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Water: greed over good governance

By Bruce Haigh - posted Wednesday, 9 July 2008


There are alternatives for coal and oil but not for water.

There is the same amount of water in the world as there was 100 years ago but more is being held within people, animals, containers and dams and a very large quantity has been polluted by industry and salt.

The issues are how to recycle it, how to clean it and how to better use it.

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The Murray/Darling River System (the system) stands as stark illustration of greed over good governance and the effect of climate change. On its last legs, the system is finally getting the focus from government that should have occurred 30 years ago.

The system has been asked to do too much. Some users are efficient others are not. Through the COAG process, state and federal governments have indicated that addressing issues afflicting the biggest and most economically important river system in Australia have an important national priority. The Prime Minister has referred to the nature of the problem as a crisis but then has given first-stage delivery a six-month lead in.

Sensibly the states and commonwealth have agreed that an independent authority should manage the restoration of the system and future water flows and quality. However the problems affecting the Murray/Darling are symptomatic of the poor management and knowledge of Australian water systems.

I fail to see how rational policy decisions relating to water can be made in the absence of a national audit of water availability and use. I have argued before for a National Water Institute (or Authority) to undertake such an audit and to manage the process on an ongoing basis. Both the Murray/Darling Basin Authority and a National Water Institute should answer to a Senate Water and Sustainable Land Use Committee.

With climate change, soaring energy costs and the reduction in available potable water this and other governments have a situation on their hands requiring emergency management. Rudd’s response has been a bit like Prime Minister Menzies’ response to the outbreak of World War II, indecisive and verbose.

He talks about a crisis and then reacts as so many Australian politicians, treating the problem as requiring administrative rather leadership decisions.

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The problems facing Australia should be approached in the same manner as if we were facing the threat of invasion. Resources both human and physical need to be mobilised. The private sector needs to be co-opted. Business leaders of the ilk of Essington Lewis and Laurence Hartnett once again placed in positions of responsibility in the national interest. Lewis from BHP and Hartnett from General Motors over saw key areas of defence production during WW11.

In attempting to restore the Murray/Darling River System the government is in the impossible position of having to purchase water. It is unfortunate that a vital, essential and irreplaceable commodity such as water can be traded and the river and those that live along it have been turned into mendicants. They are forced to compete with some large and vested interests. If the government is serious about solving the problems of the system it will need to nationalise and control all of the water which comes into that system.

The government might start with the purchase of Cubbie Station which is in financial difficulties and seeking $100 million or more in Europe and Asia. It is not fair to sheet home all of the problems of the system to cotton growers but they do have a large upstream impact on flows. They have also been contributors to election campaigns, most notably on behalf of the National Party. They have been influential in regional decision making, particularly in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland and in agribusiness involving the major banks.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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