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Government, water and an arranged marriage

By Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 2 December 2009

As we go about our daily activities it is hard to believe that we are probably on the verge of a water collapse.

How did it come to this? That’s a question I often ponder, and I’m sure I am not alone in contemplating that fundamental question.

Almost three quarters of New South Wales is now in drought. Yet not withstanding a recent Australian study linking drought with rising emissions, and warnings from international experts that the reasons water scarcity has become a major global concern include population growth and climate change challenges, the march of “progress” continues exponentially. More people are concerned about these things than not, and their level of concern is increasing, but does that mean anything at all to our governments?


It is hard to believe that we conceive democracy as a government by all the people, direct or representative, or more generally as a form of social organisation that ignores distinctions like race and class, tolerates and accommodates minority views, and acts with the principal object of maximising benefit to all citizens. Is that what we have in Australia today?

It seems to me that we have lapsed into something much less than a democracy of that kind. I see our relationship between citizens and the state as more like an arranged marriage. An imposed but loveless marriage. A marriage of empty promises. You try to make the best of it for the sake of the children, but when your head hits the pillow at night you are struck by the reality that you have over-invested in the relationship and it has cost you your life.

In Australia in general and New South Wales in particular, for the average citizen that marriage consists of a life spent in the valleys with little if any support from the state to reach the summits of the surrounding mountains.

Early on in the marriage we were told by the state that water needed to be "managed". We were given water management legislation that grew and grew over time, until eventually you no longer had to own land to hold a water access licence. We were promised that this would maximise the social and economic benefits of water to the community while being consistent with the maintenance of long term productivity of the land. Has it done that? Or was it all a complex lie, a carefully staged process of commoditising and privatising water to create "opportunities" for exploitative free-marketeers at the expense of the rest of us?

We didn't anticipate the effects of our subservience in this marriage until the consequences started to come home. As the marriage became more brutal we began to protest and threaten to leave, but the brutality continued unabated. Part 3A of the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act 1979 was introduced, its glistening point hidden by rosy red promises that it would strengthen the environmental planning and assessment process, improve community consultation and transparency and remove red tape.

What made us stay when we'd heard promises like that before and seen them quickly broken? Why didn't we do anything to try to drive out the exclusions sitting in the next room? Why did we simply accept that standard approvals like water use approvals, water supply, drainage and flood control works, controlled activities and aquifer interference would no longer be required, or things like Part 3A changing the National Parks and Wildlife Act so that developers couldn't be prosecuted for harming protected fauna without a licence, if the work carried out is essential for Part 3A projects.


What were we thinking? Were we thinking at all?

Then comes the coup d’etat. Throughout the marriage you have come to accept your lot with little or no resistance in order to keep the peace. You have to keep the household running, and pay your mortgage and pay your bills, and you really don't have time to rock the boat yourself and deal with the consequences. Sure, there have been affairs with the opposition from time to time, but the choice was and is always illusory, very much like choosing between two washing detergents: flash packaging and slick advertising, but exactly the same thing inside. The opposition’s offers of a comfortable and pleasurable alternative were illusory, a temporary distraction from your reality. And in return for your next instance of personal compromise you are handed the Water Industry Competition Act with a semi-apologetic smile. After such a long, arduous marriage that has left you so battle weary, might you finally have happiness and peace? After all, the objectives of the Act are to encourage competition in the water industry and to foster innovative recycling projects and dynamic efficiency in the provision of water and wastewater services. Is that a glimmer of hope sparking up within you?

You poor, helpless fool. How could you have known that your spouse was conspiring with the opposition - your impotent former lover - to open the doors for outsiders, private players including foreign companies, to control, among other things, your drinking water as a retail consumer?

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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