it’s a system with many problems besides Cubbie’s enormous water allocation, a system in which Cubbie is merely one of the most outrageous symbols. As Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan (himself a farmer and as knowledgeable on the issue as any Canberra politician) pointed out to Tony Jones on Lateline last night, because of quirks in Queensland water laws, "the licences that are now proposed to be issued will be issued on the basis of the size of the bulldozer used and storages produced by that bulldozer … there was legislation passed in the Queensland Government so that they were exempt from any environmental planning as long as the storages were kept under five metres in an area, Tony, which has 2.5 metres of evaporation. It was complete craziness."

In fact, it’s even worse than Heffernan thinks it is. As noted water expert Mike Young has been saying, there is actually no point in buying up the Cubbie water rights under the current system. "The water licences are not written to take shepherding of water into account because nobody contemplated we would ever have to return water to the environment," he told the Canberra Times‘ Rosslyn Beeby. In other words, even if Cubbie’s water is bought by the Federal Government, the extra water won’t flow down the Balonne for very long. It will be captured almost immediately by downstream irrigators.

A big part of the problem is the continuing dysfunction of Australia’s federal system of government. It’s a problem common to river systems and catchments all over the world, but you would have thought that Australia could at least have managed a common structure and framework for the Murray-Darling by now.

At the moment, the states control the water, and they are a long way from cooperating with either each other, or with Canberra. South Australia, which finds itself in the same position as Iraq, Egypt or Pakistan in being reliant on a major river system whose headwaters are upstream of its borders, is considering launching a High Court challenge against Victoria, whose ridiculously stingy environmental allocations (ie the amount of water not used for irrigation or other purposes) remain locked in for years. Queensland, meanwhile, has been vigorously granting water use allocations despite the cries of downstream states. It’s exactly the mess that Kevin Rudd’s "cooperative federalism" was meant to sort out, but so far it hasn’t.

A bit like climate change, the Rudd Government has chosen to deal with the Murray-Darling irrigation crisis in an incremental way, managing a "politics of transaction" while doing deals on the side. It’s a strategy that has so far minimised any political damage to the Government. But it has also meant Rudd and his senior ministers like Penny Wong have been unable to deliver the kind of sweeping reform necessary to fix these really big problems. Climate change and inland water allocation, which are of course interrelated, are both multi-jurisdictional, multi-generational problems which span decades. Fixing a low carbon reduction target or buying back water rights piecemeal simply won’t address the scale of these issues.

On this point too, Senator Heffernan said some surprisingly sensible things last night (between rants about vegetarianism in India and human gene patenting). Pointing to growing alarm from world experts on the long-term risks of global food shortages, Heffernan told Jones that "the greatest challenge facing the planet at the present time is the global food task," and pointed out that in Carnarvon in Western Australia, farmers using best-practice root-zone irrigation technology are producing cotton with a fraction of the water that Cubbie is.

But then, most of Australia’s bores are uncapped, and many of our irrigation canals are still open channels, exposed to evaporation. The political will required — and the scale of the investment Australia will need to commit — to make our agriculture sustainable is frightening.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.