Maryanne Slattery

Margaret Simons’ essay is an evocative account of a moment. From the title it is clear that she did not find, and does not foresee, a happy ending. The Basin Plan has been around in some form since 2007. Many players have been telling a version of the same narrative for longer. Participants jostle for position and power to control, or at least influence, the future. But it is apparent from the essay that the imagined future is a version of the past. By chance the essay is a record of the last days before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, in the words of Paul Valéry, “the future is not what it used to be.” What stands out from Simons’ essay is that so few of the people with a claim to managing the Basin gave any hint of what they might do if the future threw up something unexpected, such as a pandemic. Climate change will be a greater challenge still.

Simons’ view is personal, compassionate, unsentimental and moving. It is clear-eyed and tough – she sees the spin and self-interest, the obsession with process that serves only to delay. And it is harsh where harshness is the only proper response. She has a gift of giving enough of the politics to make it clear and interesting and keeping it relevant to where we are now. She says one of her aims in the essay is “to rescue the Basin’s narratives from the abstract.” She has achieved this. Her essay is the opposite of the desiccated language of the water managers.

From among the competing narratives she paints a bigger story of the Basin. She gets quickly and clearly to the interlocking influences that contribute to “the wonder and the awfulness of our attempts to manage it.” Phillip Glyde’s analogy is that the Plan is like upgrading an inefficient petrol combustion engine. He seems to argue that perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good and we should instead strive for continual improvement. It’s a misleading analogy that suggests the many reviews identified by Simons are proactive and planned. She correctly observes that they rarely question the fundamentals, because they are mostly undertaken in response to external pressure and are intended to defend. For example, the review of water markets by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is unlikely to question their underlying premise, as the ACCC was instrumental in their design. Mick Keelty published a report to “bring better governance and transparency” in his capacity as Interim Inspector-General of the Murray–Darling Basin, in which he didn’t mention unmanaged floodplain harvesting or the much-criticised water efficiency program. To return to Glyde’s engine analogy, that is like overlooking the fact that your engine has no fuel tank. Too often, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority chooses and pays the reviewer, designs the terms of reference and edits the final report. Co-operative “independent reviewers” become the go-to experts for future reviews. It’s a lucrative business.

Criticism is denied, discredited or ignored. For example, the South Australian royal commission, which the Commonwealth refused to participate in, was wrong according to the Authority and politically motivated according to Minister David Littleproud.

Public commentary is classified as “pro–Basin Plan” or “anti–Basin Plan.” In this binary discussion, challenges to the status quo are unwelcome. Pointing out that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on non-existent water, or that the government withholds key documents, is interpreted as meaning one wants to rip up the Plan. Reporting that a $4 billion program is creating perverse outcomes is portrayed as threatening the existence of the Plan itself. It seems we have a choice: either a Basin Plan, or good governance, accountability and transparency – but not both.

A binary debate suits the government. The Plan has seen a massive shift of wealth under the veil of environmental reform. Lifting the veil and questioning the reform risks highlighting that regions are suffering not because of the environment, but due to a failure of governments. Arguments about environment versus irrigation are a distraction from the lack of policies for regional economic development, agriculture or drought. The Plan has become the crowning achievement, an end in itself.

This is the post-truth water world that Quentin Grafton describes. If there is no space to discuss what is not working with the Plan, or the inefficient petrol combustion engine, how is it possible to upgrade it? Real problems are attributed to drought or ignorance. The recently released Keelty report echoes statements made by Phillip Glyde that people have either made bad business decisions or don’t understand a key component of their business: water. Both are dog-whistling the idea of “stupid farmers.” Stupid isn’t the government’s fault.

Perhaps the Basin’s most sacred cow is the water market. When one questions the water market, the response is invariably along the lines of “You can’t tell farmers what to grow,” often followed up with a derisive reference to the Soviet Union. It seems there is only one possible policy response unless we embrace a failed communist model, even though governments didn’t tell farmers what to grow before there was no market. I argue that the most commonly cited principle underlying the market – that water will flow to the “highest value use” – has failed us. Value was never defined, never debated. Water does not move to its highest value use for the community, the economy or even the country. It moves to whomever is prepared to pay the most: how many dollars can be made from a litre of water? If a dairy farmer or rice grower, for example, cannot make the same dollars per megalitre as an almond or cotton grower, they are condemned as less efficient, of less value. “Highest value use” is therefore better described as “greatest ability to pay.”

There is no space in this system of “world’s best practice” to value regional communities, “low-value” irrigators, Aboriginal people or the environment. Even after all these years, Aboriginal people and the environment are, in practice, external to the narrow concept of value that currently drives water management in the Basin. Some irrigators and their communities are now finding themselves in the same situation.

The “highest value use” argument relies on a functioning global food network. Currently, we use a great deal of our water to grow cotton and nuts, and export more than 90 per cent of them. Last year we imported more than 90 per cent of our rice, a third of our wheat on the east coast and half of our dairy products. COVID-19 threatens food supply and distribution. Vietnam, where most of our rice comes from, has stopped exporting it, and several other countries have followed suit. Shipping lanes are in disarray, making it difficult to get ships in or out. At the time of writing, it is possible we will have a rice and wheat (on the east coast) shortage for several months this year. We need to rethink our water and agricultural policies and consider other definitions of value. What does highest value use look like in a pandemic?

Irrigator Chris Brooks is trying to alert the public to the impending food shortages. He has called for the water that we do have to be made available for food. Brooks, and the people he represents, have been labelled as cynical opportunists selfishly exploiting the crisis. At a time when we are re-examining all aspects of our economy, we still cannot escape the binary narrative of greedy irrigator versus the environment that has dogged the public debate for more than a decade.

As a rebuttal to Brooks’ warnings, Minister Littleproud, the National Farmers’ Federation and the Authority have all alleged “scaremongering,” claiming that Australia can feed 75 million people. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences hastily produced a report saying that Australia exports 70 per cent of its agricultural produce. Both statistics are misleading. They don’t reveal that more than a third of those exports are cotton, wool and forest products, or that those statistics are based on our highest irrigation years and not the current drought.

The two bureaucrats who feature most often in the essay are the head of the Authority, Phillip Glyde, and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Jody Swirepik. They express frustration and dismay, and give an impression of powerlessness and fatigue. “We have to be in it for the long haul,” “It’s too soon, we have to be patient,” “That’s not our job.” They look for signs of success at an ever-smaller level, while the grand endeavour is unravelling across the big, important measures, especially ecological health and community fairness.

If the architects and implementers of the Plan seem bemused at this unravelling, Glyde, at least, is clearly annoyed with Brooks for “jumping up and down” and getting in the way. Brooks is exercising his right in this democratic society to have his voice and the voice of his people heard. Unlike most, he has the means to do it.

At least once a month, and sometimes weekly, I will get a call from a stranger asking for help with water. Their stories all involve a severe impact on their livelihoods, families and sometimes their own sanity, over years and sometimes decades. There is always injustice, inequity and a shift of wealth. They have exhausted every avenue possible through politicians, three levels of government and their agencies and regulators. Mostly, they express disbelief that the government can do this to them, despite the inarguable evidence that it has.

In a recent Senate Estimates hearing, Glyde was asked about the fate of the Lower Darling irrigators, like Alan Whyte and Rachel Strachan. He explained that the Plan created “winners and losers.” Presumably the people who ring me are among the losers. Unlike Brooks, they should accept their fate and go quietly.

Bureaucrats who have spent their lives in a system and are justifiably proud of their work almost always respond to the collapse or failure of that system by doing more of what got the system going in the first place – “do as before but more,” in the words of C.S. Holling. Not only can they not do anything different, they can’t imagine doing anything different. The voices of dissent, the voices of rural Australia, cannot be heard because they distract from the business of doing more of the same. As Simons points out, this will eventually play out in courts of law.

Simons’ essay goes on to ask some critical questions: Can our current systems possibly meet the needs of the nation and the certainty of change? Is the Plan an honest compact, and is it fair? Can it work, and are our politics up to the task? And what happens when the macro policy, the plumbing, the schemes, the “events” or lack of them hit the realities of the landscape and the figures within it? After years of avoiding these questions, trying to answer them may be now be forced upon us.

The Water Act and the Basin Plan were well intentioned, but the Plan has been derailed by vested interests supported by the National Party. Important parts of the Plan aren’t working because the system of which it is a part doesn’t work. The Plan is a relic of a time and a system that no longer exists. Change will be forced upon us, probably by a changing climate and the changes to society it brings about. COVID-19 has brought into the present many things we thought we could put off.

If we want two irrigated monocultures in the Basin, hollowed-out regions and reliance on other countries for our food, then the water reforms are a success. If we want a diverse agricultural sector, vibrant communities and to grow what we eat, we need new water policies, as well as policies for regional economic development. To achieve this, we need to allow an honest and inclusive public debate and banish the binary rhetoric.


Maryanne Slattery was a director of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority for over a decade before becoming senior water researcher at the Australia Institute. She is now a director of the water consultancy Slattery and Johnson.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 77, Cry Me a River. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 78, The Coal Curse.


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