Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

River dance
The Murray–Darling Basin Plan remains on life support

Federal water minister David Littleproud

Federal water minister David Littleproud

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan survived a near-death experience at a ministerial council meeting in Brisbane today, but federal water minister David Littleproud is in the difficult position of persevering with a review of water-sharing arrangements that will not be supported by the basin states. It’s a shambolic situation that ensures the blame game will continue, as the review, to be conducted by Murray–Darling inspector-general Mick Keelty, has to be finished by March. That is an extremely short timeframe in which to solve a century-old dilemma for the federation, and it will be made much more difficult by the refusal of NSW and Victoria to cooperate, either by sharing information or by giving Keelty the extra powers he needs to ensure the plan is being complied with.

The review was promised to “Can the Plan” irrigators, who blockaded Parliament House in Canberra earlier this month, and Littleproud cannot afford to let it slide. He put a brave face on the situation in a press conference this afternoon, saying he accepted the states’ position but that the Keelty review was an opportunity for their claims to be truth-tested. “We should let the sun shine in on this,” Littleproud said. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, let’s dance.”

Littleproud went into today’s meeting urging the states to cooperate with Keelty and to consider sharing their powers to enshrine the position of inspector-general as an office for carrying out investigations and making recommendations. But NSW and Victoria played hardball. Victorian water minister Lisa Neville was first to emerge after today’s meeting – which ran well overtime – saying there was no misuse of water in the Victorian system and a review was not going to find there was spare water available anywhere, given the drought. “I don’t think a water-share review, given most of the other states won’t be participating, is going to be worthwhile. I think it creates expectations for people who are doing it really tough at the moment, that there’s this extra water out there, and it just isn’t there.”

NSW water minister Melinda Pavey, who had threatened to pull out of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan altogether ahead of the meeting, came out next and said, “We are still in the plan.” But Pavey insisted that in the middle of the worst drought NSW had ever experienced, the state could not give any more environmental water back to the river system without destroying basin communities. “It is off the table,” she said, adding that the Murray–Darling Basin Plan was “never meant to be static”. NSW would not be submitting its own water-sharing plans in total and on time, Pavey said, while accepting that it was important that Keelty got a chance to have “a look under the bonnet”. In truth, a lot of NSW problems are of its own making: today The Sydney Morning Herald reports the state government made sure the Millennium drought was not factored into calculations about how much future water should be held back for communities and the environment – effectively continuing the over-allocation to irrigators – and partly explaining why towns are running out of water now.  

The federal government hardly has clean hands either, having refused to cooperate with the South Australian royal commission into the plan, and given the Murray–Darling Basin Authority has lost public confidence after repeated scandals. Today the Australia Institute slammed Keelty’s first annual report as a whitewash, saying it had failed to investigate: alleged rorting of the Commonwealth’s $4 billion water efficiency program; allegations that the Murray–Darling Basin Authority drained Menindee Lakes outside its operating rules; growth in floodplain harvesting and the process to issue floodplain harvesting licences; and questionable water purchases and their links to politicians.

“The states are still here,” said Littleproud when he finally emerged from today’s meeting, adding “there’s a continued commitment to the basin plan”. But with the credibility of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan in tatters, it’s not much of a win. The best that can be said is that the plan remains on life support, and another summer without substantial rain is sure to bring more bad news. 

“There’s just so much to be done and there’s just no leadership coming from Canberra to even think about it. Australia has become a much more dangerous place because of climate change. There are things we can do to improve community resilience, response capabilities and how we recover from disasters, but the big-ticket item is to take real action on climate change.”

Former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins, declaring that the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action group will conduct its own national emergency summit when the current fire season is over, after being ignored by the prime minister.

“Thank you, minister ... We’ve now got here in Canberra airport additional canines, our detection abilities – firearms, explosives – have been enhanced with this new team that I have, and also the extended capability that comes with the short-barrelled rifle. And you’re right, it should reassure members of the public who are travelling that we have a safe, secure aviation industry.”

Australian Federal Police airport commander for Canberra Simon Henry, interviewed by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in a political advertisement he authorised and posted on social media.

Brian Houston, we have a problem
As the Hillsong Church booms internationally, its local arm is still dealing with the fallout from the royal commission into child sexual abuse. Rick Morton on the man who fought the church – and its senior pastor’s father.

The number of medical doctors who have signed a statement asking Foreign Minister Marise Payne to evacuate Julian Assange to an Australian hospital amid claims the WikiLeaks founder’s health is rapidly deteriorating and that he “might die” in a London prison.

“The discussion paper sets out a template for change on how artificial intelligence (AI) and emerging technologies are developed and used in Australia. Proposals for discussion range from a moratorium on potentially harmful use of facial recognition technology in Australia, and an AI Safety Commissioner. The Discussion Paper also proposes that where AI is used to make a significant decision, any affected individual should be able to understand the basis of the decision and, if necessary, challenge it.”

An excerpt from the AHRC’s Human Rights and Technology Discussion Paper, released today.

The list

“In hindsight, the 1983 America’s Cup looks like the marker buoy that the whole nation’s idea of itself rounded, to head in a bold new direction, swapping out the old sails for a glorious new set of go-get-’em spinnakers. The cup seemed to sweep aside the cringing colonial relation to Mother England. Now we were on the radar of the United States, that goliath of modernity. There was nothing we couldn’t do.”

“Greta Thunberg may only be a symbol, but Time regards her as the most important person of 2019. Even in far off Australia, cantering blithely towards its inadequate response to the existential threat burning our suburbs and choking our cities, there is a sense that something has changed.”

“Margaret fainted from hunger when she was turned away from an overstretched food bank. She had to be taken to hospital. She was 58 and sleeping rough, and had not eaten properly for weeks because Centrelink stopped her Newstart Allowance for a breach she can no longer recall. ‘It’s not just the low payments,’ she tells me, as she relates her experience of seven years’ unemployment. ‘It’s that they get stopped for every little thing.’”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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