MUNGO MACCALLUM. The Basin plan has become a Basin scam

If you take half the water out of a river, it will affect the river.

This is not rocket science, or even normal logic; it is a statement of the bleeding obvious. To pretend that you can leech out the headwaters of the Murray Darling Basin for years and go on with business as usual is not merely absurd, but bordering on insanity.

But we must assume that the politicians and bureaucrats who administer (or maladminister, as Royal Commissioner Brett Walker has found) the  Basin Authority are not insane – at least, not all of them. However, nor are the vast majority 0f scientists, and, so they have been forced into the position where, as Walker puts it, “the fiction that a political compromise is science.”

The 2007 management plan was precisely that – a fix to manage the apparently intractable competing needs of agriculture and the environment. And as is generally the case, the environment lost.

The previous federal minister, the unlamented Barnaby Joyce, was quite clear about it: bugger the law,  he would always prioritise the irrigators, and he did so in a ruthless regime that allowed them, and even encouraged them, to steal whatever water they felt appropriate. Thus the Basin Plan became the Basin Scam, with the results we have seen last week.

Joyce’s successor David Littleproud and his New South Wales counterpart Niall Blair are  firmly in denial: the massive fish kills in the Darling and now the Murrumbidgee had nothing to do with the plan, they insist: it was all about the drought. And of course the drought was the trigger.

But this is precisely the point: we have had droughts before and will have them again – and more frequent and severe as climate change kicks in. And knowing that, if we are to avert ecological disasters on the scale we have been watching on television, taking serious long term measures to keep the system viable will need a rethink.

The science is clear: in 2012, one of the many enquiries found that an extra 4000 gigalitres must be set aside for the environment. This was not an ambit claim: it was the minimum required by the scientists.

But the beleaguered Gillard government refused, and told the Authority to go away and come back with a figure of a 2 in the front of it.. This, we were told, would save 200 jobs in the irrigation areas.  And it may have – but the real question is whether those jobs were saving at the expense of the rivers. Jobs can be moved; rivers cannot.

The Act setting up the Authority mandates “an environmentally sustainable level of take,” but those responsible for enforcing it chose, under considerable pressure, instead to look at a way of making all the stakeholders happy —  a Pollyanna approach which was clearly impossible and, Walker, says, unlawful. Blair and Littleproud, and other politicians, would prefer to dismiss the reality; but the facts are undeniable.

The Darling is in deep trouble – or more accurately very shallow trouble and  action is imperative and urgent. The science must be part of the answer, but so must the politics – the whole point of politics is to resolve conflicting agendas and arguments,  not to paper them over but to look for the best outcome.

And no one can pretend that millions of dead fish is the ideal solution.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.
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