2020, 109 P.
I find that, on finishing a book, I usually take an image away with me and it tends to be that image that I remember later. Margaret Simons writes evocatively of the Murray-Darling river system in this Quarterly Essay: the variation of farming uses, the high cliffs overlooking a meandering river, the mirages of water in red plains, the sand dunes and crashing ocean at the South Australian end. But what I will take away is the image of an effigy of the then-Water Minister David Littleproud being thrown into the water at Tocumwal and left to bob his way down to South Australia. Fitted with a tracking device, the effigy had acquired glasses and a suit on the way, was fished out near Swan Hill and taken for a drive around Nyah before being launched again, probably to be caught on a snag further downstream. Who knows- he may be there still.
But this is probably the only light moment in this essay, which teases out the politics that make management of the water of the Murray-Darling river system such a wicked problem. Not only are four states involved, but even within New South Wales, there is a Lower Darling (more regulated) and Upper Darling (boom-and-bust) split. There are big bolshie “outspoken” personalities, like Chris Brooks from Barooga in N.S.W or cotton-industry lobbyist Ian Cole; spokespeople for different lobby groups; the quaintly-named Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder Jody Swirepik; indigenous traditional owners; academics like Peter Gell who has fallen out with former colleagues over a study he produced with them; and politicians who have, for better or worse, left their fingerprints on the policy without actually effecting real change. Are there baddies? Yes, the water thieves, and possibly some corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who have fallen under the eye of ICAC, and the NSW government, which is threatening to withdraw from the whole program. But, as cotton cultivators, almond growers, and farmers pointed out, people have only done what they have been allowed to do by governments and policy makers.
In the Murray-Darling Basin, the authorities joke, everyone downstream is a wastrel, and everyone upstream is a thief. Only I, the person drawing water in this spot, for these crops, in this way, truly understands the value of the water and how to use it. (p.5)
Dispute over the Murray-Darling was hardbaked into the 1901 Australian Constitution, when the states were given ownership and management of the water, with the Commonwealth having a limited role. The founding fathers left it to the High Court to determine the competing rights of each state- something that still has not happened. The creation of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement under several Labor governments in 1987 took advantage of a narrow window of Commonwealth power to give effect to international environmental treaties. This environmental framing of reform continued with Turnbull’s Water Act in 2007, which relied for its constitutional validity on the international RAMSAR wetlands act, and it rather surprisingly passed in the dying days of the Howard government which expected (rightly) that it would lose. Despite all the argy-bargy that has followed, the Water Act still stands, with its rather contradictory aims of protecting the ecological values of ecosystems at the same time as promoting “economic, social and environmental outcomes”.
Under the free-market water licence reforms, the water could be unbundled from the land, and sold separately. With Penny Wong as Water Minister, many irrigators sold their water to the Commonwealth in the “Pennies from Heaven” buyback period. Tony Windsor used water politics as part of his deal with the Gillard government, and no sooner was the guide to the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan released, with its recommendation of 3000 to 4000 gigalitres of water returned to the environment, than everyone (including the government and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority itself) began backpedalling from it. A final figure of 2750 gigalitres was ‘fixed’ (literally), even though no-one thought was actually congruent with the science. With a change of government, Barnaby Joyce moved water buybacks behind the curtain, and to his credit David Littleproud (he of the effigy) at least tried to hold it all together. The National Party in particular has not covered itself in glory but the chances of a Liberal party prising water from the cold dead hands of the Nationals is very unlikely.
This essay is told from a personal viewpoint, as Simons travels throughout the river system, but not in a geographically methodical way from headwaters to mouth. She interviews farmers, lobbyists, bureaucrats and academics, and spends lots of time on country roads, striding over paddocks, scrambling up dams, and in pubs. After describing the plan and the politics, she starts at what she describes as “one of the saddest places in Australia”, the middle section of the Lower Darling around Wilcannia and Bourke. This is where we get the images of the fish-kills, and the government-purchased Toorale station. She then moves up into Queensland to Cotton Country, where floodwater harvesting has become a controversial practice, and where the ‘old school tie’ still matters. Then she goes down to the Murray that separates Victoria and New South Wales where, perversely, the water efficiencies encouraged by the plan have reduced the run-off which has fed the whole system. Finally, she ends up in South Australia, her own home state, where some believe that the attempt to ‘save’ the Murray should be abandoned and that the sea should be allowed to flood the lakes.
I’m not sure that there is a solution to the Murray Darling and I don’t think that Margaret Simons does either. Her subtitle is “The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin”, which evokes the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ where individual users, acting in their own self-interest, spoil the shared resource. The Plan, while not perfect, does exist, which in itself is an achievement. The sticking point is its implementation. The Murray-Darling is never going to return to ‘before’ because it is already a heavy plumbed and engineered water course. She is not hopeful:
Rural Australia, no longer the heart of our national narrative, is too easily neglected. It has been governed piecemeal, and with cynicism, and the National Party has contributed to that. some of the producer groups have made positive contributions, and some have been aggressive and short-sighted- on the wrong side of history. Developing visionary policies for rural Australia would take courageous leadership and enlightened politics. It is hard to find much evidence of either in the history of the Murray-Darling Basin. The exception, perhaps, is the fact that we have a Basin Plan at all. (p. 102)
This essay is valuable for taking a whole-of-system approach, integrating the perspectives and realities of a river that crosses four states and even more landscapes. It includes personal perspectives as well as the politics, and it provides a good background for watching as the next steps in this sorry, conflicted saga play themselves out.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: My Quarterly Essay subscription
I have included this on the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.