The Murray-Darling Basin (the Basin) incorporates an area over one million square kilometres which is approximately fourteen percent (14%) of Australia. It includes three state jurisdictions and the Australian Capital Territory.
The Basin incorporates roughly forty percent of Australian farms by number and accounts for roughly a third of the gross value of agricultural production for the nation. It supports significant proportions of the all agricultural commodity sectors. In turn it additionally sustains a significant population that does not reside in the basin.
The Murray Darling Basin is a strategic economic and environmental asset of the nation. Our stewardship of the Basin has a critical influence on the socio-economic opportunities for generations to come as well as the environment.
It is our collective responsibility to pass it as productive if not more productive than we inherited it and that our management of the asset evolves in step with our increasing understanding of the environment and ecology of the Basin.
Water resources are conventionally regarded as state resources and administered by state governments in Australia. This approach has led to significant discord over decades.
Significant environmental issues in the Basin and particularly in South Australia led to federal intervention and the establishment of the Murray Darling Basin Plan (the Plan) and subsequently the Murray Darling Basin Authority (the Authority) within the Federal Government as part of the Plan.
Unfortunately, the process of developing the Plan and its subsequent administration have been subject to political interference which has undermined its credibility. There is significant and ongoing concern around the quality of the science on which the Plan is developed.
The development of the plan has been construed as an adversarial process, pitting irrigators against environmentalists and simultaneously fostered parochial state-based conflicts particularly between South Australia and water use in the Upper Murray Darling Basin.
Much of rhetoric around the Plan intimated that all the problems in the Murray are directly attributable to irrigation in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales. This is unfairly simplistic and belies the complexity of the environment and ecology of the Basin and an increasingly volatile and changing climate.
Hydrological intervention in South East region of SA was commenced in the 1860's primarily to drain inundated lands which was up to forty percent of the landscape. This drainage work continued with a purely productivity agenda until the mid 1970's.
The construction of barrages at the mouth of the Murray also dramatically altered the hydrology of the Lower Lakes and Coorong and prevented natural flushing of the system with sea water in a bid to artificially maintain a fresh water ecology.
The result of these interventions has also contributed significantly to the massive increase in salinity in the lower Murray.
These issues are not raised to bash South Australia or its water users, merely to highlight the variation in perspectives and the need to have all the issues on the table if there is any chance to equitably address these issues.
Irrespective of the perceived causes of environmental degradation in the Basin, it is essential to act to sustainably protect the productivity of the basin, with regard to the environment and the communities that operate within it.
CountryMinded is very conscious of the need to address and mitigate critical environmental issues. We are absolutely committed to leaving the country better than we found it.
In this process though we are also vitally concerned that the debate is well informed and balanced. We must have confidence in and rely upon the science as the primary means to inform and develop public policy.
We support a thorough objective and quantitative review of the plan as long as it genuinely considers socio-economic factors as part of the measure of sustainability.
There is no doubt that humans have had a massive impact on the landscape. This is also true of the human activity that preceded European settlement. People and their associated development are now an intrinsic party of the evolving natural balance.
If the prime objective of the Plan is to return the Murray Darling Basin to a pre-European ecological state, then it follows that we must completely depopulate it. This is plainly unrealistic, and it is essential that the process stops punishing basin communities on the premise that we must restore a pre-European environment.
We must be grown up about the fact that the population growth both domestically and globally means these kinds of ecological changes are inevitable and essential. That said it is vital that we strive to find the best possible balance to sustain basin communities within the environment.
The strategy for maintaining the Murray Darling Basin must include the people who live in it as part of the ecology and just as important as any other component.
Housing the Authority in a government department that answers to a Minister ultimately means the Authority and the Plan are captured by an increasingly dysfunctional political process. It is essential to provide political independence to the development and implementation of any functional Plan.
Ongoing press coverage of questionable water sharing arrangements sanctioned by politicians and bureaucrats has also damaged confidence in the Plan and its administration.
It is essential that the future of the Basin and the Basin communities is administered objectively and transparently. It is essential that all decisions are informed completely by robust and credible science. It is essential to separate this process from emotive populist politics and remains grounded in delivering genuinely sustainable basin.
Basin communities need certainty and fair consideration.
CountryMinded is committed to real and meaningful solutions to protect and preserve the Murray Darling Basin from an environmental and socio-economic perspective. In this context CountryMinded will pursue policies that:
- Undertake an independent review of the performance and administration of the plan.
- Increase the focus on efficiency gains in water use and transmission as the primary means of increasing flow in the lower Murray.
- Increase water storage capacity in the upper Basin catchments to mitigate risks associated with increasingly volatile rainfall with climate change and increase manageable supply.
- Establish an independent water authority with a clear charter and the requisite authority to map and implement meaningful solutions to preserve the environmental and economic capacity of the Basin without partisan political interference and free of electoral timeframes.