The Murray Darling Basin Plan is a “lightning rod” for all concerns, throughout the region it covers, says a former Murray Darling Basin Authority senior executive.
Jason Alexandra is a former MDBA Ecosystem Management Branch director.
Speaking at the Australasian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society annual conference, Melbourne, Mr Alexandra said the plan was blamed for all the problems facing of the Murray Darling Basin.
“I describe it as a lightning rod, for all the angst in those areas,” Mr Alexandra said.
“It’s just really easy to blame the government, despite drought, or 50 years of declining terms of trade or structural adjustment.
“That’s not government driven, but it’s occurring anyway.”
Plans to split the MDBA, as recommended by the Productivity Commission, were only a partial answer.
“What governments do, every time there’s a problem is reorganise,” he said.
He said he was concerned at the number of inquiries, into the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“Just having all those inquiries represents a crisis in confidence, a crisis of legitimacy and the risk of that those inquiries will focus a lot on what’s gone wrong, and a bit of blame, and not really what to do about it
“We need institutional reform, and it’s fairly fundamental and its a legitimate remit of our parliament.”
He said the South Australian Royal Commission into the Plan showed the MDBA had lost its authority.
“Once that trust has gone, it takes a lot of work to rebuild it,” Mr Alexandra said.
The act that set up the MDBA pointed out it should be independent and advise the government on the basis of science and socio-economic values.
“Imagine if we had revelations the Reserve Bank was being pressured to change whatever it does, say its figures on the economy,” he said.
“There would be an enormous scandal – but that’s the equivalent of what’s come out of this Royal Commission.
“Unless we get some of that institutional architecture right, we will go on with further, and further, crises.”
He told the conference modern water law started with one of Australia’s founding fathers, Alfred Deakin.
After a visit to America, Australia’s second Prime Minister recommended the state should own and control, all freshwater – “ and it should do so really quickly before vested interests get too much influence.”
Nearly every river in the Murray Darling Basin had a dam on it.
“It's actually one of the highest levels of extraction, from a river basin, in the world,” he said.
“Dams have been incredibly important for production and I am actually a big fan of irrigation, I don’t want to be characterised as someone who wants to get rid of it,” he said.
But he said irrigation schemes did not just come with the physical engineering of rivers.
“There was a lot of large scale social engineering, including soldier settlement schemes, and a lot of small irrigation schemes, as parliaments wanted to get a lot of returned servicemen out of the big cities, particularly during the depression.”
But Mr Alexandra said most reforms of water policy followed droughts.
“They are reactive to drought,” he said.
“Drought is a recurrent crisis, that tests our water policy settings and becomes the justification for the substantive change.”