Water provides many examples of how politics can get in the way of good policy, and how Australia’s federal system sometimes supports and sometimes derails bipartisan solutions.
This year, we’ve witnessed the biggest ecological disaster in the modern history of Australia’s largest and most important river system, the Murray-Darling Basin. The disaster had a dreadful climax: millions of dead fish in the Lower Darling at Menindee, near Broken Hill. The noble Murray cod is an iconic species: if the Australian coat of arms featured a fish, it would be one of these. But the gasping and rotting fauna at Menindee included hundreds of Murray cod, some over 50 years old and weighing 40 kilograms.
How did we get here? “‘It took us one hundred years to reach this stage. Of course, it needs some tweaks,” National Party Leader Mr McCormack told ABC radio in January 2019. To what extent was the ecological disaster a failure of policy or politics?
Also in January, Labor Opposition spokesperson Tony Burke told the ABC’s Anna Henderson that the allocation of an additional 450GL of environmental flows to the river system ‘was bipartisan until Barnaby Joyce threw it all under a bus’. But how bipartisan was it really? And what role has bipartisanship played in the fraught history of the Murray-Darling Basin? To answer these questions, we have to delve into the unmentionable history of bipartisanship in Australian politics.
Plans on fire
The Murray-Darling Basin has long been central to one of the most toxic policy debates Australia has seen. People involved in the debate – one of them a minister – have received death threats. In 2010, in a moment of peak frustration at Deniliquin in New South Wales, a group of around 300 residents burned hundreds of copies of a Murray-Darling Basin Authority report.
There is, however, another story to be told. During recurring crises, people from all sides and from all parts of the basin have come together to help save this crucial natural system. Without that long (albeit faltering) history of bipartisanship, the lower lakes of the Coorong in South Australia (SA) would be dead already.
The folly of wickedness
According to proverb 11:14, ‘Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counsellors there is safety’. Those words are embedded in the handsomely tiled floor of the grand foyer of Victoria’s neoclassical parliament house. Their meaning is clear. We no longer live in a barbaric world in which the strongest conquer all. Governments give voice and council to the many.“How will future generations fare if we mismanage common goods such as land, soil and air? And water?”
In 1833, the British economist William Forster Lloyd coined the phrase ‘the tragedy of the commons’ as a label for a common problem. Without careful management and collective agreement, shared resources – such as grazing land and public open space – would likely be misused and over-used. Unrestricted farmers and other users would act in a way that harmed the collective good.
The American ecologist Garrett Hardin popularised the label and the concept. Like Lloyd, he feared that, as individual farmers raised more livestock on shared land, individual profits would increase but so would the shared costs. The tragedy in this parable is that eventually no farmer can use the land due to over consumption.
The tragedy of the commons has become an urgent issue in unexpected places, such as the world’s oceans, coastal land and even the office fridge. (At the risk of incurring the wrath of economic purists and Star Trek tragics, it reminds of us of the Spockian wisdom: ‘Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’. Captain Kirk answers, ‘Or the one’.)
Environmental scholars and policymakers today view the tragedy of the commons through multiple lenses, including the lens of intergenerational equity. How will future generations fare if we mismanage common goods such as land, soil and air? And water? Water is a classic common good and the Murray-Darling Basin is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons, one made even more difficult by Australia’s political geography.
The lifeblood of eastern Australia
The Murray-Darling Basin collects and distributes water to farmers, industry, communities and the environment via 77,000 kilometres of rivers and streams, over an area that extends to more than a million square kilometres. Farmers in the basin produce around 40 per cent of Australia’s agricultural output. It has great social, environmental and cultural significance, especially for the first Australians.
The river system crosses three states. In 1901, when Australia’s federal constitution was established, those states were awarded the powers to regulate and allocate water. The new Commonwealth Government gained the power to raise taxes, but the states retained power over water. For many reasons – most of them accidents of history – the political geography of the federation didn’t line up with the physical geography and hydrology of the continent. (The Murray, for example, splits Victoria from New South Wales, and delivers essential flows to South Australia.) The various governments had to work together.
And because elections and political trends never perfectly align, working together usually meant working across party lines, as well as state and federal ones. Actions to protect and manage the river system had to have bipartisan support. Otherwise the protection would be at the level of the lowest common denominator. Or worse, there would be no protection at all.
As Commissioner Brett Walker wrote in the report of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, “In the absence of utterly unrealistic change to our Commonwealth Constitution by referendum, this very Australian framework of governance will remain, faute de mieux. The cheerful term for it is ‘co-operative federalism’. A grimmer view would see it as a cockpit for interstate rivalrous self-interests.”
Leaving water management to the states in the constitution was arguably a missed opportunity to get clear authority over the basin. But forcing a federation of states to cooperate has also opened the way for innovation, diversity of views, and – possibly – lasting and meaningful reform.
At times over the last century, there have been major shifts in national political power between very conservative and very progressive governments. In a sphere as important and as emotionally charged as water, giving unipolar power to one government or one side of a debate could be dangerous. Perhaps, on the balance of probabilities, the federation has helped us move towards a more sustainable future.
The early years
The history of water policy and water governance in Australia is extraordinarily rich. Policies, regulators and markets have come and gone. We’ve built major infrastructure, including the engineering marvel, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, which directly affects the Basin by diverting water from the Snowy River to the Murray and the Murrumbidgee. The rise of neoclassical economics in policy circles saw the introduction of tradeable water entitlements, along with trading rules and new markets for water.
Within different regulatory and market constructs, the natural environment has been recognised as a legitimate user and recipient of water, and there have been explicit allocations of water to the environment. At the same time, regulators and policymakers have reached a better understanding of the value of water to rural towns and communities.
More than a hundred years ago, the position was naturally very different. Australia was in the grip of the Federation Drought (1895-1902). The first Interstate Royal Commission on the River Murray was commissioned in May 1902, and expeditiously completed by December 1902. Twelve years later, after the slow turning of the wheels of state, the first intergovernmental agreement was established. The Commonwealth, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia signed up to the River Murray Waters Agreement, which set out the shares of water available to each state.
In the first months of the First World War, Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook called a double dissolution election. The strategy backfired and Labor’s Andrew Fisher became prime minister. Fisher’s term in office was shortlived due to ill health. W. H. Hughes (‘Little Digger Billy’) succeeded him as prime minister in October 1915.
Labor was also in power in New South Wales. William Arthur Holman served as premier there from 1913 to 1920. (In 1916, the Labor Party split over conscription. Holman was expelled and became leader of the Nationalist Party.)
In the early years of federation, the county had three main parties: Protectionists, Free Traders and Labor. Labor was the smallest of the parties but managed to hold the balance of power, and by 1915 was in government in every state except Victoria. Then we saw the fusion of the Projectionists and the Free Traders who, united by individualism and conservatism, merged to form the Fusion Liberal party, the main precursor to the modern-day Liberals.
In South Australia the Liberal Union party was in power at the start of the war, with Archibald Peake as premier. In March 1915 he was defeated by the United Labor Party, and Labor’s Crawford Vaughan became premier of South Australia, serving until 1917.
At that critical moment in Australia’s history, there was even more political turbulence than we have today. Yet bipartisanship on the Murray-Darling survived. In one of the earliest examples of ‘cooperative federalism’, the River Murray Water Agreement 1914 was established. It would form the foundations for the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative.
The River Murray Water Agreement was ratified in 1915 when the basin states and the Commonwealth Government passed enabling legislation. In 1917, the River Murray Commission came into being under the intergovernmental agreement. For the next century, dams were built and water was taken from the system, to the benefit of irrigators and some communities, but with little care for the short or long-term impacts on the environment.
The middle years
From 1917 to 1990, engineers reigned supreme in Australian water management. This long period was an era of big projects and grand visions. After WWII, locks, weirs, dams, barrages, lakes and generators were built along the Murray. The river was tamed and harnessed for agricultural productivity and economic output.
About 110 kilometres south-east of Broken Hill, the Menindee Lakes were once a series of natural depressions along the Darling River. During floods they filled and at other times they were mostly dry. But in the years to 1960, a major program of works turned the depressions into a big gated dam. From that point on, the lakes could be filled to a total volume of two billion litres. When full, they have a surface area of about 50 square kilometres.
During these middle years, the four governments worked together more or less consistently, and they shared the costs more or less equitably. But there was one notable exception.
In the early 1960s, the governments proposed the Chowilla Dam as a large water storage on the Murray River. The dam wall was to be built in South Australia, but the reservoir itself would stretch upstream into Victoria and NSW. In concert with the River Murray Commission, the four governments agreed to share the project’s costs – and water.
The four governments would share the costs evenly and the Commonwealth would extend a loan for the New South Wales part, in return for the water from the Menindee Lakes. As with most water infrastructure projects, the cost blew out and concerns grew over the environmental and hydrological impacts. The particular concerns with this large and shallow reservoir, in such a hot and dry region, were many. What would be the losses from evaporation? Would the dam cause excess irrigation and more severe salinity?
In the face of raw politics, cross-state and cross-party support for the Chowilla Dam evaporated. The dam’s original proponent, SA Premier Tom Playford of the Liberal and Country League, only remained in power in 1962 with the support of independent Tom Stott, whose electorate included the proposed dam. When the South Australian Water Commissioner (in defiance of his premier) supported the building of the Dartmouth Dam in Victoria rather than the Chowilla Dam, the SA speaker crossed the floor and the government fell.
Labor then won the 1965 SA election but was soon defeated by the LCL, now led by Steele Hall, in 1968. Hall had changed his position to favour the Dartmouth Dam instead. Victoria also walked away from the Chowilla option.
Liberal Sir William McMahon (not ‘Little Digger Billy’ but ‘Billy Big Ears’) was PM from 1971 until 1972, after forcing the resignation of John Gorton. McMahon was a government minister, including a period as treasurer, for over 21 years, the longest continual ministerial service in Australian political history. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Commonwealth used its financial power to pressure SA and the other states – by insisting the dam decision be made on a whole-of-basin perspective.
Eventually the deadlock was broken and the four-billion-litre capacity Dartmouth Dam was built on the Mitta Mitta River, a tributary of the Murray, in north-eastern Victoria. Bipartisanship, it seems, was easier to achieve in the Murray’s mountainous upper reaches than in its arid flatlands.
In 1981, Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser met with the basin Premiers to agree on extending the role of the River Murray Commission to cover water quality and other matters. This led to the first Murray-Darling Basin Agreement in 1982 and the beginning of total catchment management. The Murray-Darling Basin Act 1983 was ratified and passed by four parliaments.
The Murray-Darling Basin Agreement had a critical provision: New South Wales agreed to share water with downstream states when volumes in the Menindee Lakes reached certain levels.
A new era
From the 1990s, in policy circles the engineers had to share power with economists – and environmentalists. The 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development helped put the natural world front-of-mind for leaders around the world. In that year, the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement 1992 superseded the former agreement, and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission was established with a broader mandate over Basin management.
Queensland joined the Murray-Darling Basin Commission in 1993, and in 1995 an historic decision was made to cap diversions of water. In 2003, the participating governments agreed to find more flows for the Murray.
In 2004, in the middle of the fifteen-year Millennium Drought, the Council of Australian Governments established the National Water Initiative, which elevated the sustainable use of water resources. Before that time, we couldn’t even give the majestic Murray River Red Gum trees a drink. The National Water Commission was established to implement the $13 billion initiative. In 2008, the Commission became the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
Bipartisanship comes in many forms, including varieties of routine collaboration and political expedience. In the best examples of bipartisanship, parliamentarians and policymakers come together across party lines to resolve big issues in the national interest.
For the Murray-Darling Basin, the high watermark of progress and bipartisanship was the 2007 Water Act, which was passed under the Howard government and implemented under the Rudd-Gillard governments. The 2007 Act transferred powers and functions of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to the MDBA; established the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder; and gave critical roles and information functions to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Bureau of Meteorology.
Legislatively, the Water Act was jerry-built on a hodgepodge of federal constitutional powers, including those relating to interstate trade and commerce, corporations and external affairs. At the time, Prime Minister Howard conceded that, although the Commonwealth Government’s power was extensive, it was ‘not as extensive to give us a close to ideal scheme’. (This is partly why the now controversial definition of ‘sustainable use’ in the Act refers solely to environmental impacts and not to economic or social ones.)
One critical element of the 2007 Act was the change from the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to an ‘independent’ statutory authority that would manage the system. In theory, an authority with a skills-based board appointed to be at arms-length from day-to-day, parochial politics would give bipartisanship a better chance. In reality, Commonwealth ministers still appointed the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Board, thus opening the system to politics.
The inaugural chair of MDBA, Mike Taylor, acrimoniously resigned his post on the grounds that he would have to put the environment ahead of economic and social issues when managing the Basin. Labor’s minister Tony Burke installed Craig Knowles as the replacement. He’d been in the NSW Parliament as a Labor member. The immediate past Liberal-appointed chair was Neil Andrew, a former Liberal member of the House of Representatives for SA, whose term has just finished leaving former public servant Joanna Hewitt acting in the role.
Despite the Water Act’s shaky foundations, the states came on board and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan came into effect. In 2012, the plan was signed into law, binding all the Basin states and the Commonwealth. While there have been disagreements surrounding the Basin and the plan, it is remarkable that an initiative commenced by a coalition government was sealed by a Labor government and agreed to by all the states, with their varying platforms and regional interests.
The Commonwealth pledged a total of $13 billion for implementing the MDBP, and the parties collectively established a recovery target of 2,750 billion litres for the environment. The plan was initiated when Malcolm Turnbull was federal minister for water. It was implemented by minister Tony Burke under the Gillard Government. The crux of the plan is to recover the 2,750 billion litres to prevent the type of ecological collapse that nearly occurred during the Millennium Drought.
What about that climate change thing?
In 2014, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth report and confirmed that warming will continue through the 21st century. Based on projections for warming at 2°C, South-Eastern Australia may experience a 40 per cent decline in annual water run-off. The IPCC found that the Basin is highly vulnerable to future water security problems by 2050 under a medium emissions scenario. These findings were confirmed in the 2018 IPCC Report.
The impacts of climate change will vary across the Basin. Since the 1970s, Victoria has already seen overall stream flows fall by around 50 per cent or more as the temperature has steadily increased. Some areas of northern and western Victoria will be severely affected during dry years, as will the lower lakes of the Murray River in South Australia.
Up until 2013, CSIRO conducted excellent research as part of the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative (SEACI) into the impact of climate change on future water availability in the Murray-Darling Basin. This work contributed to local and international knowledge of the impacts of climate change. SEACI was funded over two research-program phases, one with $7.5 million and the other $9 million. The phases concluded, respectively, in 2009 and 2012.
Water policy a mess
Water ministers have traditionally met for a restaurant dinner the evening before a ministerial council meeting. (Importantly, the dinners include wine but not ministerial minders.) One such dinner, at Adelaide’s Rigoni’s restaurant, has gone down in water history. SA Labor Water Minister Ian Hunter reportedly said ‘F–k you’ to Victoria’s Labor Water Minister Lisa Neville. (He is also said to have called his Victorian Labor counterpart something unprintably worse.)
Hunter’s colourful discourse wasn’t reserved for his own Labor side of politics. The multi-party gathering included Commonwealth Water Minister, Barnaby Joyce. Hunter reportedly said ‘F–k you all’ to the group. He later issued an apology for what he described as a ‘hard conversation’ and said that he was simply telling minister Joyce ‘to leave his jurisdiction’.
In 2017, the science indicated that our water management framework had delivered scant environmental improvement. Rural and regional residents complained that water buy-backs had hurt their communities and economies. An ABC Four Corners investigation revealed claims that irrigators in New South Wales had been illegally harvesting water. Four Corners also revealed that a top water bureaucrat offered to share government information with irrigation lobbyists opposed to the MDBP.
In 2019, a cotton grower Anthony Barlow pleaded guilty to three offences: one count of pumping during an embargo and two counts of pumping without a properly operating meter. It was estimated that Barlow had moved the equivalent of almost 153 Olympic swimming pools from the Barwon River to his property near Mungindi on the NSW–Queensland border. In his own defence, Barlow submitted that the former Nationals water minister, Kevin Humphries, had said ‘pump unless told otherwise’.
These and other episodes revealed big cracks in Australia’s water framework. Water policy was a mess.
The price of bipartisanship
Plainly, to achieve ecological sustainability and the Rio goals, more needs to be done. But we live in a democracy and it is reasonable that our politicians and officials will think about more than the environment when making policies and laws. Policymakers will sensibly weigh environmental, economic and social impacts, based on the best available science, when making decisions. Governing is about balance, and compromise.“All these drivers were already there, but never before have we seen a scale of ecological disaster. We’ve entered a new reality of climate change.”
And we should never forget the power of money – billions of dollars of money – that helps smooth the way to bipartisanship. In 2006-07, Malcolm Turnbull put the first $10 billion on the table to get agreement on the initial water initiative. Prime Minister Gillard then put in another $3 billion to get the additional ‘upside’ of a 450 billion litre saving above the 2,750 billion target. An immutable principle: never get between a premier and a bucket of money.
In 2013, new water trading rules were established to improve transparency and access to information, and to give people greater confidence in the water market. The following year, the Basin environmental watering strategy was agreed. It advised Basin stakeholders on how to plan and manage environmental flows. Further environmental watering plans would follow, along with recovery targets, diversion limits and advice on what a healthy river system needs.
In this tangle of rules and policies, one concept emerged as critical. In 2017, an adjustment of the ‘sustainable diversion limit’ (SDL) was determined. This set constraints on how much water was to be used in the Basin, to ensure there was enough water for native trees, native fish, and the other key assets of the natural environment. Adjustments to the limit were permitted if the SDL outcomes could be achieved with less water.
From that small fact, many problems flowed. But there was a more fundamental problem, too. The Plan didn’t take climate change into account. And we are now seeing the results.
Things started getting very heated again in 2017-18. Labor and the Greens used the balance of power in the Senate to block changes to the MDBP that would cut the amount of water returned to the environment in the northern basin by 70 billion litres.
New South Wales’s Liberal Government said it would walk away from the plan unless the Commonwealth fixed this mess. NSW vowed to free itself from ‘the whim of politicking’, while blaming the Greens and Labor for bringing the bipartisan agreement to the ‘brink of collapse’. The blocking actions in the Senate also angered Labor in Victoria, with the water minister there saying on ABC radio, ‘We said if these motions get disallowed the Plan is over. It’s not walking away, the plan is over.’ Queensland Labor Minister Anthony Lyneham urged his southern counterpart to stick with the plan.
When NSW also threatened to walk away from the MDBP, Federal Labor blinked and did a deal on the basis that walking away from the plan would be a disaster for the environment, jobs and communities. In May 2018, the resulting bipartisan deal substituted water efficiency projects in exchange for cutting 605 billion litres a year that were allocated from the southern basin’s environmental water flows, and 70 billion litres a year from the northern basin’s environmental flows. Evidently, it cost $1.3 billion for 37 projects to get Labor to support the Coalition on this issue.
The price of bipartisanship proved to be even higher than that. The federal shadow minister consistently said that things would be worse without the plan, but he also flagged that the plan’s budget might need to be increased to deliver an extra 450 billion litres of water for the environment. In December 2018, South Australia joined with the other jurisdiction to agree to return up to an additional 450 billion litres to the environment, provided it did not have a negative impact on communities. At the time, SA’s Liberal Water Minister David Spiers said, “We did get $70 million for the Coorong that concerns South Australians so much”.
The Victorian Labor Government negotiated an agreement between all states and the Commonwealth that the parties would work on a socio-economic neutrality test upon which to assess all projects (on- and off-farm) that could hypothetically contribute to the 450 billion litres above the plan’s 2,750 billion litre target.
Where are we today?
The new Liberal Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has said that the fraught Basin Plan must maintain bipartisan support. The Nationals’ Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, has said he is committed to the plan, but that the die-off in the Darling is cause to revisit it. Federal opposition leader Bill Shorten has asked Australia’s top scientists to discover the scale and causes of the disaster, ‘as an immediate priority’. That way, parliament would have the scientific evidence ‘to inform decisions for a healthy river system’.
The NSW Labor Opposition leader, Michael Daley, with an eye to a state election due in March this year, has called for a special commission of inquiry into the ecological catastrophe in the river system. The Greens are calling for a royal commission into that system. NSW Labor has also said it would overturn the plan, which includes works to effectively decommission the Menindee water storages to allow more water to flow downstream. Walking away from the plan would put such changes at risk.
On January 31, 2019, the Liberal Government of South Australia released the final report from the royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin. Initiated by former Premier Jay Weatherill, the royal commission was sparked by the damming 2017 Four Corners investigation into rampant water theft and mismanagement upstream in New South Wales.
The royal commissioner, Bret Walker SC, found gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions by the MDBA and officials in the development of the Basin Plan. As Federal Labor’s Tony Burke commented, ‘You don’t get, really, a more serious allegation against any government agency than to say it has acted unlawfully and deplorably’.“The issues at stake are urgent enough for the four governments and the major parties to come together in the national interest and agree a new, holistic, scientifically grounded compact.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten seems to be keeping his powder dry, but on seeing the findings of the royal commission, Federal Labor called for an investigation into the Basin Authority by the Commonwealth Public Service Commission. Shorten is also considering advice from the investigation into the Menindee fish-kills by the Academy of Science, which says drought, excessive upstream diversions and extreme maximum temperatures were to blame. Yes, all these drivers were already there, but never before have we seen a scale of ecological disaster. We’ve entered a new reality of climate change.
In what seems to be a further breakaway from bipartisanship on the plan, at the time of writing, Tony Burke announced that Labor wanted to remove the 1500 billion litre cap that was established in 2015 and that restricted the amount of water that could be bought by the Commonwealth from willing sellers to return more water to the environment. National Irrigators’ Council CEO Steve Whan said, “It seems to be a breaking down of the bipartisanship, which is vital to the success of the plan”.
“The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was well designed by Labor, but its implementation has been mismanaged by the Liberals,” Bill Shorten said. “That’s hurting the river, hurting farmers and hurting the environment.” Nationals Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud, had a crack at the Academy of Science for being in Bill Shorten’s pocket: ‘many findings and recommendations in this document are political, not scientific.’ None of this bodes well for the future of bipartisanship on the MDBP.
Where to next?
Bipartisanship on the Murray-Darling has ebbed and flowed. There has been more of it than you would think from watching the daily news. But water is a high-stakes asset and an emotionally charged issue. Very quickly, water policy can reach boiling point. Very quickly, bipartisanship can be strained.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rightly called for more bipartisanship on the Murray-Darling. He is right to speak out against ‘some sort of pre-election political game being played with what is a very important of environmental management of the basin’. But he refuses to come to the table on one of the key drivers of the Basin’s destruction: climate change. If he doesn’t want to see more mass kills like Menindee, and ecological destruction across the Basin, he needs to come to real bipartisanship on climate change.
There are precedents for a different conversation. Australia almost had bipartisanship on climate policy when the then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull supported the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, only to be overturned within his own party by the Abbott-led insurgency. We again came close to bipartisanship with the deliberations over the National Energy Guarantee, only to be scuttled once more by internal political divisions.
At this very moment, the issues at stake are important and urgent enough for the four governments and the major parties to come together in the national interest and agree a new, holistic, scientifically grounded compact that will underpin the future of Australia’s most important river system.
Top image: Menindee residents stand in the Darling river above Weir 32 holding two iconic dead fish. Photo: Facebook/Andrew Cook
Scott Hamilton and Stuart Kells are Melbourne-based authors, researchers and policy advisers. They are researching the history of bipartisanship in Australia.