Management of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) was a key issue at the recent NSW election, contributing to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party (SFF)  increasing its numbers in the upper house and shortening the career of the Minster for Regional Water. Basin water management pits politician against constituent, state against state, and industry against environmentalists. Co-CEO Alexandra Mayhew Hills struggles to think of an issue that so deeply and complexly divides regional Australians. The SFF should approach with caution.

Growing up in in outback Australia during the Millennium drought - the worst drought ever recorded since European settlement – the conflict over regional water management was part of everyday life.

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Etched into my memory is the mass burning of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) guide book (MDB Authority Chair Mike Taylor resigned shortly thereafter), chlorine-filled water you couldn’t drink and that cracked your dry skin, bruised knees on cracker dust, enduring the black madness of dust storms, pressing myself against the window to see the occasional rain, and stepping around kangaroos that bounced into town in search of some garden goodies to nibble on.

I am not exaggerating.

Nor are the farmers who are trying to feed the nation.

Nor are those trying to protect the ecosystems that cannot speak for themselves.

To me it always seemed the only thing people could agree on was the government was failing at managing the crisis. For a while I thought perhaps they had it in hand, but with the recent mass fish kills and the election of the SFF to the NSW Parliament, it is evident the crisis endures. 

The Basin

Signed into law in 2012, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) is, at its core, attempting to reduce the amount of water that can be extracted from the Basin’s streams, rivers and aquifers. However, the organisation responsible for management of the Basin, the MDB Authority, must find the balance between farmers and other industries and conservationists. Troublingly, the Authority says “the Murray–Darling Basin cannot be drought-proofed”.

To give you an idea of scale, the Basin covers 14 per cent of the continent and two million Australians and more than 40 Aboriginal nations call it home.

The majority of the Basin’s water is used for agriculture, and this agriculture accounts for almost 40 per cent the country’s production (by value). The highest water consumers tend to be directing it towards dairy farming, cotton-growing, pasture, and rice.

However, humans are not the only creatures that rely on the Basin. The Basin supports more than 120 waterbird species and 46 native fish species. They nest in trees that are hundreds of years old or breed in its internationally protected wetlands.

Drought management

Drought affects the environment, farmers, businesses, and communities.

Australians have long understood the need to plan for drought. As early as 1914 the Federal and state governments were agreeing on water sharing and longevity plans.

Good water management plans strike a balance between reducing the impact of drought on communities and industry, while ensuring water needs of a healthy river ecosystem are met. The primary levers are caps on diversion, water trade, and investment in more water-efficient irrigation.

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MDBP - tell ‘em they’re dreamin’

The MDBP is the government’s latest – and with a price tag of $13 billion, very expensive - attempt to manage the Basin.

For as long as I can recall, there have been cries of mismanagement of the MDBP. However it is not the drought that has caused the defiling of Australia’s greatest river system, this is a man-made ecological disaster.

The great Menindee lakes, where I swam as a child, have been drained twice in four years, resulting in an environmental catastrophe (to provide an ideal of scale: these lakes have three and half times the capacity of Sydney Harbour). The Basin has seen waterbird numbers plummet, half the native fish species threatened, and blue-green algal blooms becoming increasingly common. Our farmers are struggling to provide water to their cattle and crops. Homes are filling with rotten water. Everyone, out there, is screaming.

The plan has failed.

Any significant crisis that endures long enough presents political opportunity. So it is unsurprising that a narrowly-focussed political group has capitalised on this disaster and catapulted itself into a position of real political power.

SFF makes its move

While the recently re-elected Premier of NSW Gladys Berejiklian has made a point of publicly stating she would not do “any deals” with the SFF, the Shooters’ leader, Robert Borsak, has every intention of using the full force of the upper house crossbench to push through his policy agenda.

This is a party that successfully won three regional seats (Orange, Barwon and Murray) in the National Party’s heartland (since 2016) thanks to a campaign that focused on the State’s water supply.

Borsak has gone so far as to say the SFF will not negotiate on any legislation with the Government until the Coalition addresses its concerns around the MDB.

The SFF has a 10-point Murray-Darling management strategy, and is demanding the Government “hit pause” on the MDB Plan. This is unsurprising given the Party’s long history of criticising the Plan, the Authority, and the array of ministers responsible for both.

The SFF is not alone in its scepticism of the Plan. Even NSW Leader of the Nationals and Deputy Premier John Barilaro admitted “the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has failed NSW”.

However, this criticism is not party-wide. While Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources and Nationals Member David Littleproud admitted the Plan was “not perfect”, he believes it is “by far the best option we’ve got and all states and territories agreed to it”.

The National Farmers Federation (NFF) President Fiona Simson echoed Minister Littleproud’s sentiment: “the plan is the best game in town to try and collaborate”. The NFF has a strong voice in regional Australia and a marked influence in water management. 

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A cautionary tale

The SFF clearly believes it is on to a winner with water policy – but my advice, approach with caution. This is a long-running, contentious issue for one reason: there is no easy answer.

The Nationals do not suffer the factional divides that plague the Liberals and ALP, and yet even they are divided over the management of the Basin.

Former NSW Minister for Regional Water Niall Blair resigned from the Ministry following this most recent State election, citing appalling and violent threats that were levelled towards himself, his family and his staff for his management of water policy.

His was not the first scalped claimed.

I doubt it will be the last. 

The skies are brass and the plains are bare,
Death and ruin are everywhere –
And all that is left of the last year's flood
Is a sickly stream on the grey-black mud;
The salt-springs bubble and the quagmires quiver,
And - this is the dirge of the Darling River

- The Song of the Darling River by Henry Lawson (1891)