Cash drowns opposition

Cash drowns opposition


A year ago, Tony Abbott stood before thousands of ''mad-as-hell'' irrigators and their supporters in Griffith and told them what they wanted to hear - that he opposed the Murray-Darling basin plan.


A year ago, Tony Abbott stood before thousands of ''mad-as-hell'' irrigators and their supporters in Griffith and told them what they wanted to hear - that he opposed the Murray-Darling basin plan.

"We will not support a bad plan. That is the commitment I give to you today and I think there's about 10,000 witnesses, " he thundered, arms raised, as the multitudes cheered and clapped and hailed him as their saviour.

Cometh the hour, cometh the carefully crafted political promise.

On Tuesday, Abbott stood before the coalition party room in Canberra and explained that the opposition would now support the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There were no reports of clapping or cheering, just the quiet acknowledgement of political reality.

The plan is a disallowable instrument: the Parliament can reject it, but it can't amend it. If the opposition were to scuttle it, then in government the coalition would have to start all over again. The political calculation has been made: ''Let Labor wear the pain, let us reap the benefits.''

But there's also another factor at play: the realisation that opposition to the plan in the bush is no longer as vehement as it once was.

For out in the irrigation districts and the river towns, among the citrus groves and the red gum forests, it is quietly being implemented. It may not have cleared Parliament, it might not officially begin until 2019, the states might not yet have signed off on it, but for the past five years the federal government has been pouring billions of dollars into the bush, buying back water from irrigators and splurging on infrastructure.

If there's a perennial shortage of water west of the mountains, never has there been such a flood of money. It has flowed from the reservoirs of consolidated revenue, pumped by political necessity and gravity fed by self-interest, to be sprayed liberally around regional Australia. And the weight of that money is having its effect: on agriculture, on the environment, and on public opinion.

Of more than $10 billion in total federal government spending, $3.1 billion has been earmarked for buy-backs, while $6.6 billion is being poured into river infrastructure and on-farm improvements. Many oppose the buybacks, but no one opposes the flood of spending.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder already owns the rights to more than a trillion litres of water each year - and is deploying it to nurture the environment. At the same time, irrigators have developed their own plans, getting in for their share of government grants to improve on-farm water efficiency or deciding to sell some or all of their permanent water rights.

Irrigated agriculture in the basin will not collapse, any short-term contraction will be minimal and localised, and the value of irrigated agricultural output will continue to grow. And the environment will benefit, if not enough to satisfy the Greens and some environmental groups.

The spray of cash has even helped ease opposition to the most controversial aspect of the plan among irrigation communities: the buyback of permanent water licences. Buybacks in the southern basin were put on hold earlier this year, but even before that their character had undergone a fundamental change.

At first, the government was buying out entire licences (albeit from willing sellers) putting irrigation properties out of business and damaging local communities. In September 2008, as the millennial drought beat down on the bush like an anvil, the federal government bought Toorale Station, up where the Warrego meets the Darling. The British owners walked away with $23.75 million, but more than 100 locals lost their jobs and the economy of Bourke shrank 10 per cent overnight.

That was the fear and that was the reality: buybacks would hollow out country towns.

But as the buyback proceeded, the reality changed. By the time they were put on hold, most of the sales were irrigators selling only part of their holdings. Many had achieved sufficient on-farm efficiencies - often assisted by government money - to have excess water. Instead of hollowing out communities, the buybacks were pouring money into them with no loss of farms, jobs or production.

The buybacks were put on hold because they remained a lightning rod for opposition, but also because the surplus-conscious government wanted to delay spending, and because the buybacks were running well ahead of schedule.

The majority of buybacks are in the past, not the future.

Some opposition members will be granted dispensation to vote against the plan: those with electorates covering Griffith on the Murrumbidgee River and Shepparton on the Goulburn River.

These rivers are the Murray's two major tributaries (much more important than the Darling), yet for too long they haven't contributed their fair share of water to maintain the health of the lower Murray. The plan says they will need to contribute more. But such diehard coalition opponents have been defeated, as have the Greens, by political reality. That and the flood of money.

Fairfax Media journalist Chris Hammer is the author of The River: A Journey through the Murray-Darling Basin. For several weeks in 2011 he worked as a consultant to the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

The story Cash drowns opposition first appeared on Farm Online.


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