There is bound to be near-universal agreement that establishing a comprehensive plan for the management of the Murray Darling Basin is a very complex and challenging piece of public policy, the implementation of which would require political leadership of a high order. The Murray Darling Basin is the third largest river basin in the world, and by far the driest. Its waters have been substantially over-allocated, a fact that has been recognised since the early 1990s, and it has outstanding conservation values, some of which we have international obligations to protect. It plays a central role in Australian production of food and fibre, and some townships depend to an important extent upon irrigated agriculture and the maintenance and management of irrigation assets.
On a matter of such complexity and importance one might expect the responsible Minister, who at the end of the day has to take the Basin Plan to Parliament, to take a leading role in managing the politics of the issue.
Au contraire, the Murray Darling Basin Authority unveils it to a startled world late one Friday afternoon, all hell breaks loose, and The Weekend Australian for 23-24 October, under the headline Minister distances himself from Murray-Darling Basin report, quotes the Minister for Water etc., Tony Burke, as saying (see report here):
The guide is not government policy, it is not my document, I have deliberately made sure I did not launch it.
And just in case you were still in any doubt as to whether the Minister was up to the task he rushed off and sought legal advice from the Solicitor-General as to whether the Authority was giving effect to its onerous duties on a sound legal basis or whether he might have grounds to instruct the Authority to listen harder to the people making the most noise.
A Minister made of sterner stuff might have seen handling an issue of such pith and moment as a wonderful opportunity – the best opportunity he will ever get to demonstrate that he is able to deliver major reform. As it is, Tony Burke has made the Commission’s task immeasurably more difficult and signaled to the opponents of reform that the Government does not have the stomach for this fight, thereby encouraging them to mount an even more vociferous campaign, confident that it will work.
Had I been advising the Minister, I would have advised him, far from disowning the Authority’s Guide, to launch it at the opening of the business day and to set the rules of engagement for the consultation process that it is designed to set up. I would have suggested that he use the following talking points at the launch:
- We are here today to launch the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s Guide to the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
- This Guide has been developed by the Murray Darling Basin Authority pursuant to the Water Act 2007, legislation which was introduced into Federal Parliament by the Howard Government and passed with the support of the Australian Labor Party.
- It has been developed to expose for public comment the Authority’s thinking about how it should go about its task of balancing environmental, economic and social requirements, subject to making certain necessary provision for the health of the river and its ecosystems.
- This is a very ambitious and challenging exercise. No-one has ever attempted anything like it on this scale. The Murray Darling Basin is the third largest river basin in the world, and by far the driest. It is host to unique, world class ecosystems, some of which we have international obligations to protect. At the same time, it is the source of the livelihood of many enterprises, industries and communities built around irrigated agriculture.
- It has been recognised since the early 1990s, and by many commentators before that, that the waters of the rivers in the Basin have been substantially over-allocated and that these allocations must be wound back. Winding these over-allocations back will take time and will need to be handled with sensitivity because the over-allocations have themselves been in existence for long enough to become embedded in the social and economic fabric of the Basin, and to an extent the wider Australian community.
- The Government recognises these issues but none of them can be allowed to distract the Government or the Australian public from the fact that we have to make the changes that will protect the health of the river systems upon which everyone in the Basin relies. Without healthy rivers no-one in the Basin has a long-term future.
- The Authority estimates that in order to protect the health of the river and its high value ecosystems it is necessary to reduce diversions from the river by between 3,000 and 7,600GL per annum.
- On the basis of the social and economic analysis that has already been undertaken, the Authority has assessed that any reduction of diversions greater than 4,000GL per annum would involve social and economic costs that would outweigh the additional environmental gains, and so the real focus of our attention is where in the range 3,000-4,000GL per annum the line should be drawn, the trajectory by which we get ourselves to the desired point, and the adjustment mechanisms which need to be brought into play.
- The Guide makes clear that as well as the global cuts to diversions it is necessary to distribute the reductions geographically so that additional water is available for the environmental assets at the places where it is needed. Much of this additional water has a cumulative environmental effect – the waters of the Basin have done a lot of work by the time they reach the Murray Mouth and the Coorong.
- The Authority itself recognises in the Guide that further work on the social and economic impacts needs to be undertaken, and it has already commissioned some of this. The consultation process will lead to further information and insights.
- For its part, the Government has guaranteed, and I reaffirm today, that there will be no cuts to anyone’s water entitlements – the Government will achieve the necessary reductions only by purchasing water from willing sellers. The purchases that have already taken place represent a good start on what is required.
- It is important for all participants in the consultation process to recognise that this Guide I am releasing today is not the Basin Plan, nor is it a draft of the Basin Plan. It simply sets out for public comment the current state of the Authority’s thinking about how it should go about framing the Draft Plan.
- In framing your comments, I would ask all participants to work on the basis that the feedback that will be of most interest to both the Authority and to me will be the potential impacts on the respondent of what is set out here. We want to hear from irrigators and irrigation managers how the proposals will affect them, from local government and community organizations how the proposals will affect their communities, and from other regional business people how the proposals might affect their businesses.
- If you think we have got the science wrong or the socio-economic analysis is deficient or incomplete, we will welcome your comments and take your concerns seriously, but in the interests of a constructive and civilised debate I would ask you in making your comments to bring forward the scientific evidence or socio-economic data or analysis that you find more compelling.
- I would also ask participants to remember that at the end of the day we must achieve a substantial reduction in allocations, with an appropriate geographic distribution, so please bear in mind that if you seek a lesser reduction for your enterprise or community, that may come at the cost of a greater reduction elsewhere.
- I now ask the Chairman of the Murray Darling Basin Authority to make a few remarks about the consultation processes that the Authority proposes to undertake over the weeks and months ahead.
My guess is that if the Minister had adopted something like the above approach he would now be running a manageable political process, one from which he would have prospects of emerging looking like someone who can get things done.
He chose not to go that way, and sadly my current expectation is that the failure of Murray Darling Basin reform will take its place alongside the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Mineral Resource Super Profits Tax and the Home Insulation Program as a case study in how not to do public policy.