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AustralianFarmers

Why we must stay the course with the Plan

“My family, like all irrigators and farmers, in general, are hurting. We’re apprehensive about the likely hot, dry summer ahead,” says Rob Houghton of Leeton, NSW

For irrigators, water is always an emotionally charged subject. It’s our lifeblood and that of our communities. When that lifeblood is in such short supply, it is, I suppose, human nature, to seek to apportion blame.

But the reality is we’re living through one of the worst droughts in living memory. There is absolutely nothing within our mere mortal powers that can change that.

During such challenging times, it disappoints me that farmers are turning against farmers, pitting community against community, and neighbour against neighbour and even family member against family member. 

“At the very time we need to support each other, communities are tearing themselves apart

I’m the first to say that the Murray Darling Basin Plan is not perfect. A triple bottom line outcome has by no means been delivered. But I have grave fears for a future without the current plan, its review process and ability to adapt to achieve the above mentioned outcomes.

The prospect of a Royal Commission is equally as frightening – it’s fanciful to think a root and branch review of the management of our river system would equate to more water for farmers and communities.

One only has to look to the South Australian Royal Commission for evidence of that. It’s variously speculated that a more appropriate level of environmental take should start with a 4, 5 or 6, well up on the current maximum of 3,200GL.

The Plan we have today, is a living document with mechanisms built in for its ongoing improvement. The in-built five-yearly review by the Productivity Commission is the main lever by which this can be achieved. We have to have faith in this process, be informed and where possible involved in the interest of a more suitable outcome.

Through this process our concerns will not be ignored.  Ripping up the plan is a bad idea. That one action would only serve to increase uncertainty and anxiety within our communities. I urge all members of our irrigation industry to familiarise themselves with the PC recommendations. There may be some gaps in those recommendations, and if there are, we need to bring those forward.

The 2018 PC review made many appropriate recommendations.  The most notable five recommendations seek to address: the over-recovery of water; governance and funding issues pertaining to the supply measures; an extension of the 2024 deadline for supply projects; deliverability and third-party effect issues and a resolution of separation of institutional and governance issues.

The onus is now on Basin ministers to get on and implement these recommendations with haste.

Time really is of the essence.

There are four other important pieces of work underway, the first two an extension of the PC recommendations These include the ACCC’s review of water markets; a socio-economic review assessing the impact of water reforms on communities; the Australian National Audit Office’s audit of water buybacks; and the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the whole Basin.

It is vital that all these processes be allowed to run their course as quickly as they can and the application of recommendations to be realised.

In the context of these inquiries its worth thinking about the various powers they hold. Each of the ACCC and Senate Select Committee inquiry hold coercive powers, that is, they can compel witnesses to attend and access documents. Very like a Royal Commission. It’s also worth considering the geographic representation on the select committee in the context of these powers.

Taking up to 2750 GL out of the consumptive pool for the environment (that’s the Plan) will continue to hurt in and out of drought. Those impacts will be felt differently across the Basin. They need to be understood and addressed.

We’re in tough times. But now is certainly NOT the time to pursue significant decisions that would likely change the course of our sector and our communities, for the worse.

And, it certainly serves nobody’s interests, for farmers, all of us who are hurting, to be publicly ripping each other to pieces.

It’s during periods such as this, that we so badly need pragmatism and support for one another. We have enough academics, activists and city centric commentators giving us gratuitous advice, let’s try not to do it to each other.

Robert Houghton

Robert Houghton

Rob Houghton is a farmer from Leeton, New South Wales.

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