Murray-Darling collapse: Carelessness and corruption beyond caring

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The collapse of the Darling River system and, with it, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the much-vaunted "Plan" is an awful example of all that is wrong with Australia at the moment.

I say, at the moment, because there is an expectation that the Labor Party will be in power within 20 weeks and it will begin the process of repairing the damage wrought by the LNP over the past 23 years.

Stakeholders along the Murray-Darling River system have known for some time that it was in a bad way and that irrigation practices were unsustainable. They knew that water was being taken illegally, but no one in authority at the state and federal level would listen to complaints or undertake action against the perpetrators. That led to a culture of water theft.

The incoming Labor Party is expected to institute a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin. In this, they will be supported by a new Labor State Government in NSW. The royal commission is expected to have wide-ranging terms of reference. It will overshadow the discredited LNP Royal Commission in South Australia.

The National Party, which claims to represent the interests of rural Australia, have in fact done most to wreck the sustainability of waterways. The former Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, pushed the terms of the National Water Commission Bill 2004, which separated water from property rights allowing for the trading of water. Along with corruption, that decision has done more to undermine the river systems than any other undertaking.

Many hope that the role of Member for New England Barnaby Joyce, another former deputy prime minister, in aiding the alleged illegal diversion of water for friends and donors among northern cotton growers will be fully examined by a royal commission.

In 2016, Joyce was reported by the ABC to have said that he did not have a brief to protect water, it was a resource to be exploited for economic benefit:

“Water is wealth and a dam is a bank. Any essence of wealth is connected to water and water infrastructure. As they say you can make money out of mud, you can’t make it out of dust.”

I have been writing about water, salinity and land degradation since 1980. My awareness comes from having lived and farmed in WA and NSW.

In 2008, I wrote:

The components of the water crisis in Australia are environmental, managerial and political. Southern catchment systems and rivers are degraded through greed and mismanagement, with the latter centred on inappropriate agricultural practices such as flood irrigation... However debate so far has been conducted within the narrow and selfish framework that the market knows best. Essentially this is expressed as the market will establish the true cost of water and water will flow to those who pay this cost.


This is to be achieved through the sale of water licences, too many of which have been issued for the amount of water available, and by the sale of water by licence holders. To compound this problem water and licences can be sold from one geographic area to another with little regard for the amount of water available to meet those transactions.

Webster Limited has a water portfolio of $300 million.

In 2008, I failed to see how rational policy decisions relating to water could be made in the absence of a national audit of water availability and use. I have argued before for a National Water Institute to undertake such an audit and to manage the process on an ongoing basis. Both the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and a national water institute should answer to a Senate water and sustainable land use committee.

In attempting to restore the Murray-Darling River system, the Government is in the impossible position of having to purchase water. It is unfortunate that a vital, essential and irreplaceable commodity such as water can be traded. The river and those that live along it have been turned into mendicants. They are forced to compete with some large and vested interests. If the Government is serious about solving the problems of the river system, it will need to nationalise and control all of the water which comes into that system.

I urged, back then, that as an initial step, the Federal Government purchase Cubbie Station at the headwaters of the Darling, which was up for sale. Senator Penny Wong was, at that time, the Minister for the Environment. I can only assume she was poorly advised, for she declined.

In 2008, the Northern Basin Alliance of NSW (big cotton growers) argued that the Northern Basin which includes the Namoi Valley Catchment should be removed from the jurisdiction of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). They wanted a Northern Basin commission to manage the Darling and its tributaries. These are the growers egged on and supported by Joyce. Hostile from the outset to the MDBA, they have sought to bend the rules and, where possible, flaunt them.

I stood as an Independent for the seat of Parkes in 2007. Following a radio interview, in which I canvassed many of the issues in this article, I was contacted by the CEO of an irrigation company based in Narrabri. He told me in no uncertain terms to back off. He indicated the company would put money into another Independent who supported the irrigation industry.

In November 2018, northern cotton grower Anthony Barlow was charged with water theft from the Darling. Sentencing is expected in February. Another grower, Peter Harris, is fighting separate charges. These charges arose as the result of an ABC Four Corners investigation in mid-2017.

David Harris, the head of the NSW State Government department WaterNSW, has argued that growers' water usage data should be protected — illustrating how weak the advocacy for the environment is from the NSW Government and its agencies.

On 8 January, two senior executives from Norman Farming – a cotton growing conglomerate in southern Queensland – appeared in the Brisbane Magistrates Court charged with defrauding the Commonwealth of $20 million intended for water savings on the Murray-Darling.

Despite the protestations from major cotton growers and peak industry bodies that these cases are exceptional, one gets the impression that they are the tip of the iceberg. And, as climate change rubs against the profit margins of big growers, increased gaming and rorting will increase, unless fundamental change is implemented.

In 2018, Maryanne Slattery – a senior water researcher at The Australia Institute and whistleblower formerly with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority – noted:

Implementing the Plan for political expediency without transparency or accountability by the MDBA has resulted in a fraud of a Basin Plan. It has benefited big irrigators at the expense of everyone else including Aboriginal people, regional communities, flood plain graziers, small irrigators and the environment...Its implementation has been a betrayal to all Australians, who deserve to be angry.

Billions of litres of water purchased for the health of the system has instead found its way to growers.

My guess will be that as the royal commission progresses, cotton farms will come onto the market. There will be calls for compensation and government buyouts as the market declines.

In 2010, I wrote:

The management of water resources worldwide should become a priority of the United Nations. Just as we have a United Nations High Commission for Refugees, we should have a United Nations High Commission for Water, engaging in studies and dialogue on best practice and use of water...the management of water should not be left to markets where the pursuit of profit has water abused, devalued and often powerless with respect to sustainability. Water needs a voice and a value beyond the market. At the moment it comes a very poor second in calculations relating to its use, agriculture and industry have the upper hand and water is required to comply...


In terms of the productive use of water in Australia much of it might be likened to child labour. Water is the cheapest input into the production chain. It does not have a defender powerful enough to modify the behaviour of the big exporting agro industries. When we export many of our irrigated products we export cheap water, well below its real value.

When developers are planning a high rise or a subdivision they are not required to submit estimated water usage as part of the approval process. How is that good water management? It defies common sense.

In 2016, I wrote:

Water is vital for a sustainable future, particularly in Australia. To survive, and therefore for all of us to survive, water needs all the care and compassion it can get. Not so in Australia.


The new and brash head of CSIRO, Larry Marshall, recently announced plans to get rid of scientists from the land and water division. Apparently, there has been a judgement that they do not have the capacity to make money for the organisation...



Abbott was and remains a Luddite with respect to scientific research particularly climate change, land and water. He axed the National Water Commission as well as the National Climate Commission. The braying acolytes that are coyly referred to as his supporters share his attitudes to science in the public good. They are against it. Marshall is their man, he was appointed during Abbott’s prime ministership...

How little has changed. Will the Labor Party be able to turn things around? Will it be able to right past wrongs?

Bruce Haigh is a retired Australian diplomat, irrigator and public commentatorYou can follow Bruce on Twitter @bruce_haigh.

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