As public protests went, it was small but telegenic.
Angered by cuts to irrigation entitlements proposed by a draft plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, a dozen or so farmers in Griffith gathered in October last year outside a consultation meeting and set fire to the draft report.
The images of the protest reverberated around inland Australia, reflecting an all too real conflagration in regional public opinion.
As townsfolk along the Murray-Darling gathered to hear the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Chairman, Mike Taylor, explain the proposed cuts at a series of fiery meetings, irrigators and farmers’ representatives predicted civil unrest and even riots if the plan went ahead.
The Gillard Government was taken completely by surprise. Water Minister Tony Burke had only just been sworn in with his new portfolio in Gillard’s cabinet, and spent the following weeks relentlessly trying to untangle the imbroglio. An outbreak of regional unrest over the Murray-Darling was the last thing Julia Gillard’s shaky government — dependent on the voters of two regional independents for its very survival — could countenance. Burke announced a parliamentary inquiry into the plan, chaired by independent MP Tony Windsor.
Soon afterwards, Taylor resigned. In a parting shot, he argued that in designing the cuts the Authority had acted in accordance with the letter of the Water Act. "The authority has sought, and obtained, further confirmation that it cannot compromise the minimum level of water required to restored the system’s environment on social or economic grounds," he said in December.
It is often stated that Howard government’s Water Act 2007 forces the Authority to consider environmental outcomes ahead of social and economic ones — but in fact the Water Act has always provided for a balance of "economic, social and environmental outcomes". Where the act does leave little room for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to wriggle is in its explicitly defined object of "the return to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction for water resources that are over-allocated or overused".
In January, Burke decided to apply an old-fashioned political fix. He brought in an old NSW Labor headkicker, Craig Knowles, as the new Chair of the Authority. Knowles wasted little time in establishing the new political reality under which the Authority would operate. He pointedly let it be known to the ABC’s Marian Wilkinson, investigating the issue for Four Corners, that the Authority’s key management and other Board members did not enjoy his confidence. This is what he told Wilkinson:
"I want to be very accurate, and the board members listening know what I’m saying, I asked them bluntly to consider whether their alignment and association with the history of this exercise, this enterprise to date, was such that they were so tangled in it, so much perceived as being part of the problem, that they couldn’t be part of the success for the future."
In Wilkinson’s Four Corners episode, the Authority’s Chief Executive Rob Freeman insisted he was not being pressured to resign. Other board members certainly were. Board member Diana Day had already left, while Barry Hall told Wilkinson, "Yeah there’s pressure. Look, it’s extreme."
By May this year, Freeman too was gone and the Authority was suddenly telling parliamentarians that restoring 2800 gigalitres to the system might be enough, rather than the nearly 4000 litres previously recommended as a lower limit.
It is this new figure of 2800 gigalitres, obviously cooked up under orders from Burke and Knowles, that has sparked the Wentworth Group’s walk-out. The Wentworth Group of scientists were advising the Authority on how much water needed to be taken from irrigators’ entitlements and returned to the river.
The reasons are simple enough. 2800 gigalitres is not enough to save the Murray-Darling, especially in the context of a continent rapidly drying under the influence of global warming. Prominent Wentworth Group scientist Peter Cosier has stated bluntly that "there’s no point in us being part of a process if the process is fundamentally flawed, and unless there is an independent review of the science then we believe it is a fundamentally flawed process".
According to Tim Stubbs, another Wentworth Group scientist, an environmental allocation of 4000 gigalitres "is the minimum that’s in everyone’s best interests. If we go below that, there’s not much use in doing this reform really".
The reaction of farm lobbyists and irrigators’ groups was telling.
National Irrigators Council chief executive Danny O’Brien told Stock and Land’s Alan Dick that science "should not and could not" be the sole arbiter of a decision on the Murray-Darling Basin plan.
"We’re not sure what it is that the Wentworth Group of scientists is upset about," O’Brien continued, "but throwing a tantrum and walking away from a process before it’s even concluded only reflects poorly on them."
"Frankly we don’t think anyone will miss them."
New Chair Craig Knowles doesn’t seem that worried. He told the ABC’s Paul Lockyer that "science is important, but so are other things. This is not just about a science exercise for a whole lot of academics and scientists. It’s actually about real lives, real people, real economies." But not, apparently, real science.
To understand the magnitude of the water allocation cuts, some context is needed — context that’s been sorely lacking in this highly emotive debate. As the Wentworth Group’s research makes plain, "before the development of industries which extracted water, the long-term average end-of-system flow of the Murray-Darling Basin was approximately 12,233 gigalitres. With the current levels of development, this has been reduced to around 4733 gigalitres … This is less than 40 per cent of the flow before development."
This is why the draft plan suggested cuts in the 4000 gigalitres range: because this is the amount of water that will need to be returned if the Murray-Darling is to have a long-term future as an agricultural food-bowl. The real figure may even be above that — something close to 4400 gigalitres, as this Wentworth Group paper (pdf) suggests.
But "the best available science" was never going to be a winning argument in a debate as emotive as this. If ever there was a demonstration of the ability of politics to trump the scientific reality of what needs to be done in the national interest, it is the Murray-Darling Basin.
We’re often told that the political problem with global warming is that its gradual and invisible nature means ordinary voters can’t grasp it.
The Murray-Darling saga shows otherwise. Despite recent floods, the evidence of the dying Murray could not be starker: the Murray mouth has closed up several times in recent memory.
Nor is the scientific issue at stake here difficult to grasp. The Murray-Darling Basin is dying because Australian governments, farmers and irrigators are taking too much water out. Returning more water to the environment by buying up water allocations is not just scientifically credible: it’s common sense.
But common sense matters little when money and jobs and the livelihood of regional towns are at stake.
And therein lies the issue. Because while everyone can agree that water rights are over-allocated, when push comes to shove, few want to give up their livelihood for the sake of the broader river system — not irrigators, nor the rural towns they support, nor even the governments of the states that the Murray-Darling system flows through.
This is why the Gillard Government is so determined to ram a scientifically unacceptable figure for water buy-backs through a now-compliant Authority. It’s also why the science will be ignored. It’s not a failure of political will. It’s a triumph of sectional interest.
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