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Manufactured outrage a barrier to real MDB outcomes

Richard Heath - Wednesday, July 10, 2019
Much of the public outrage generated by the Four Corners program ‘Cash Splash’ (which aired on July 8) has been in reaction to the perception of public funds being spent for the sole benefit of large private companies. The program investigated elements of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) and asked if the Plan has “become a colossal waste of taxpayers' money”.

This outrage is understandable. Public funds should undoubtedly be for the purpose of public good. However, the equally outraged response to the program from the agricultural sector stems from the knowledge that the entire purpose of the MDBP is to deliver public good - and while a long way from perfect, the Plan is delivering on its purpose. 

So why the disconnect? If farmers can identify and trust in the public good being delivered, how can Four Corners come up with a program that seems to deliberately impugn the reputation of the agricultural sector as a partner in delivering the environmental, community and economic outcomes that everyone desires?

"It is imperative that the focus remains on real impacts and outcomes and not on sensational angles that only tell half the story"

Australian agriculture is still dominated by family farming businesses, like that of Andrew Watson from Boggabri. Andrew spoke at the AFI’s recent ‘Farming in a risky climate’ conference about how he has used the MDBP efficiency programs to deliver environmental, community and business benefits. He has sold water licences to the Government on the condition that the funds are used to make efficiency improvements to his irrigation. 

There is an environmental win as the water sold is permanently removed from the consumptive pool and transferred to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. There is a community win as the efficiency improvements allow Andrew to use less water to produce the same amount, meaning that he continues to employ the same number of people and sustain his local community. And the economic win is that Andrew’s business does not suffer from the transfer. 

This seems to be the exemplar of a successful public good investment. The environment and community derive a direct benefit without detriment to the business.

Unfortunately, the current focus of media is not on examples such as this but instead is directed towards the easy targets of ‘big’ business, ‘big’ irrigation and ‘big’ cotton – just stick a ‘big’ in front of anything and it becomes something to be feared. This focus is playing to a familiar ‘us and them’ narrative, rather than a genuine look at how the Plan can be improved.

And it can most definitely be improved. No-one is prosecuting the case that the MDBP is perfect, and indeed many irrigation communities are suffering perverse outcomes. But what is the most likely way to improve and evolve a highly complex strategy for management of this critical resource: virtue-signalling anti-corporate propaganda or a rational in-depth appraisal of the progress, successes and failings of the Plan? The 38 recommendations of the Productivity Commission (PC) review of the MDBP released in January 2019 provide an option for the second pathway. 

As National Farmers’ Federation water taskforce chair Les Gordon highlighted in the current Farm Policy Journal, the PC recommendations call for reform of the MDBA to ensure that the intent and purpose of the Plan (a bipartisan and whole-of-industry agreed approach) is delivered in a way that is transparent, demonstrable and effective. 

Water is our most precious resource. It must be used wisely to ensure that people, the environment and food and fibre production are sustained into the future. To achieve the delivery of those triple bottom line benefits, the MDBP is the best approach we have. For continual improvement of the Plan - and delivery of benefits to those who are not yet seeing a positive impact - it is imperative that the focus remains on real impacts and outcomes and not on sensational angles that only tell half the story.
 
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