A stench of putrefaction wafts over a troubled nation, this week, all the way from the tiny, dusty, outback settlement of Menindee, in far west NSW. Mass media is full of shocking images of an horrific mass fish kill in the millions and distressed, hapless, trapped wildlife; hopelessly mired in the deep mud of a dessicated Lake Cawndilla, nearby, confronting Australia with the catastrophic failure of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, (MDBA), a $13 billion lemon.
The MDBA’s failure is a metaphor for our nation’s ruling elite, who, like Trump, inhabit the eternal now and are in politics solely to look after big cotton, big mining and their other corporate sponsors. Bugger the science. Bugger the future. Just like Trump, Melissa Price, our own climate change denying environment minister has mining connections.
The environment can look after itself.
Or not. Set up by the 2007 Water Act to rescue the basin’s fragile ecosystem, by returning water to the ailing rivers, the MDDBA, its conflicted, compromised and corrupted, dark angel, instead, is achieving “perverse outcomes” – jargon for making things worse. It is, as some locals suggest, as if we’ve put mother in a home notorious for elder abuse.
Evasiveness, secrecy and deceit, experts testify, are part of the rotten culture of the MDBA – a test case in good policy stuffed up at every turn; a clusterfuck from foundation to nearly every stage of its implementation. It’s almost (apart from the policy) in the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government DNA. Except that Labor had a spanner in the works, too.
The MDBA is “a fraud on the environment”, Royal Commission lawyers declare, on the other hand. Put simply it has not merely watered down a noble plan whose rational aims are enshrined in The Water Act of 2007 – it has subverted it.
The Water Act 2007 recognises that too much water is being extracted from the river system and seeks to reset the balance between the amount required for human consumption and the amount needed to sustain the environment. By 2011, however, as the Royal Commission will find, The MDBA seems to have subverted the intention of the act with the support of key National Party figures including current leadership rematch contender, Barnaby Joyce.
Psst… No-one says nothing. The 2017 Royal Commission is due to report in a few weeks, but it’s stymied by states and authorities’ refusal to cooperate. Had the banks behaved in this fashion during the Hayne Royal Commission there would have been an uproar. Not so rotten in the state of Renmark, South Australia, alone, agrees to give evidence.
Unimpressed, Counsel Assisting, Richard Beasley S.C, an eminent specialist in environmental law notes, acerbically, in his summing up for the Commissioner, Brett Walker S.C., that the state governments’ submissions were,
“..either totally unhelpful or not particularly helpful.”
The MDBA itself excels in chutzpah and contempt by writing to the Commissioner saying it is unavailable because it is “busy”. Our finest scientists, on the other hand, provide the commission with a wealth of expert, testimony.
“Systematic mismanagement, cover up and maladministration has undermined the proper implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan”, Maryanne Slattery, a Senior Water Researcher at The Australia Institute sums up.
“Implementing the Plan for political expediency, without transparency or accountability by the Murray Darling Basin Authority, has resulted in a fraud of a Basin Plan. It has benefited big irrigators, at the expense of everyone else, including Aboriginal people, regional communities, floodplain graziers, small irrigators and the environment.
MDBA has ignored the science it was set up to apply in favour of pleasing its political masters. Now, the fish kill creates a big stink for both major parties but especially for Barnaby Joyce, former Minister for Agriculture and Water resources, who is on record boasting publicly to farmers in a Politics in the Pub-demonise a Greenie session in Shepparton, Victoria of how his mob, heroically, was able to take the water meant for the environment and return it to agriculture.
“We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show basically sending you out the back door, and that was a hard ask,”
Former Director of National Farmers’ Federation, Mal Peters, claims Joyce tilted the Murray-Darling Basin Authority towards irrigation interests over the environment when he was agriculture minister. It may be impossible to tilt back.
Joyce is popular with irrigators for killing off water buybacks and substituting subsidies for efficiency, effectively government handouts but efficiency reduces the run-off back into the river system with predictably disastrous effects.
Above all, “hard ask” Joyce insists on his rhetorical triple bottom line which gives economic and social needs priority over environmental; subverting the environmental aims and the entire intention of the Water Act.
“It’s a public relations sound-bite made up by the Basin Authority” says Counsel Assisting Beasley. There can be no trade-offs between environmental objectives and socio-economic ones, as the environmental objectives of the Act are subordinate to Australia’s international environmental treaty obligations. We are committed to Ramsar, a treaty to preserve wetlands, which takes its name from the small Iranian town where in 1971, the agreement was drawn up.
The Productivity Commission, notes in its recent report available in draft form – (its final report is with government on the understanding that it will be released in 2019) that cancelling buybacks has resulted in more than doubling the cost of water savings. The commission concludes that the current progress on implementing water efficiency measures “gives little confidence” they would be completed by 2024, as planned. But when will the report be released?
Joyce, Morrison’s government, the states and the authority itself show true leadership by keeping eerily shtum.
Hilariously, ScoMo, our chameleon PM becomes “Prime Minister for standards”, he declares, at the end of the week, as he cynically but shrewdly comes up with another spectacular diversion; a truly cunning stunt. Sunday, our own political head prefect decrees, that Australia Day citizenship ceremonies will be compulsory. And formal. No flip-flops.
Not only must councils run ceremonies for new Aussie citizens on Australia Day, they’ll have to hold another on 17 September. But watch what you wear. ScoMo’s bold new citizenship shindig has a dress code. No thongs and shorts. In brief, you can become an Australian at a citizenship ceremony only if you shun Australian casual national dress. It’s bonkers, but it has to be to distract from the biggest stink of the Coalition’s odoriferous last five years in office.
Bill Shorten sniggers at ScoMo’s cynical ploy. “You sort of know when Australia Day’s coming up don’t you, when a couple of weeks before we get the annual conservative outing to put politics into Australia Day,” the Labor leader tells reporters in Melbourne Sunday. “It’s what the conservatives do to keep their base happy.” As do the reactionaries.
Edicts and bad odour are no novelty to our nation’s history. Menindee also felt the full force of government authority on January 26 1935 when, during the first rally against Australia Day, twenty-give Aboriginal men were nicely told if they did not perform the role of ‘retreating Aborigines’ in a re-enactment of the First Fleet, their families would starve.
Echoing Morrison’s current concern for a good show, officials were to recruit the best singers and dancers and take them back to Sydney to perform. Their women were terrified. Ngiyaampaa elder Dr Beryl (Yunghadhu) Philp Carmichael, born and raised on the mission, was only three at the time, but her memory of the fear in the community never left her.
“Whether they were taking them away to be massacred or what, no-one knew. The community went into mourning once they were put on the mission truck,” she recalls.
Menindee is a richly resonant site, historically, politically, ecologically and countless other ways including our vast, interminable, inscrutable legacy of heroic colonial stupidity – and our forbears’ barbarous cruelty to Aboriginal peoples.
In the light of Morrison’s decree on the observance of Australia Day, another typically vacuous, bogan slogan which reveals his ignorance of his nation’s history, (“I think people want Australia Day to be Australia Day, it’s for all Australians”,) it is timely to acknowledge the testimony of Edward Wilson who wrote in The Argus, 17 March 1856,
“In less than twenty years we have nearly swept them off the face of the earth. We have shot them down like dogs. In the guise of friendship we have issued corrosive sublimate in their damper and consigned whole tribes to the agonies of an excruciating death. We have made them drunkards, and infected them with diseases which have rotted the bones of their adults, and made such few children as are born amongst them a sorrow and a torture from the very instant of their birth. We have made them outcasts on their own land, and are rapidly consigning them to entire annihilation.”
Menindee unwittingly played its role. The first town on the Darling, Menindee is the oldest, European colonial settlement in western NSW and was the advance base for Burke and Wills’ 1860 expedition, a grand folly half-cocked, a noble failure, which, not unlike the MDBA, or the Morrison government, set out before its instructions were finalised.
Today, the putrid smell of decomposing carcasses of millions of golden perch, bony herring and Murray cod drifts up over the Darling River bank and into Maiden’s Menindee Hotel whence on 19 October 1860, Robert O’Hara Burke and his third in command, William John Wills, set out into terra incognita; their fatal expedition and the beginning of the end; a shocking new chapter of disease, dispossession and genocide for the traditional owners of the land.
“It opened up the way for the pastoralists,” says Joshua Haynes from Newcastle, a director of the Yandruwandha Yawarrawarrka Traditional Land Owners Aboriginal Corporation -, “and the moment someone took up ownership of the land we could be moved on, or disposed of, just like a kangaroo.”
After the pastoralists came the irrigators; cotton and wheat farmers who took both water and land. “Without the river, us Barkandji people, we are nothing. We’ve got no land, no name, nothing. This is our lifeblood, this is our mother,”
Barkandji Elder “Badger” Bates laments in a letter read in NSW parliament by Independent MP. Jeremy Buckingham.
After waiting 18 years for their Native Title to be acknowledged, his people watch the Barka (Darling river) dry up.
Menindee, today, is thus, the site of a massive environmental disaster, a site layered with all the historical associations of dispossession, alienation and worse; of Burke and Wills grand folly, now overlaid with the folly of irrigated agriculture, unsustainable – environmentally and economically not only here, but throughout Australia. Add a failure of political will.
Big irrigators with big party donations have recruited politicians of all persuasions. It’s a dramatic, tragic reminder in microcosm of how poorly governments of a corporate state have mismanaged energy, environment and health for example when too much power resides in a few massive corporations and oligopolies. Yet we don’t lack in ideas.
In 2006, a meeting of western NSW mayors, chaired by local state MP Peter Black, voted for the Commonwealth to buy the 96,000 hectare Cubbie Station, in southwestern Queensland, the largest landholding in the nation and also the biggest irrigation property in the southern hemisphere, enjoying rights to 400,000 megalitres of water, equivalent to all the water licences downstream in north-west NSW, but it was sold to a Chinese-led consortium. It’s a scandal.
There were two Australian bids on the table, both more generous than the $240 million winning bid, as the ABC’s Stephen Long reported on Radio National’s PM programme in 2012. At the time Fairfax’s Ann Kent puzzled,
“There is something odd about Australia. Our politicians expend huge resources and even more hot air wrangling over how to exclude a pitifully small number of legitimate Asian and Middle Eastern refugees from our shores, while they allow, almost without a murmur, the purchase of Cubbie Station, the largest landholding in the country, comprising a number of properties the size of the ACT, by a consortium headed by a Chinese enterprise, Shandong Ruyi.”
What’s not odd is the all too familiar way authorities rush to scapegoat. They duck and weave to evade responsibility. In this popular political pantomime, it is forbidden to admit the role of climate change or of disastrous mismanagement.
Officials are quick to claim the fish are killed by a toxic algal bloom but locals say the primary cause of the catastrophe is poor water management and irrigation agriculture. The drought and algal bloom are secondary stressors on a system which has failed to use water specially allocated to protect the foundations of the river’s aquatic ecosystems.
“Droughts would have contributed to the blue green algae outbreak,” says Richard Kingsford, Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of NSW, “But the river droughts are happening more often and they’re more intense as a result of the irrigation industry in the Darling diverting water from the river over the last 10 to 20 years.”
Leading scientists agree.
The NSW Irrigators Council would have us believe it is all about the drought. It isn’t. It about taking too much water upstream so there is not enough for downstream users, and the fish,” says Professor Quentin Grafton, UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance.
What would Grafton know? He’s just a scientist. In the media show which follows, it’s all the fault of the drought of course. In a rare display of synchronised swimming, Agriculture and Water Resources Minister, climate change denier David “don’t give a rat’s” Littleproud, ducks for cover, as does his counterpart, NSW Primary Industries and Water Resources Minister Niall Blair in a hilarious visit to Menindee, where he is seen in a boat speeding past a group of local protestors – only for safety reasons, of course, a technicality which local police do not support.
Unsafe at any speed, The MDBA has, of course, long been warned by scientists that things are hotting up in the basin; hotter periods are lasting longer. Climate change can happen very rapidly and abruptly. Even to denialists.
NSW Labor wants a special inquiry into the ecological catastrophe – as if there’s been no Royal Commission. They want a commission or an inquiry to determine why the Liberals and Nationals sought “changes to water rules that reduced river flows and allowed the over-extraction of water by lobbyist irrigators who were National Party donors”, while ignoring warnings from the Wentworth Group of Scientists and local communities.
Professor John Quiggan has the last word by reminding us that irrigation never was the solution. He notes that agricultural economists recognised long ago that the environment in Australia, especially in areas like Menindee, was not suited to irrigated agriculture. Yet, as he wryly notes, the converse recognition, that irrigation schemes are often disastrous for the environment, came much later. Or as in the case of the MDBA, or the National Party not at all.
The stink from Menindee ought to be enough to bring down any respectable government. On the other hand, it is clearly capable of distracting the Morrison government into outrageous, ill-considered and divisive stunts like his new edict for Australia Day.
In all the fizz and the fuss over the fiasco that is the MDBA debacle, not to mention the frenzy of finding scapegoats and blame-shifting and just plain lying it is worth taking a longer, broader view especially as Australia Day approaches, albeit still on the 26 January. Above all it is worth recalling the rights and the role of the traditional owners of the land and their suffering both past and present – for it far surpasses, in all dimensions, the losses of the corporate cotton farmer.