Steady drip of bickering not helping

Astute environmentalists would grab what's on offer in the Murray-Darling plan - but then that would require maturity.

Astute environmentalists would grab what's on offer in the Murray-Darling plan - but then that would require maturity.

Astute environmentalists would grab what's on offer in the Murray-Darling plan - but then that would require maturity.

THE much anticipated Murray-Darling basin plan is already damaged by selective leaks designed to appease, assuage or soften various parties with a stake in it. From initially giving the impression of tough targets on water savings, we have now moved to lower targets.

After decades of reports, policy announcements, grandiose plans and spectacular retreats, it appears yet another plan is being used politically to push agendas that have little to do with either irrigation (food production) or the health of the environment.

Green groups are demanding the return of 4000 billion litres to the system through buybacks, cuts and savings from infrastructure projects. Predictably, irrigators are fighting to see that amount reduced and, preferably, the plan scuttled altogether.

Environmentalists see this report as a historic chance to help restore the system. They are sustained by the hope given by a Gillard government in which the Greens, through the Senate, have some bargaining power.

The figure of 4000 billion litres is the result of years of argy-bargy, opinions put forward by scientists, some research, factual observations and so on, but it remains fundamentally arbitrary. It is a figure set high enough for an ambit claim and everyone knows it is impossible to deliver it politically.

On the other hand, the irrigators, particularly those in NSW connected with cotton and rice, are arguing for much smaller cuts - much less water for the environment - than environmentalists would advocate.

Irrigators have a spectacular ability to invoke doom and gloom for river communities if water is returned to the environment. They draw ammunition from a huge arsenal of emotional arguments. As climate change non-believers, they say the river system is subject to the normal ephemeral Australian weather conditions that lower allocations will destroy their capacity to produce food for domestic consumption and export that cities will run out of food in a few days without water security that our food is the best as it is clean and green.

Behind irrigators there is always the long arm of the National Party. It is known to foment discontent among country people. It loves an emotional fight between "them" and "us", simplistic sloganeering, high rhetoric and using the other abominable tool available to all politicians - fear.

The plan is already fraught with so much politics that it is impossible to discern what is real and what is fiction. Add to this the centrifugal role of state and territory governments and a federal government that has always been indecisive and you end up with chaos.

The irrigators' basic claim is that without water they cannot sustain their farming. First, no one is going to leave them without water. Second, much irritability and insecurity along our river systems is not caused by lack of water alone: there's much of it in the system now, yet prices are way down, making life hard.

This is due to the high dollar fluctuations in the domestic market (as there is so much water now there is excessive production) perhaps the distribution chain, which includes supermarkets the effects of a long drought and the inability in most cases to sustain debt - to name a few major factors.

Water alone is not the single factor that makes or breaks irrigators. It plays a role in generating insecurity but it is also a major distraction from focusing on other, equally important, structural issues.

Environmentalists have also used the doom and gloom card and in that regard they are as unsophisticated as irrigators. They have failed to make real links, especially in the minds of consumers, between the environment, food security and quality issues.

They have not implicated corporate farmers, they have not made people aware that their Australian water can now be held just like any other commodity in the banks of Singapore or China. They have not created a real dialogue in the national interest between all the parties involved.

In their defence, they are aware of their shortcomings and they do not have the huge resources available to the governments they are dealing with or the irrigators, who have a permanent lobby through the National Party and other conservatives. Irrigators and environmentalists are like two warring groups, with the general public blissfully absent from a critical debate. In fact, the arguments - all of them - risk becoming so esoteric, so complex, that only people with time and perhaps a degree can untangle the threads.

A smarter environmental lobby would instead grab 2750 billion litres or even less now without further discussion, with the only proviso being that measures to save water be implemented immediately and not in a mythical future.

This requires a hard look at the facts and some maturity: it would show leadership and create consensus it would isolate the most conservative lobbies, which are more interested in ideology and politics than the wellbeing of Australians and their waterways it would get a big red-hot potato off the hands of Julia Gillard, who could go into an election with fewer contentious issues it would prevent measures being reversed or destroyed by the current opposition if it gets into power it would give the environmental groups time to develop new policy responses and time to re-position the issues vis a vis consumers.

Were the environmentalists to adopt this strategy, they should at once enlist those people well known for having a good grasp of policy and the ability to make it happen: Regional Development Minister Simon Crean Bill Kelty, who delivered superannuation with Paul Keating some enlightened captains of industry and someone from the opposition who is grown-up enough and with whom deals can be made.

The alternative is yet another flood of dissent, furore, policy vacuums, vacillations, half measures and silly compromises to the detriment of all concerned, especially our rivers.

Stefano de Pieri is a Mildura restaurateur, cook and author.

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