The Politics    Friday, September 4, 2020

Hung out to dry

By Paddy Manning

Image of Water Minister Keith Pitt

Water Minister Keith Pitt

We need a Murray–Darling Basin royal commission

As argy-bargy over border closures continued in national cabinet, Water Minister Keith Pitt announced a sweeping overhaul of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, axing water buybacks from irrigators and shifting responsibility for ensuring compliance from the Murray–Darling Basin Authority to the new inspector-general of Murray–Darling Basin water resources – a post currently held by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty. In a speech delivered at lunchtime today, Pitt said the changes would “end the perceptions that the MDBA is structured in a way that it could mark its own homework”. The reforms were welcomed by the National Irrigators Council. Axing buybacks is administrative, but the governance reforms will need to be legislated. Greens environment spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young told the ABC this morning that the announcement was “a huge blow to the environment and hangs South Australia out to dry”, and she reiterated her call for a Commonwealth royal commission into the Murray–Darling Basin. The announcement comes straight after the Morrison government, in a show of poor faith on parliament’s last sitting day for a month, gagged debate on its proposed overhaul of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in the House of Representatives, infuriating crossbench MPs who had hoped to propose amendments, including Helen Haines, Zali Steggall and Rebekha Sharkie.  

Yesterday, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released a landmark valley-by-valley assessment of observed versus expected river flows under the Murray–Darling Basin Plan between 2012 and 2019. Noting that the Commonwealth has spent almost $7 billion to recover 2100 gigalitres of water to increase river flows and improve the health of the basin’s ecosystems, the assessment found that, since 2012, flows were 20 per cent lower than expected (an average of 320GL per year). The ABC reported yesterday that climate change was a prime factor in the missing 2 trillion litres of water, and Keelty’s interim report as inspector-general had previously found flows through the basin had halved over the last 20 years. As the South Australian royal commission into the Murray–Darling Basin Plan observed last year, the authority “completely ignored” climate change when determining how much water needed to be saved.

Public confidence in the Murray–Darling Basin Authority was lost long ago. There’ve been two ABC Four Corners investigations (“Pumped” and “Cash Splash”), which exposed water theft and questionable grants to irrigators for water-efficiency upgrades. There was the “watergate” scandal, in which $80 million was paid for water rights to a company linked to Energy Minister Angus Taylor, at a price that was recently revealed to be nearly twice the valuation. And then there’s an ICAC investigation into the former NSW water minister and another senior bureaucrat, which has been running for more than 1000 days. As Shooters’ Party state MP Helen Dalton told The Canberra Times in April, “There’s no info on ICAC’s website. No update. No report. No timeline.” Sarah Hanson-Young is right: only a royal commission can restore confidence in the management of the Murray–Darling Basin. 

On the day of Pitt’s announcement, environmentalist Geoff Cousins, a former Optus chief executive and adviser to John Howard, writes that the Morrison government is using the cover of COVID-19 to rush its environment laws through parliament, with the single aim of fast-tracking projects for approval. It’s becoming a theme. There are the overt politics of the pandemic – today’s instalment is the PM announcing that the national cabinet will no longer operate as a consensus body – and then there are the covert politics of the pandemic, in which the Morrison government presses fast-forward on its real agenda. 

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“I commit to doing everything I can to bring about a resolution that respects not only the artist of the flag, but a resolution that respects the rights, enterprise and opportunity of all Australians.”

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt canvasses a potential Commonwealth purchase of commercial rights to the Aboriginal flag from creator Harold Thomas and various non-Indigenous licensees.

“We’re going to be targeting … some of that exceptional global super-talent out there – people who are entrepreneurial, some of the top scientists, some of the tech wizards who are in demand globally – and again be attractive to them, invite them to our shores to help generate jobs for Australians here.”

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge explains why the Morrison government has established a new taskforce and appointed a special envoy for “global business and talent attraction”.

Here comes the recession
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg started this week by launching an extraordinary attack on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, and ended it by presiding over the biggest fall in economic activity in decades. Today, Paul Bongiorno on Australia’s economic predicament and who’s really to blame.

The estimated number of unviable businesses currently being kept afloat by safe-harbour rules (allowing them to trade while insolvent), which may go broke when those rules expire at the end of the month.

“[The platform has] less detail, more clarity about our position.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese says that health, aged care, job security and the economy will be key priorities in Labor’s new agenda, as the party finalises the draft policy platform it will take to the next federal election.

The list

“How should we make sense of the Black Summer bushfires? What lessons can we find amid the destruction? These were the questions that drew people – a lot of people – to the Muniment Room at the University of Sydney one recent afternoon. So many people that other questions soon arose, like how to fit 80 into a room made for half that number. ‘Is this structurally sound?’ one student asked, pointing to a wide windowsill. Soon a dozen were seated on it. The event had been organised by the philosophy department in response to ‘the devastating events of this summer’, and the crowd was gathered to see what guidance, if any, philosophers could give.”

“Debt is the central issue of international politics, the anthropologist David Graeber argues in his book Debt: The first 5000 years – and as we know, of Australian domestic politics too, in its latest guise as a scare attached to the ageing population – yet ‘nobody seems to know exactly what it is, or how to think about it’. This is surprising since conflict historically has frequently taken the form of struggle between debtors and creditors … For 5000 years, Graeber says, popular insurrections have begun with the ritual destruction of debt records on tablets, papyri and ledgers, as well as of landholding records and tax assessments. He cites classicist Moses Finley, who argued that revolutionary insurgencies in the ancient world had one goal: ‘Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.’”

“Numbers mean everything in political life, and they are the reason branch stacking is a problem on all sides of politics. It is becoming a bigger problem as party memberships shrink, thus making it easier for a relatively small group to assert control.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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