Gaps in this story

By Country News

South Australia’s Royal Commissioner Bret Walker tells an interesting story, but it is one with quite a few gaps.

Mr Walker’s report delivered on the Murray-Darling Basin has a narrative style, and the hallmarks of a well-researched legal argument, which you would expect from an experienced legal mind.

He has correctly identified that there has been some progress under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which has improved environmental outcomes for the basin.

And he has referred to the ‘‘massive’’ importance of irrigated agriculture: It is surely one of the brightest hopes for sustainable production and export of high quality foodstuffs to the enormous and growing markets among the neighbouring populations of Asia.

But a barrister’s argument is only as good as the information he or she has at their disposal and, judging by the recommendations, there were some missing parts.

He has expended a large amount of time and energy on repeating claims about the Murray Mouth and the Coorong, but failed to tackle the disputed history of the region and how the landscape changes within South Australia have contributed to the current situation.

While he laments the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s aversion to including climate change in its calculations, he doesn’t seem to realise that incremental sea level rises under climate change will render any improvement in river flows superfluous if the sea further invades the Coorong.

Of greater significance to residents of northern Victoria and the southern Riverina is the finding that buybacks are the most efficient way of recovering water for the environment, and his assertion that buybacks have not caused a mass exodus of people.

Mr Walker claims the impact of water recovery in basin towns has been overstated.

He goes on to make an incredibly naive observation that there is no relationship between a reduction in water and a reduction in farm production.

This is an astonishing assertion, which we hope will be debunked by commentators in the ensuing weeks.

Any professional farmer will challenge this remark and there are many reports already available in the public sphere that explain how a reduction in water, as a farm input, will jeopardise output in a region which has a climate like Victoria or NSW.

Perhaps the royal commissioner doesn’t have the benefit of a garden that requires water to grow things.

In any case, the public record should have been consulted.

We don’t for one minute pretend there have not been other impacts on farm output, including commodity prices, global markets, competition for alternative land uses and labor expenses.

However, our regional communities are suffering, partly because of a reduction in available water and the ensuing rise in water prices.

Much of the commissioner’s findings are about delivering more water to the environment; you can’t argue, on the one hand, that diverting more water to the environment will have beneficial effects, and at the same time argue that taking water off agriculture will have no detrimental effect.

Most environmentalists have already agreed there is a cost to buybacks; the only real argument is about how far we go and what cost we can tolerate.

To say there is no nexus between water availability, agricultural production and economic activity is bizarre.

So where do we go with this report now?

It is clear that there are some interesting observations delivered by the commissioner, including whether the MDBA has been operating according to its legal requirements.

We hope the Commonwealth and the states will take a serious look at the report and analyse its findings.

—Geoff Adams

Country News editor