Murray Darling ...................and the Great Artesian Basin

Nationals leader and acting PM brushes off suggestions government could do more to solve Menindee Lakes crisis, saying ‘that’s Australia’

Michael McCormack has brushed off suggestions the government could do more to solve the Murray-Darling fish-kill crisis, blaming drought that he says will soon be relieved by flooding rains because “that’s Australia”.

The acting prime minister made the comments to ABC AM on Thursday, arguing that the current dry spell is “unprecedented” in its proportions but claiming the pattern of drought and flood has characterised Australia’s climate “since the year dot”.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better metaphor for the body politic than the Murray-Darling river system. Lying at the centre of the country’s fertile and arable east — yes, I’m straining to remember Year 8 geography here — the system’s two major rivers mimic the layout of the aorta and veins in the human body. It’s like a hint from nature: this is a one-time thing. Mess this up, and your country is screwed.

We made a good start on exactly that through the 20th century. With no real governance of the system as a unit, we regarded it as an unlimited intangible from which infinite amounts of water could be removed. For decades, individual farming was too small to really screw it up — though by farming rice and cotton on a dry continent, we gave it a red hot go. Then, with the coming of large-scale agribusiness, things quickly went awry leading to the 1991 explosion of blue-green algae in the Darling. It was part of a series of localised environmental crises around the world in the years 1989-1991, perhaps the first on-the-six-o’clock-news indication that humanity had begun to have categorical impact on the global environmental system.

The 1991 algae bloom and the looming thirst-death of Adelaide, at the system’s outlet, concentrated minds wonderfully and led to the Murray-Darling management plan. That was important not only for managing the river but for weakening the assertion of states’ rights, the boondoggle used for decades to wreak environmental havoc.

But whatever bipartisan commitment the river plan had was weakened during the Howard era, and has been travestied in the last six years. The difference between the two regimes is of significance. The Howard government played a double game on the environment, ostensibly acknowledging climate change (Howard later admitted he became a sceptic), while clawing back property rights and a developmentalist agenda. The Abbott-Morrison-Joyce era (Malcolm Turnbull was mere filler) has a different agenda: trash the joint. Be gleefully destructive. Make the water rights system unmanageable. Turn a blind eye to outright water theft. Undo any sort of systemic thinking about how we preserve agriculture and the environment in Australia at the same time.

The Menindee fish die-off is the logical result of that attitude. The total indifference and abdication of responsibility by the government is the corollary to that. It’s nihilism pure and simple, but nihilism of a strategic sort: it’s designed to trash any form of collective or system-based approach to environmental management.

Why do that? Thomas Frank gave an answer in his book The Wrecking Crew. The right-wing does not govern badly because it is incompetent: it destroys the capacity of government to manage change, thus creating a sort of semi-anarchy in which capital, property and profits call the shots. This process tends to build on itself. Eventually, the most basic forms of government become impossible.

Take the NSW government. It has gone from being a client of capital, to some sort of banana republic kakistocracy. How is it, for example, that a state government can build light rail line in which the gauges do not match, and no one is in prison for it? For the same reason that it will consider wasting $2 billion on unnecessarily rebuilding a stadium, or help trash a water plan for an irreplaceable resource.

Why has this nihilism crept into the right? Because they realise that, as far as managing society goes, the jig is up, not only for neoliberalism, but for capitalism. Capitalism, to assign value to property and capital, needs an infinite natural horizon — a river system must be deemed infinite in its supply. When world population and the economy becomes so big that the limits of nature come into play, a wholly fictional version of that position comes into play. The right realises that any form of collective management — of water, the atmosphere, flora and fauna etc — must now treat them as qualitatively distinct (though interconnected), and set hard limits to water outtake, emissions etc. Such a system is inherently post-capitalist because it situates market exchange and property within a wider system of social management.

Deep down everyone knows this now has to happen. Because everyone knows it, because it is obvious, any opposition to it becomes increasingly hysterical in character, as that knowledge is repressed. Barnaby Joyce is the personification of this: the one-man wrecking crew, the mayhem of his personal life simply an extension of the nihilism he brings to public policy. This is part of the wholesale rejection of the right here, in the UK and elsewhere: the growing realisation by many that they want power precisely not to govern.

Trapped in a mindset of greenies vs ordinary blokes and sheilas, the right (in the party, in their thinktanks, in News Corpse), cannot see how fast a wide social coalition is building against them. This has to be taken to the next stage in the lead-up to election. Rural communities have to stand viable community candidates against the National Party and win a few of them.

The Nats are now the clear enemy of rural Australia, of its viability as a community, into the 21st century. And these systemic issues — such as river systems — have to be made political issues in urban electorates. If rural Australia can’t see its way to a new deal in which nature is collectively managed, then those limits will eventually be imposed without its consent as a necessary part of national survival.

Having the circulation system of the nation at threat tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully, even when Year 8 geography is involved.

From sex scandals and in-fighting to accusations of environmental mismanagement, the Nationals have more than a few crises to sort out

It’s an indictment of the state Australian politics when limiting our “Crisis Watch” format to just the major parties seems totally unfair. This is particularly true of the Liberals’ Coalition partner, the National Party, which punches so routinely above its weight in terms of minor-party scandal-generation that we felt it deserved a special look.
Intra-Coaltion warfare

The Nats are plagued by scandal, vested with bullies and riddled with incompetence. The one thing they were supposed to be good at were looking after farmers and they have failed at that.

Who delivered that scorching assessment? A senior Labor figure, or one of the more bellicose Greens? Nope, that was Wagga Liberal branch president Colin Taggart, who has “declared war” on the National Party in the state seat of Wagga — which, incidentally, overlaps a great deal with Nationals leader Michael McCormack’s own federal seat. Taggart is organising with a new anti-Nationals campaigning group, Anyone But Nats, to help defeat the Coalition partner at the NSW election. The seeming impunity of Nationals members is clearly starting to grate within the Liberal Party.

Anyone But Nats are not leaving it there — they are planing to support candidates in several Nationals-held seats and will hold a series of community forums at regional centres in key electorates.
The Murray-Darling Basin

A focus of Anyone but Nats and Taggart has been the colossal mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This mismanagement stretches back years, but has hit a horror show peak in recent weeks. One million native fish have died in the basin, and the stomach-churning sight of scores of dead and rotting fish floating to the banks of the Darling river system provide a potent and haunting visual metaphor for this rank policy failure.
Horny boys and fed up women

Last year, having been engulfed by his “sugar daddy/James Bond” sex scandal — the second such scandal to afflict a Nationals MP that year — Andrew Broad announced he would not contest the next election, leaving the Nats, who have no obvious replacement, nervous about retaining his safe seat of Mallee. Peta Credlin has been touted as a possible candidate for the seat, and given the circumstances, a high-profile conservative woman would be a fraught prospect for the Nats.
Oakeshott to the heart

Another high-profile candidate that could cause the Nats strife in 2019 is Rob Oakeshott. Six years after his retirement from politics, the former independent is running again in the safe nationals seat of Cowper. Quite apart from his experience and name recognition, in 2016 he ran what he called a “crazy three-week campaign”, gained 45.4% of the two-party preferred vote and inflicted an 8.1% swing away from Nat Luke Hartsuyker.
Live exports

Sickening footage of sheep dying on an Emanuel Exports ship emerged last year, calling attention to yet another area that the Nationals have responsibility for, and have unforgivably screwed up. Even stories that paint animal activists in a negative light, like this morning’s report that money was allegedly offered to whistleblowers for incriminating footage, keeps the original cruelty and suffering in people’s minds.
The Barnaby Joyce of it all

All of these issues — disastrous mismanagement of the agricultural portfolio, fights with the Liberal Party, fights with high profile independents, and insensible horniness — have one common thread: Barnaby Joyce, the man who more or less necessitated Crikey’s Crisis Watch specials in the first place.

His demotion to the backbench after a sex scandal early last year has not stopped him causing trouble. Earlier this month, it was revealed he’d charged taxpayers $6000 to attend — with new partner Vikki Campion — a forum supporting live sheep exports in Western Australia, and he’s recently been forced to deny allegations that it’s corruption as much as drought that has led to the current Murray-Darling crisis.

But it’s also failed to stop speculation about his return to a position of leadership in the party. And as long as that remains even a faint possibility, the sense of calamity surrounding the Nats is unlikely to dissipate.

Street Art

The Great Artesian Basin

The Murray-Darling Basin is experiencing its seventh-driest year on record, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.


“The hundreds of thousands of fish like the Murray cod have been sacrificed for interests elsewhere. The Australian public deserve an open account of how we have gotten to this point and the proposed inquiry is a good start.

“The river of dead fish is symbolic of the death of public trust in the management of the Murray-Darling basin plan.”

McCormack of “trying to pretend no one is responsible for the environmental collapse in [the] Murray-Darling”.

Despite blaming the drought for the crisis, McCormack said the government would be open to “some tweaks” of the Murray-Darling basin plan because “as these sorts of rare events happen, you have to revisit what you’ve done in [the] past and improve upon it”.

“But we can’t make it rain – the government can’t make it rain, the opposition certainly can’t make it rain,” he said.

“Eventually it will rain, then it will rain in buckets and we’ll probably be cursing the fact we have too much rain and we have floods – that’s Australia.”

On Wednesday Joyce wrote in the Australian that it was “implausible and mischievous” to blame cotton-growers for fish deaths because cotton-growers such as Cubbie Station had not taken water from the river since 2017.

“We have billions of dollars worth of water in the Commonwealth Water Holder’s accounts,” Mr Joyce told ABC’s Radio National on Tuesday. “If we diverted a section of it, we could start growing the fodder [such as lucerne] that is required to keep the stock alive.

“Repeated policy failure in the management of the Lower Darling and Menindee Lakes has implications for major projects, irrigation and the environment throughout the basin.

The NSW minister for primary industries, Niall Blair, has claimed his predecessor addressed these concerns in the final plan but the state opposition leader, Michael Daley, said the fish deaths of last week showed that the plan remained inadequate to protect the environment. He has promised a commission of inquiry if he wins the state election in March.

The Australia Institute said its research has shown that the Lower Darling and Menindee Lakes had been mismanaged by many over a long period of time.

“Approximately two Sydney Harbours worth of water has been taken out of the region in the last two years,” said research director, Rod Campbell.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority shelved its native fish strategy six years ago and ended its sustainable rivers audit program after New South Wales pulled 60% of its funding from a basinwide program to monitor the health of fish in the river.

For 10 years the MDBA made much of its fish strategy, releasing a glossy brochure that claimed the strategy required a “sustained commitment” of 50 years in order to rehabilitate native fish in the river. It announced a goal of “restoring native fish stocks to 60% of its pre-European levels.”

But in 2013 it was shelved.

The NSW and federal governments continue to blame the drought for the crisis but multiple documents suggest the fish kill in the Darling River is also due to policy choices by the NSW government and the MDBA.

In 2013, after a critical article in the Deniliquin Times, the MDBA fired off a release saying that the cuts to the fish strategy program “were made by the NSW state government, not the MDBA.”

“Last year, the NSW state government cut 60% of its share of funding for the joint management of the River Murray system,” the MDBA said.

“Historically, all the basin governments have pitched in and shared this funding and the MDBA, as ‘the agent’, has managed the river, maintained the dams, locks and weirs and managed the NRM [natural resource management] programs on behalf of all six governments.

“After the NSW state government cut its funding, the basin governments made the decision to cut the native fish strategy and the sustainable rivers audit, and delayed maintenance programs,” it said.

A Menindee Lakes expert, Dr Richard Kingsford, from the University of NSW said environmental outcomes had taken a back seat to water management.