The end of Murray-Darling bipartisanship means the end of our largest river system

By Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells

Thursday December 19, 2019

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Last summer, Australia witnessed piscine megadeath at Menindee. This year, summer has only just arrived but the rivers, lakes and billabongs of the Murray Darling Basin are drying up, oxygen levels are dropping, and we are poised for more mass-scale fish-kills.

Mismanagement is widespread, as is a fracturing of the political and scientific consensus. Tempers are feverish. There are calls to ‘tear up’ the Murray Darling Basin Plan and open South Australia’s Lower Lakes to seawater. The records — and the Bureau of Meteorology — show we are heading for a terrible milestone. The last three years could very well be the driest ever recorded in the Basin.

In 1908, Dorthey Mackellar coined the famous lines about a ‘sunburnt country…of droughts and flooding rains’. For more than a century we’ve struggled to reach a bipartisan solution to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in our largest and most important river system.

There have been moments, to be sure, of bipartisanship and rational policy. In the 1960s, for example, four governments (the Commonwealth, NSW, Victoria and South Australia) worked together to build locks, weirs and dams along the rivers — and to share the costs and benefits. The high point in bipartisanship was the 2007 Water Act, passed under the Howard government and implemented under the Rudd-Gillard governments.

Passing that Act was not without great difficulties. At one point in 2010, around 300 residents of Deniliquin NSW burned hundreds of copies of a Murray Darling Basin Authority report. But the 2007 Act created the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and gave a foundation to the Murray Darling Basin Plan. The Plan was signed into law, with cross-party support, in 2012.

Implementing the plan, and keeping all the parties at the bipartisan table, came with a $13 billion price tag. Even with that sweetener, agreement wasn’t universal, and there were important gaps and flaws in the Plan. Most importantly, it didn’t take into account the impacts of climate change.

Old science, new problems

As the demands on the river system increased, there was need for better data and analysis — so we could avoid ecological, economic and social disasters. In the 1980s, CSIRO made its first projection of climate change impacts in the Basin. The agency raised alarm bells and foreshadowed what we are seeing today.

Implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan included funding for the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative (SEACI). The initiative produced world-leading research into the impact of climate change on future water availability in the Basin. That research is still being used by scientists and water managers today.

In 2013, the Abbott Government ended funding for the SEACI. Right now, the lack of up-to-date science means poor management decisions could make things worse for the river system. One imminent danger: sending cold water down streams, including the Goulburn, that can harm rather than help the river ecology.

We don’t need a royal commission

So here we are. The high point of bipartisanship didn’t last long. Our river plan is built on shaky foundations, and we are going blind (at least since 2013) into the worst drought in history. Talk about being up a creek without a paddle.

The scale of the disaster warrants a royal commission, but we don’t have the time for one, and the money could be better spent elsewhere. Besides, we are already swimming in reports from Royal Commissions and Inquiries. Many of them, like the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling, have had limited impact. Inspector-General Mick Keelty is doing another inquiry, but that, too, may have limited effect. NSW has agreed to let him look into their water books — but Victoria and South Australia have refused. We know for sure that it is not going to change the eye-watering calculus. There isn’t enough water to go around.

The future is here

Climate change has already affected rainfall patterns along the Murray Darling system. A recent report led by Professor Will Steffen, ‘Deluge and Drought: Australia’s Water Security in a Changing Climate’, found:

Southeast Australia has experienced a 15% decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall, and a 25% decline in average rainfall in April and May over the past two to three decades… Hotter conditions and reduced rainfall have led to less runoff into streams, rivers, lakes and dams in the southwest and southeast of the continent… Across the Murray-Darling Basin, streamflows have declined by 41% since the mid-1990s.

Australia knows about drought and the dangers it brings, but this time it’s different. We are dealing with a severe drought in an era of climate change, which is making the drought’s causes and effects more acute. This problem is not going away soon.

The old environmental models — and ‘desktop’ analyses of impacts — are no longer reliable. More urgently than another inquiry or royal commission, we need updated evidence and a deeper understanding, based on science, as a foundation for policy and decision making.

Hot passion or cool heads?

Since the NSW and national elections, the stakes have risen — partly due to the National Party losing seats to the Shooters and Fishers in NSW, and partly because people are in real peril without water.

We have heard farmers demanding more passion from their leaders — they want empathy and real action — and that’s fair enough. But if we want solutions that will stick, then we need cool heads this summer and into the future.

Major water storages are extremely low, especially those in western NSW. Copeton is at 7%, Menindee just 1%. Some towns, such as Armidale, are looking to truck water at great expense. Many river red-gums have had nothing to drink since 2011. These iconic trees continue to die.

As 2020 rapidly approaches, we need to work together with real passion but also with cool determination to make sure the Murray Darling survives for our children to enjoy. We also need to embrace the Rio 1992 precautionary principle:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Not binding

The meeting of water ministers in Brisbane this week was fraught to say the least. New South Wales Water Minister Melinda Pavey demanded a complete overhaul of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

Victoria’s Water Minister, Lisa Neville (who was instrumental in keeping everyone in the water tent at the ministers’ meeting last December) said the 2024 timeline for water recovery was too rushed. ‘These things take time to get right,’ Minister Neville said, ‘and it’s simply not possible to get community-agreed outcomes by sticking to the 2024 timeline.’

A complete withdrawal from the Murray Darling Basin Plan was narrowly averted again, but Minister Pavey said NSW will not contribute to the 450 gigalitre recovery target that is central to the Plan. The agreement’s core provisions, Minister Pavey argued, are not set in stone.

Minister Pavey’s South Australian counterpart, Minister David Spiers, said calls for changes to his state’s share of the water and removing barrages to allow seawater into the Lower Lakes were a ‘list of irrational demands’.

Last summer, we wrote that Murray-Darling Basin bipartisanship wasn’t new, or strong. The recent events have confirmed that genuine bipartisanship is over, and so is the Murray Darling Basin Plan. This should be a matter of great regret. The Plan certainly has its limitations, but we will be worse off without it, and the bipartisanship it represented.

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