Even SA is going to water on saving the Murray
As far as political slogans go, “No Dams” had an absolute simplicity about it which resonated with the vast majority of Australians.
Despite the localised concerns of Tasmanians, some sympathy from blue-collar mainland communities reliant on industries such as logging, and the arcane constitutional quibbles of a few States’ rights enthusiasts, most Australians happily bought the clear message conveyed by the bright yellow triangular bumper sticker.
The Franklin River was saved. The year was 1983. Twenty-seven years on and it’s obvious that while “No Dams” might have worked as an effective call to arms, “Save the Murray” is struggling to get beyond being an empty slogan as the nation remains paralysed as to how we should save it.
Funnily – or perversely – it was easier to save a river in the remote south-western corner of Tasmania which few of us ever see, which sustains no industry save for tourism and few towns, rather than one which runs through three states, serves as the nation’s foodbowl, provides hundreds of jobs, is home to tens of thousands of permanent residents and a haven for holiday-makers and weekenders.
The consensus that the Murray should be saved is being drowned out by diverse voices arguing that it has to be saved somewhere else. The argument goes that some communities are treating it worse than others, and that other communities should be shielded from the heavy lifting in terms of changing lifestyles and reforming or even abolishing some industries.
The plan released by the Murray Darling Basin Authority last week is without exaggeration one of the most seismic documents this country has seen. In terms of the impact it could have on how so many Australians make their living, it’s like a 100-fold version of Industry Minister John Button’s Car Plan of the mid 1980s, which phased out tariffs in an automotive sector already battling against cheap labour in the developing world.
The report has been attacked from almost every angle – the biggest criticism going to its seemingly flimsy estimate, or guesstimate, that no more than 800 jobs would be lost if the plan to restore water by reducing its use by irrigators goes ahead.
At the other end of the spectrum, a long way from this blasé and unbelievable estimate of jobs lost, we have heard hyperbole, in the form of water riots, rural uprisings, a surge in country suicides.
It is not surprising that some in this debate – such as the more environmentally indifferent members of the rice and cotton industries who regard anyone who suggests they examine their farming practices as a dangerous pinko – have been quick to overstate the human toll of the MDBA plan.
What is surprising is that some of those who have agitated longest and loudest for real action to save the Murray now find themselves deeply uneasy at the type of action proposed.
Oddly, this shift is most obvious in South Australia. The two men who have been the most outspoken and effective lobbyists for the river are South Australian Premier Mike Rann and Independent No Pokies Senator Nick Xenophon.
Both men are unashamedly populist in the way they practice their politics – hardly a hanging offence given that being and remaining in politics is all about winning votes.
But there’s been a shift in their rhetoric this past week which underscores the very interesting politics surrounding the MDBA report.
Rann and Xenophon have both argued in the past that an independent authority needs to examine the state of the river and find a solution to halt its demise. They have also been scathing in their condemnation of the eastern states, accusing them of at best indifference and at worst outright vandalism in refusing to accept any reduction in water allocations upstream to save the Lower Lakes and sustain South Australian communities and industries at the bottom of the river system.
They have also at different times in the past been pretty provocative in their assessment of some industries, such as the gigantic water-sucking monster that is the Cubby Station cotton farm in Queensland, or the rice industries of the Riverina and Victoria.
But now that we have an independent report in our hands, one which recommends radical reductions in water use right along the length of the river, the reality of the proposals has sunk in.
What it means is that some irrigation-dependent towns in South Australia’s Riverland could become unviable with a proposed reduction in water use of between 26 per cent and 35 per cent.
Rann and Xenophon have both said this week that irrigators in SA have been using water within the sustainable limits for some 40 years, and that MDBA report fails to take that into account in subjecting them to similar cutbacks faced by the much more rapacious farms to the nation’s east.
The Liberal member for the Riverland seat of Chaffey, Tim Whetstone, a fierce critic of the MDBA plan, provided a reasonably succinct explanation of the difference between farming practices in SA and the eastern states.
“The MDBA has ignored its own data from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics which shows that the SA Murray region has the highest average gross value irrigated agricultural production of any basin region at $9176 per hectare,” he told the rural bible The Stock Journal this week.
“This is almost three times the basin average of $3295/ha, and is the result of millions of dollars of investment in best practice irrigation and efficient irrigation infrastructure, yet we are being told it’s not good enough for the MDBA to even consider.”
Mr Whetstone, Mr Rann and Senator Xenophon may all have a valid point here. But the bigger issue is this. When a state such as SA has for decades been demanding an independent assessment of the river and tough decisions to return flows to acceptable levels, it makes it hard for the state to turn around with any credibility and demand exemptions or special deals.
A pure environmentalist would argue that the issue is not the manner in which irrigators farm, or the extent to which they are thrifty or wise with their water, but simply the much graver fact that so much water is being taken out of the river system in the first place.
This position is still being put passionately by the Greens, whose political representatives all hail from the inner-cities, and will never find themselves in the unhappy position of having to eyeball a third-generation orange farmer on the main street of Waikerie and tell them why they shut down the family farm.
But the flipside is that, in trying to save those communities from economic hardship, or even ruin, we’re consigning the river to a swift death.
It’s a hell of a choice to have to make. The fact that even South Australia is baulking at the human cost of saving the river suggests that the river is a very, very long way from being saved at all.
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