The Not So Fun Water Fight With Changing Goal Posts

It’s Friday and in politics that can mean one of two things. More often than not it’s that nothing of significance is announced by the incumbent government or the opposition. Sometimes, on the other hand, Friday is used by a government to release a policy that the administration wants eased into the public arena, or relatively ignored on announcement, for fear of the damage or embarrassment it may cause a government, struggling or otherwise.

Today was an example of the latter for the Gillard Government. The Murray-Darling Basin has long been on the political agenda, particularly so since former Prime Minister John Howard set up the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, thus beginning the process of water reform.

Today, with just weeks left before the MDBA plan is finalised, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that an extra 450 gigalitres, on top of the putative 2750 gigalitres, would be returned to the Murray-Darling.

While the 2750 gigalitres would be returned to river system, by-and-large through water buybacks and cuts to allocations, the new addition to the target would largely be kept in the basin via water efficiency measures. Water saving measures would also be achieved by removing capacity constraints, meaning that structures and bottlenecks that constrain the flow of water would be removed.

However, the phraseology used when talking about the change opens the door for some of the extra 450 gigalitre target to be achieved by the same method as would be applied to the 2750 gigalitre target. That is, cutting water allocations.  The Environment Minister Tony Burke said today in talking about the extra efforts announced, that the outcome would “largely” be achieved by water-saving methods.

To achieve the new outcome, Prime Minister Gillard today, flanked by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, announced $1.7 billion over ten years aimed at these water efficiency projects along Australia’s largest river system.

It would appear on the face of it, that the extra figure and its associated costs announced today, is about one of two things.

The first is that it is a sweetener aimed at getting South Australia on-side and it has obviously worked, South Australia is now firmly behind the push to reform the Murray-Darling in its new form.

The second is that today’s announcement is a distraction from the much bigger task, getting all the states to agree in the coming weeks on the initial 2750 gigalitre target. This outcome is a lot less likely, even though the additional 450 gigalitre target, through the way that it will be achieved, appears likely to be widely supported by the state governments.

Then there’s the farmers and irrigators. They are the ones in the middle of this dispute and the ones both with the most to lose and the most to gain. Take too much from them and the water is not there for food production. Take too little and the long-term viability of the basin system is in jeopardy.

Farmers are feeling the pain already. They are extremely worried about all the targets announced so far, even to the point of protesting by burning copies of the initial MDBA draft plan.

A curious element of the policy announced today is the year of delivery for the recommended water retention in the MDBA report. The full realisation of the target would not be delivered until 2024 under changes from Environment Minister Tony Burke.

To have delayed this time-frame both makes the final outcome the problem of a future government if it goes awry and second, it implies that the government were so concerned about the potential negative impact, likely on farmers, that they simply had to push the pain so far away from the likely end of their governance of the country.

In short, there might be widespread support for the additional target announced today by the Labor Government because the methods under that proposal are widely favoured among the states, however agreement over the whole plan is far from fruition.

About Tom Bridge

A perennial student of politics, providing commentary for money and for free. Email me at tbridgey@gmail.com or contact me on 0435 035 095 for engagements.

Posted on October 26, 2012, in Federal Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: