Politics

The view from Billinudgel

Deep trouble: the Murray-Darling Basin
Action is urgently needed to avert further ecological disaster

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If you take half the water out of a river, it will affect the river. This is not rocket science; it is a statement of the bleeding obvious. To pretend that you can leach out the headwaters of the Murray-Darling Basin for years and go on with business as usual is not merely absurd, it borders on insanity.

But we must assume that the politicians and bureaucrats who administer (or maladminister, as Royal Commissioner Bret Walker has found) the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) are not insane. However, nor are the vast majority of scientists who have been forced to accept, as Walker puts it, “the fiction that a political compromise is science”.

The 2007 management plan was precisely that – a fix to manage the apparently intractable competing needs of agriculture and the environment. And, as is generally the case, the environment lost.

The previous federal water minister, Barnaby Joyce, was quite clear about it: bugger the law, he would always prioritise the irrigators, and he did so in a ruthless regime that allowed, and even encouraged, them to take whatever water they felt appropriate. Thus the Basin Plan became the Basin Scam, with the results we have seen last week.

Joyce’s successor, David Littleproud, and his New South Wales counterpart, Niall Blair, are firmly in denial: the massive fish kills in the Darling and now the Murrumbidgee had nothing to do with the plan, they insist; it was all about the drought. And of course the drought was the trigger.

But this is precisely the point: we have had droughts before and will have them again – and more frequent and severe as climate change ramps up. And, knowing that, if we are to avert further ecological disasters of this kind, taking serious long-term measures to keep the system viable will need a rethink.

The science is clear: in 2011, one of many inquiries found that an extra 4000 gigalitres must be set aside for the environment. This was not an ambit claim: it was the minimum required by the scientists.

But the beleaguered Gillard government refused, and told the authority to go away and come back with a figure that began with a “2”. This, we were told, would save 200 jobs in the irrigation areas. And it may have – but the real question is whether those jobs were saved at the expense of the rivers. Jobs can be moved; rivers cannot.

The Water Act, which established the MDBA, mandates “an environmentally sustainable level of take”, but those responsible for enforcing it chose, under considerable pressure, instead to look for a way of making all the stakeholders happy – a pollyanna approach that was clearly impossible and, Walker, says, unlawful. Blair and Littleproud, and other politicians, would prefer to dismiss the reality, but the facts are undeniable.

The Darling is in deep trouble – or, more accurately, very shallow trouble – and action is imperative and urgent. The science must be part of the answer, but so must the politics – the whole point of politics is to resolve conflicting agendas and arguments, not to paper them over but to look for the best outcome.

And no one can pretend that millions of dead fish is the ideal solution.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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