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Restoring the Murray River's estuary

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Monday, 26 March 2012


Agricultural interests continue to fail to speak up on this issue. As I explained at Christmas time in one of my columns in The Land newspaper industry leaders are behaving like turkeys.

Once upon a time there was a turkey that lived in a pen. Every morning a farmer brought food and water and talked to the turkey with soothing words. The turkey thought it was special and would always be looked after: then one Christmas Eve the farmer came with an axe instead of food.

Many organisations in rural Australia behave like turkeys. They are happily taking money from the federal government as it distributes that $A10 billion even to rural industry lobby groups as long as they don’t mention the barrages and mutter something about water efficiency and the environment.

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In return, these organisations might complain publicly just a bit about government. But mostly they keep their mouths shut and just send their representatives off to meetings and their leaders happily sit down with Ministers who feed them soothing words.

All the while, at the behest of environmental groups, Commonwealth and State governments, whether Coalition or Labor, have continued in the past decade or two to enact regulation and legislation that undermines food production.

It’s justified on the basis that environmentalists are the good guys, while farmers exploit natural resources for profit.

Recently there has been an opportunity for farm organisations to stop behaving as turkeys and instead bite the hand that has fed them so generously over the last year. It would involve calling the federal government’s bluff over the Murray Darling water plan.

Instead of complaining politely about the plan on the basis agriculture might lose some water, what about industry leaders pointing out the obvious: that the plan will deliver no environmental benefit until something is done about the barrages that sit across the bottom of the Lake Alexandrina blocking the natural ebb and flow from the Southern Ocean?

Anyone vaguely familiar with this issue knows that Murray Darling Basin Authority boss Craig Knowles and Water Minister Tony Burke – and even Opposition leader Tony Abbot and Opposition water spokesman Barnaby Joyce – don’t want the issue of the barrages or restoring the estuary raised in polite discussion.

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It could apparently cost them votes in South Australia. So industry, environmental and community leaders leave it well alone.

But it’s time for a new approach: it’s time everyone, including industry leaders, including the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce and Australian Greens’ Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, took the high moral ground and confronted the issue of the barrages that have destroyed the River Murray’s estuary. Here at last is an issue The Nationals and The Australian Greens should be able to agree on. 

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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