Public interest partnerships: NSW goes to market for socio-economic outcomes

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday June 6, 2018

In an example of public-impact procurement, the New South Wales government has placed 84,417 hectares of the Lowbidgee floodplain under the management of conservationists, local Indigenous people and Sydney-based academics.

The Nimmie-Caira project, part of the wider Murray-Darling Basin Plan, began with the buyback of 19 farms and transfer of their water entitlements to the Commonwealth. Prior to that, the biggest floodplain on the Murrumbidgee had been degraded.

Its intermittent waters were captured and diverted for agricultural use, tall trees along its waterways were cut down, and soon much of its formerly rich plant and animal life was gone.

Interestingly, the group that is taking charge of the floodplain says existing irrigation infrastructure that disrupted the river system can now be used to direct environmental flows where they are needed. About half of the area was farmed in the past but the majority still features native vegetation that is bouncing back.

The next phase is a “public interest partnership” in which the massive swathe of wetlands is leased, more or less, to a group of organisations that are also funded to perform a combined environmental and economic stewardship role in partnership with and to the benefit of traditional owners.

Three key elements of the project

When the call for expressions of interest went out, the government listed three elements to this job:

• Manage and fund the maintenance and operation of government environmental water infrastructure.

• Manage and fund activities to protect and enhance environmental and Aboriginal cultural assets;

• Develop and manage any commercial operations (i.e. farming, tourism, etc.) on Nimmie-Caira.

The winning tender came from the Australian arm of The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the Nari Nari Tribal Council, the Murray Darling Wetlands Working Group and the University of New South Wales Centre for Ecosystem Science.

The proposition is that all three of the above elements can be balanced equally via the $180 million project, according to coordinated announcements from the many organisations involved and Niall Blair, the NSW Minister for Regional Water.

“This showcases NSW as a leader in opening up publicly-owned land to be enjoyed by the community for generations to come,” states Blair, who sees the project as a stand-out of his parliamentary career that is special, unique, and likely to leave a lasting positive legacy.

The self-described “global impact firm” Palladium Group has been the government’s “market engagement partner” over the past couple of years, playing the lead role in a second consortium with water management company Alluvium, ecology and cultural heritage consultancy Biosis, and Maddocks Lawyers giving probity advice.

These firms helped design the process by which the Department of Primary Industries hopes to procure social, economic and environmental outcomes at the same time, and assisted with running consultations that fed into plans for managing the land.

Palladium’s lead advisor on the project, Cassian Drew, sees this approach as an alternative to national parks.

“The tender from The Nature Conservancy demonstrates the potential for innovative Public Interest Partnerships between governments and the private sector in the areas of public asset divestment and public procurement across Australia,” Drew said in a statement.

A genuine engagement process

“This includes strong collaboration between investors and philanthropists, NGOs, researchers, and Aboriginal peoples,” explains Drew, Palladium’s regional director for the Asia-Pacific. “Public Interest Partnerships coordinate the objectives of government with the market and with the community, and are built on an understanding of the needs of people and the interest of industry through a genuine engagement process.”

The Nature Conservancy says “sustainable, low-impact grazing and tourism as well as other potential activities like carbon farming on parts of the property previously used for agriculture” will be among the commercial activities.

This is expected to provide an economic benefit to the nearby towns of Baranald and Hay, and proceeds will also go towards regenerating and restoring a range of natural vegetation that needs its occasional deluge:

“Important natural habitats on the property including extensive wetlands of Lignum, River Red Gum forests, lakes and floodplains will be enhanced and protected. This includes habitats for threatened animals and plants like the Australasian Bittern, Australian Painted-snipe, Southern Bell Frog and Mossgiel Daisy.”

The UNSW ecosystem science researchers are also excited by the prospects for studying the process of bringing back the native flora and fauna and efforts to make the water flow through the land again.

For the Nari Nari people, whose council has already put a lot of effort into nurturing their traditional lands, the consortium hopes to achieve better health, education and employment opportunities as well as strengthening their cultural connection to the specific region.

“We’re thrilled that our vision to support the area’s outstanding biodiversity and Aboriginal cultural values while demonstrating exemplary agricultural production, education and scientific research, is shared by the NSW government,” said the consortium’s spokesman, TNC Australia director Rich Gilmore.

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