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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.

Foreign Investment and the Coalition With the National Party

Foreign investment has been in the media a lot recently. Increased talk about foreign investment as part of the Australian political discourse has amped up over the last few years in particular with reports of particularly Chinese-based companies buying up farmland, chiefly across New South Wales. It’s prompted raised concerns from some in Australian politics. The interesting thing is that most of the questioning of foreign investment in Australia, again mostly in relation to farmland has come from the conservative side of politics. What is not so surprising  is that most of the scepticism around foreigners buying up and investing in our country from the right side of politics has come from the National Party, the party traditionally of the farmers.

But what is very interesting about this and different from previous times is the willingness of the National Party’s major coalition partner, the Liberal Party to indulge the National’s in the debate with a proposal to examine more deeply, at a lower threshold, more of the proposed investments of companies from outside of Australia.

There’s been much mixed messaging from the Coalition, from National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce openly questioning the appropriateness of too much foreign investment at any opportunity, to Tony Abbott in China appearing to talk down to China about their investing in Australia whilst overseas as a guest in their country. Then just in the last week or so we had Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott both talking down the prospects of a change in foreign investment rules and scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board.

Then today, flanked by Joe Hockey and Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced a discussion paper which flags a lowering of the purchase price of agricultural land and businesses at which the Foreign Investment Review Board will examine purchases.

The paper proposes that the FIRB look at purchases of agricultural land valued at over $15 million dollars and purchases by foreign companies of agriculture businesses valued at $53 million. This is way down from the current threshold at which injections of funds of $214 million and over are examined by the review board.

The change in policy has copped criticism from both sides of politics, with the ALP jumping at the chance to have a dig at the party of the free market for wanting to lower the scrutiny threshold.

But there’s also been criticism from their own side of politics, with not just conflicting words in the lead-up to today’s decision from Liberal and National Party politicians, but also from former Coalition MP Peter Reith who launched an attack on Twitter today. Mr Reith in comments today on social media said that the move was “crazy, stupid politics.”

Reith also said that the decision “is just a quick fix to satisfy the Nats, but which will come back to bite the national interest”. Peter Reith, in saying this is not far from the truth, perhaps even spot on with his comments.

The Nationals, in an incoming Coalition Government, which now appears a certainty, would have much higher influence within the joint party-room than they do at present in the current parliament. So this announcement today can easily be seen as a move to placate the National Party ahead of the next election. Tony Abbott and the Opposition leadership undoubtedly realise there will be much more competition of ideas and much more competitive and vigorous debate from two contradictory standpoints within the Coalition caucus.

But what about the decision itself and what Tony Abbott says it will mean for the future of foreign investment in Australia?

Well, for his part Mr Abbott says he wants to “make it absolutely crystal clear that the Coalition unambiguously supports foreign investment in Australia.” Further, he says “we need it, we want it, it is essential for our continued national prosperity.” He also said, “what’s very important though is that the public have confidence that the foreign investment we need and want is in Australia’s national interest.”

Well, it seems pretty ambiguous the level of support there is on one side of the Coalition for further foreign investment in Australia. The Liberal Party are undoubtedly all for it, with the current level of examination likely deemed more than sufficient, perhaps too much for a number in the Liberal and National Party room. But the National Party, particularly given the words of its loudest member, Senator Barnaby Joyce, is certainly far from sure about people from overseas investing in Australia.

The Coalition for its part says that the move is all about increased “scrutiny” of foreign investment decisions as they relate to agricultural land. But this standpoint, is actually to be taken as read and believed, has unintended consequences at best.

If it’s just about a ramped up level of scrutiny in foreign investment and every investment decision that applies to this lower threshold is given the tick of approval, then there’s just unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape for inevitable decisions.

But more likely, with the same “national interest” test applying, albeit at a lower monetary level, then smaller purchase decisions, much smaller ones in fact, will be denied if the national interest test requirements are not met.

Could this and other recent decisions and thought bubbles or proposals of a similar protectionist nature be a sign of things to come?

The Left and Banning Live Exports

For much of the last few months, since that awful footage featured on Four Corners, there has been a growing movement to ban all live animal exports from Australia to nations around the world. Calls from the left to altogether ban live exports are predicated on a hypocrisy when it comes to cultural and religious rights which those of the left are usually the first to support.As a result of the Four Corners program, there was a temporary ban on live exports to Indonesia, where the footage was taken from. The temporary ban was imposed by the Gillard Labor Government, without thinking of the monetary consequences for our struggling farmers, in response to some truly horrific scenes which were documented in Indonesia.

After some time, the Government rightly bowed to pressure and re-instated live exports and promised to look into strengthening oversight and management from the Australian cattle industry, beginning from the moment cattle leave the feedlots and continuing right through until the animals are slaughtered in overseas abattoirs.

The one thing which the Government were widely asked to do was to mandate the stunning of animals before slaughter. This would have been ideal given that the animals would die in a more comfortable way and therefore give comfort to some of those interested in animal welfare. However, politically, across nations to mandate the practice would clearly have been difficult.

However, this wide array of change in the live cattle export industry has not been enough for what seems a growing chorus of people.

A growing percentage of the population seem to advocate that Australia completely ban all live exports to anywhere in the world, disregarding the fact that the right to slaughter animals in a particular way is a cultural and religious freedom.

Now, the last time I checked, cultural rights were affirmed by the United Nations and 99.9% of the time, supported by those of the left, except in such circumstances as this where people like me step up to the plate to point out this fact.

Have the left forgotten what I learnt in my undergraduate human rights major: that human rights are indivisible and inalienable?

Effectively, if we as Australians were to say, yes, lets ban all live exports, we as a nation would be saying that we do not believe people from other cultures have the right to enjoy their own freedoms, because we saw some awful footage which could be remedied in any case.

What is the problem with, at the very least doing all we can to ensure that animals are slaughtered humanely? Was it not enough that exports were suspended immediately, causing harm to farmers and possibly our trade potential in the area?

Animals have been slaughtered for food for a very long time and indeed Muslim culture has done so for a long period of time too and we are only just finding fault with some poor methods in recent years. There is nothing wrong with working with other cultures, teaching them how to slaughter animals more humanely and providing them with the tools to do so. What is not right is left hypocrisy on the issue, denying what is usually held to be a fundamental cultural right. Nobody denies animals should be treated with respect before, leading up to and during slaughter, but to deny a culture the right to exercise their beliefs when the process can and has been made better makes no sense.

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