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Out of touch bureaucrats fail to cross the river

Date

GERARD HENDERSON

The term ''disconnect'' has become increasingly fashionable. Yet, at times, it has some resonance. As the response to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's guide to the proposed basin plan demonstrates, there is little connection between those commissioned to recommend on the amount of water that can be taken from the basin and those who live and work in the area.

The timing demonstrates the point. The guide was released late on Friday, October 8, and contained scant reference to the likely social and economic consequences if the findings about the need for cuts in water use were implemented by government. The following week, the authority's chairman, Michael Taylor, and chief executive, Rob Freeman, visited Shepparton, Deniliquin and Griffith.

The disconnect between Taylor and Freeman - career public servants who can look forward to taxpayer-subsidised superannuation - and the residents of the Murray-Darling Basin became evident. Hence the reaction.

On Thursday the Gillard government announced that the independent MP Tony Windsor would be the chairman of a parliamentary committee entrusted to look at the human impact of changes to water allocations in the basin. Then, on Sunday, Taylor announced that the authority itself would commission a detailed social and economic study into the likely social and economic impacts of the proposed basin plan on local communities. Not before time.

Listeners to ABC's news and current affairs heard a case study of policy on the run. Initially, Taylor indicated he did not really know how many jobs might be lost in the agricultural sector if the figures in the guide were acted upon. It might be 800 job losses but, then, it might be "significantly higher".

The reaction to the authority's briefings should not have been surprising. In Griffith, Teresa Reginnto asked what her family should do. Should the business be sold? If so, should the family stay in Griffith? If not, should it move to another town or to a city? The authority could provide no answers.

In Shepparton, a farmer said he and his wife had accumulated four farms and a heap of water over 25 years: "That's our superannuation because we don't have super like normal everyday nine-to-five workers here."

The disconnection between those who backed the guide's thesis and those who might experience its recommendations was dramatic. The supporters were public servants along with the likes of Professor Richard Kingsford - academics who work at publicly funded universities. Support was also evident among journalists who have rarely worked outside the public broadcasters or big media companies.

Take ABC Radio's Deborah Cameron, for example. On the morning of October 8 a story leaked that the authority would recommend big cuts in water for irrigation. This led to some emotional reactions, including from a female resident of Griffith who predicted water riots. Talking to her colleague Mark Simkin, Cameron declared that "at some point, someone just has to look at these people and say, 'Oh, break it down.' "

Cameron's comment overlooked the fact that the plight of "these people" involved not only farmers in the basin but also that of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. It was the classic disconnect between the inner-city, well-educated professional with a secure job and guaranteed superannuation and the less-educated small business operator or employee in the regional centres or outer suburbs.

Meanwhile, reports from Melbourne indicate another lot of "these people" are causing problems. The state Labor government has proposed a tunnel under fashionable Yarraville and not-so-fashionable Footscray.

Last week the Herald-Sun published a leaked email from Greens candidate Janet Rice, who commented that Footscray residents needed help in protesting against the tunnel because "they are poorer and less articulate than Yarraville residents". Yet another example of "these people" not understanding what their real interests are, apparently.

The growing disparity in Australia is not so much between rich and poor but between the well-educated in secure employment and the less educated in small business and uncertain employment or on pensions. Any change which does not take this division into account is doomed for political failure.

It's not too late for Julia Gillard to hear the message.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.

 

85 comments

  • It would be interesting to see an economic and social impact of doing nothing versus undertaking the report's recommendations. If people believe the Basin is fine and we can continue with business as usual surely they have their head in the sand. Casual visits to the Basin over 20 years have clearly shown it is in dire straits. It is as though irrigators are in denial; as though they've suddenly realised their drug of choice is being taken away. And what happens when you take away any addict's drug? They kick and scream and believe the world is coming to an end. And if you let them keep their drug? They die a slow and inevitable death. It is definitely time to have a serious rethink on how our precious resources are allocated and not be bogged down in emotion in the process.

    Commenter
    m969
    Location
    Armidale
    Date and time
    October 19, 2010, 5:57AM
    • Gosh there is nobody like 'these people' helpers on this blog site is there?

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      October 19, 2010, 6:12AM
      • How is the sucking dry of the murray darling basin the public services fault??...when a govt tells a department to develop a "water plan" is develops a "water plan" not a "social and economic impact plan"..!!!!

        Maybe we should start listening to scientists and public servants...the people who spend decades dedicated to a particular field...not the rookie all talk politicians and journos who become overnight armchair experts across all fields!!!

        Public servants cant defend themselves in the media...and therefore get used as a scape goat by all sides!!

        Commenter
        Rob
        Location
        ACT
        Date and time
        October 19, 2010, 6:37AM
        • Why oh why do governments nearly always put the cart before the horse. At first you shake your head, but as it goes on you just get angry. If I ran a business this way I would have no business. Is it the pollies or their unelected unaccountable advisors who are to blame?

          Commenter
          Tc
          Date and time
          October 19, 2010, 6:38AM
          • When the US Civil War ended slavery, life got a lot harder for slave owners. They might even have had to sell their farms at a loss.

            And the end of WWII was probably a bad time for nazis.

            And the end of destructive water "mining" from the Murray-Darling will be bad for the farmers and the towns that have become dependent on destroying the environment (and their farms, in the medium term).

            Should we feel sorry for such people? Or should we recognise them as the villains they are, and do what needs to be done to fix the problem.

            Commenter
            Simon
            Date and time
            October 19, 2010, 6:49AM
            • Gerard
              How do you establish what the social impacts will be unless you first establish how much and where the cuts in water need to be?
              Answer, you can't.
              Thats why the guide is needed.
              This is what should have been commuicated by our pollies and the media. Not the muck rakeing stuff that causes scenes wittnessed at the recent meetings.
              Sadly your article along with other outrages statements, by people that should know better, causes suicides.
              The system has been over allocated so lets all put our heads together and try and fix the poblem.

              Commenter
              Common sense
              Date and time
              October 19, 2010, 6:52AM
              • It is too late for the nanny state Gerard and the Gillard that is the political product of it.

                Like the UK we have to get stuck into it and bring the crony executive to heel before the resource demand boom turns to its bust in the cycle that has had no end since the 1840/1890 busts.

                We're on the top of the bubble and our massive current account deficit (the capital raised which has been spent on unproductive urban land price inflation to feed the crony bankers clip) relies on US funny money recycled back into spiked ore prices.

                They can start by liquidating the ABC and all the nanny state propaganda departments.

                Commenter
                ciao
                Date and time
                October 19, 2010, 6:52AM
                • The whole MDBA plan is just another in a long line of "disconnects," between what Labor says and what Labor does.

                  Before the election Gillard said that she would fully implement the MBDA plan. She said this without even having seen the plan as it wasn't released as scheduled because of the election. I'd hazard a guess that Labor would be in opposition if it had been.

                  Gillard committing to fully implement the plan raises two key points. The first, the lunacy and incompetence of agreeing to something you haven't seen, and secondly, agreeing to it because you had seen it and then lying about it to the Australian people.

                  Given Gillard's track record, either of these two scenarios is likely.

                  Incompetence and bungling is a mainstay of Rudd/Gillard Labor and is evident through Pink Batts, BER, Green Loans, the mining tax, asylum seekers, NBN, the national curriculum and now national OH&S laws (I could go on...).

                  Being selective with the truth - let's call it lying - is also evident with Gillard Labor and you need look no further than "no carbon tax under a government I lead," the expansion of Curtin and the opening of Shergold detention centres, "no worker or business will be worse off under the Fair Work Act," the Rudd coup plotters won't be rewarded...again, I could go on.

                  So when you think about the word "disconnect," look no further than the hopeless ALP that are now in the process of wasting another 3 years of Australia's opportunity.

                  Real stories, real impacts, real stuff ups. Real Labor.

                  Commenter
                  CJ
                  Location
                  NSW
                  Date and time
                  October 19, 2010, 7:12AM
                  • I think it's not merely education here, Gerard. My husband and I - and in fact, most of my family - have postgrad degrees and live in the country and we're among the most vocal in defence of irrigation needs in Griffith. Most of my family work/ed in front line services in education or health. The severe and harsh cuts foreshadowed will not only ruin agriculture and agri-based businesses. Griffith will lose more Dept of Ag or CSIRO jobs, more teachers, more hospital staff - as well as jobs in the supermarkets, trades and so on.

                    I think the big difference in the city/country divide on this issue is that every aspect of life as we know it in irrigated communities such as Griffith will end with the cuts to entitlements that the MDBA wants. In chardonnay sipping, intellectual inner city suburbs like Marrickville there's no personal consequences to water cuts. They can only see a hypothetical benefit to the environment. I say hypothetical because this really is just the school science project of the Wentworth Group of Snobby Scientists. More people who don't have to live with the consequences.

                    The real tragedy is that rural suicide is already much higher than the national average. Some farmers, sadly, won't live with these cuts.

                    Commenter
                    Lexi
                    Location
                    Regional NSW
                    Date and time
                    October 19, 2010, 7:24AM
                    • Surely the market based supportive element of Mr GH should be pushing for those who have benefited most from land degradation to wear the costs associated with its restructure.

                      In market sense (that is, the economic sense) this is a correction to inefficient allocation of water, presided over by pork barrel-induced parties (predominantly the National Party) at a State level with little heed for the national consequences (operating essentially as small feudal communities with little care for downstream consequences).

                      The Sheparton farmer is claiming that they have _no_ superannuation whatsoever? That all their savings are tied up in land acquisitions and water rights? And I'll take a guess beyond this: that they're using a trust system to ensure that they legally minimise their contribution to the tax pool? Market adjustments happen - their investment decision may play out positively or may play out negatively.

                      I'm not surprised that when there's consequences for their actions most people want the nanny (welfare) state that ciao is so anti. The agrarians are no different. The business asset (land) has been degraded over time due to poor management (salinity + erosion two major issues) - plus the commons (water course) has also been severely degraded (no doubts there amongst the community or either side of politics). The need to reign back in the gluttonous overallocation of resource (water) - beyond the balance to maintain a sustainable business - is needed. There will be winners (those who've farmed more sustainably) + losers (those who haven't) - just this time the "evil" farmers sustainable farmers aren't losing out.

                      Family friends farmed sustainably and copped all sorts of threats from those others around them. Over the environmental cycle of the land - guess who was better off?

                      Commenter
                      Joel
                      Location
                      Sydney
                      Date and time
                      October 19, 2010, 7:30AM

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