OPINION

Dead stinking fish send a message

Any halfway decent political opportunist would use this week's images of dead and dying Murray cod and other fish in the Menindee Lakes to put the environment and climate change at the forefront of the election campaign. The fact that the weather has been warmish, even by Goodooga standards, doesn't do any harm either.

The images have an emotive energy often lacking in many of the impassioned debates about places we care about which are fairly far away, and which have become almost abstractions for the feeling that we ought to be doing something – at the very least, something more than we have been doing.

Straight off, the dead and stinking fish could symbolise the mismanagement, maladministration and corruption of water policy in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. It doesn't take a great deal of extension to work it into an argument about the National Party's intellectual and moral bankruptcy, particularly under former leader Barnaby Joyce, and its complete unfitness to govern. Rural folk increasingly feel that way, wondering how a party established to represent rural and regional Australians became instead available for rent to big mining interests, the coal industry, the fracking industry and large-scale agribusiness, particularly when these interests threaten their livelihoods.

But the Nationals are only the obvious culprits. Look, for example, at Malcolm Turnbull, who had a spell as minister in charge of saving the Murray and Darling river systems a bit more than a decade ago, and knew so much about the topic that he and John Howard were able to concoct a river water policy, costing billions of dollars, on the back of an envelope over a couple of afternoons, without even feeling the need to consult the Treasury, which, Turnbull said contemptuously, knew nothing about the subject.

One of the many things that Turnbull learned duringhis period as water flâneur in chief was the wisdom of successive conservative prime ministers in keeping water policy out of the hands of Nationals ministers. Not even Tony Abbott was tempted to hand it over – probably on the advice of former senator Bill Heffernan, a farmer with some tolerance for human weakness but never for waste or mismanagement of a scarce water supply. After Turnbull knifed Abbott, to general applause, Joyce popped around to remind him that Coalition agreements were between leaders, not parties, and that continuing the alliance would need to involve some Liberal concessions. When Turnbull announced his ministry, water was with Joyce at agriculture, and that department further refined its habit of looking away and doing nothing when policy became imperial, and when enforcement of the law, or even implementation of it, came to be regarded as a matter of discretion.

But one does not need to dwell long on the dead fish to think also of climate change, and the Morrison government's inertia on the subject, not least because a good proportion of the Coalition doesn't actually believe in it or, at least, in doing anything brave or courageous, or ahead of anybody else, about it. And also of drought, and extreme weather, neither in the least bit unusual in the Australian environment, but both seeming to come more regularly, and with solid evidence of increasing averages. Perhaps the population is not completely certain about what to do to ward off the effects of climate change, and how much of whatever it is is necessary, but opinion polls suggest that most Australians believe we should do a good deal more, and with a more explicit sense of urgency, than the present government.

Some of the thousands of dead fish in the Darling River near Menindee.  Photo: Nick Moir

Some of the thousands of dead fish in the Darling River near Menindee. Photo: Nick Moir

One does not have to segue far off the dead fish, the drought or climate change theme to think of the Great Barrier Reef, and the threat posed to it by rising temperatures, caused not least by coal. The government's response to this crisis appears to involve enabling (if not yet financing, though it may come to that) a large coal-mining project nearby, and giving nearly $500 million to a club of rich executives, chiefly from the mining industry, who think they can commission work, perhaps with some private sector help, that will tackle some of the evidences of the effects of climate change, if not actually do anything about it.

The power of the images is such that they could be harnessed for messages against the Coalition, or for the Labor Party, which is saying mostly the right things about climate change, if not necessarily about water policy or Adani, or for the Greens or environmental candidates. The fish don't need a detailed inquest: just by themselves, they show that something has gone very badly wrong.

It says something about the political ineptness of federal and state Nationals ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, that he insists that the fish deaths are the effects of drought rather than policy, or of drought accompanied by abrupt changes in temperature. No doubt these have played their part in the catastrophe but, as usual along the Darling system, the problem is much more complicated than that, and owes much to the overallocation of water to irrigation farmers, particularly along the Macquarie and Barwon rivers, to the failures of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, not least (from the start) in failing to prioritise the environment ahead of agricultural needs, and to rorting of the whole system, with the connivance of public service regulators, particularly in the NSW government. That federal ministers and some public servants in the primary industry department see their function as facilitating agriculture and maximising its export revenue has also led to the corruption of the public stewardship they were supposed to deliver to the whole community.

One reason the symbolism of the fish deaths has the power to sound in votes is that the division of scarce resources inevitably involves rationing, winners and losers, and people who argue about what should be rationed. The Four Corners report last year, which showed some big farmers stealing water, acquired some of its moral force from the fact that the rorters were dobbed in by neighbours as well as by folk nearby. They were angry and resentful not only because the rorters were taking water for free while they paid for it, but because the rorting of the supply meant a diminished total supply. That's quite apart from the fact that many farmers are keen fishers, well-versed in their local environments, and want to live sustainably in them, rather than by mining its water supplies and raping the soil.

But that's just in the immediate neighbourhood. In any river system, there are folk upstream and downstream, particularly downstream, who will gripe that their allocations have been reduced because too much water has been taken upstream. They are often right, even within a state. But there has been a long pattern of farmers within an upstream state taking more than they should, to the ultimate disadvantage of downstream states, particularly South Australia. That's a problem aggravated by physical constraints, including weirs that often prevent water flowing downstream, by very poor Commonwealth policy and management of efficiencies to save water, and by evaporation.

Given the original overallocations of water licences to irrigators, the Commonwealth began buying allocations (from "willing sellers" on the water market). But this was unpopular in some areas, with claims (by no means substantiated) that the sale of irrigation licences was depopulating communities and reducing their resources. The present government prefers to spend public money subsidising farmers to increase the efficiency of their water use, thus liberating some water for the environment. There are problems with this approach. First, the cost of the water "liberated" for the environment by such measures is nearly three times that of water liberated through buying allocations on the open market, the supposed ideal distributing mechanism. Second, the economic benefit from the subsidised infrastructure and efficiency mechanisms goes to the individual farmer, rather than to a district or the public at large. In a real sense, neighbours can be economically disadvantaged because they are unable to grow food or cotton at the cost of the neighbours whose "investment" in better methods was heavily subsidised.

That has also brought to light other inequities. Last year in NSW, the government announced measures to "borrow" water from the environmental reservation because of the dought's severity. Listening to the blather coming from the Nationals, one would have understood the announcement as suggesting that some water was being liberated so farmers and graziers could get minimal supplies for thirsty sheep, or to round off a crop almost ready for harvest.

But the extra water, better characterised as water stolen rather than borrowed, was not rationed out to the needy. It was auctioned out to the highest bidder – usually to better-off farmers not suffering as greatly from the drought and thus in a better position to bid high. Some water, indeed, went upstream to farmers not actually in drought at all. And some of the crops "topped off" were not crops planned and planted as possible from diminishing allocations as drought took hold, but extra speculative planting, just in case there was late rain.

The South Australian royal commission into the management of the Murray-Darling system, being conducted by Bret Walker, SC, should soon report. Set up in response to anger about its very junior status at the table, it has had minimal cooperation from the Commonwealth (which ordered that the basin authority, and its staff and board members, not give evidence). The commission has had only token cooperation from the states.

But that has not meant that it has been purely parochial, or that the evidence before it has been skewed to South Australian matters or interests. For starters, there are many players, including irrigators and farming interests from other states, who were keen to give evidence and to describe their problems. There have been retired basin workers and regulators, and former CSIRO staff still angry about how managers caved in to politicians and changed scientific calculations of water needs to suit political agendas. There has been abundant evidence showing the authority's setting and subsequent reduction of sustainable environmental allocations not in response to any scientific analysis but to calculations of what interest groups might accept. After the interests complained about the initial determination that a minimum 3000 gigalitres of water a year was needed to meet environmental water requirements, the authority was told to "pick a number with a '2' in front of it". It settled for 2750 gigalitres, but despite all of the fad words about science, accountability and transparency, has been unable, since its establishment, to show how it arrived at either figure. Expert advice from scientists is that the minimum environmental allocation should have been 6900 gigalitres in an average year, that there was Buckley's of satisfying the environmental needs with an allocation of 3000, let alone 2750.

It is typical of the mendacity of NSW's participation in the scheme that it came up with a rort to meet demands for a higher environmental flow. It wants to close up the Menindee Lakes, leaving only a narrow channel by which the water can go downstream. After all, it argues, the water in the lakes (when it is there) only evaporates. Would it be better if, instead, it was sent to those whingeing crow-eaters, without actually disturbing the standard of living of NSW agribusiness upstream. Local farmers, as well as the city of Broken Hill, which draws its water from the lakes, are furious, some insisting that the evaporation causes local weather in any event, but also speaking of the lakes' importance as a wetlands site, a sanctuary for birds, a breeding place for fish (if there are any left) and as a sieve settling some of the dirty water. The basin does not appear to be much of a player in the argument involved, even from its duty as the ultimate protector of the riverine environment.

But it seems certain that Bret Walker will hold that the then Commonwealth solicitor-general was wrong when he advised Tony Burke, when the authority was set up, that protecting the environment was only one aim in basin management. Equally important were social and economic considerations.

Walker, and the counsel assisting the royal commission, are certain that this interpretation is wrong. Indeed, they say that every senior constitutional lawyer consulted shares this view. The authority is first required to establish the basin's minimum environmental needs. Only after that can it set allocations for irrigation, or for domestic use in towns and elsewhere.

Walker plainly thinks the misinterpretation of the Water Act's clear instructions has led the authority to think it must perform some political juggling act, by which it ends up with some solution that causes all of the vested interests least trouble. As such, the authority has failed miserably, and compounded rather than alleviated the rivers' problems.

The counsel assisting, Richard Beasley, SC, has not been kind to the authority or its board. He quoted senior international scientists who said it was a fundamental tenet of good governance that scientists produced facts and that government decided on values and made choices. They were concerned that scientists in the authority felt pressured "to trim [the facts] so that the sustainable diversion limit will be one that is politically acceptable".

Beasley said that if all the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had done over the past eight years was to "trim the facts", it would be bad enough.

"But it's worse than that. The implementation of the basin plan has been marred by maladministration. By that I mean mismanagement by those in charge of the task at the basin authority, its executives and its board, and the consequent mismanagement of huge amounts of public funds. The responsibility for that ... falls on both past and present executives of the MDBA and its board."

There are many guilty parties, and few deserve to be spared. Fish rot from the top, it is said.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. jwaterfordcanberrajwaterfordcanberra@gmailgmail.com

This story Dead stinking fish send a message first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.