Water politics at front of mind ahead of election

Water politics at front of mind ahead of election


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There is no crop planted on Mick Clark's property at Deniliquin, NSW, that has been in his family's hands for three generations. Photo by Jason South.

There is no crop planted on Mick Clark's property at Deniliquin, NSW, that has been in his family's hands for three generations. Photo by Jason South.

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An increasing number of farmers are finding alternative income streams as operational costs continue to add up.

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Another day's heartless sun is sinking to the horizon, not a cloud in the sky, and Mick Clark's nuggety body is throwing a long shadow over his parched land north of Deniliquin, NSW.

The feedlot that not so long ago held 1000 fat lambs is empty.

There is no crop planted on the property that has been in his family's hands for three generations.

"I've parked all the farm equipment up in the sheds and I've gone and got myself a job driving a tractor for a bloke," Mr Clark said.

He has made a vow.

"So far as I'm concerned, the supermarket shelves in the city can go empty," he said.

"I'm not going to spend $600 a megalitre of water to keep farming just to go broke."

Mr Clark is among an army of farmers across what has long been called Australia's food bowl who say they can no longer afford to grow food.

It is not as simple as a lack of rain, though this country is in its second dry year.

Farmers in the Riverina know about dry periods.

They will almost forgive the sky when it withholds its mercy.

But when regulators tell them they can't gain access to water that is flowing past their land, and when the authorities charge them for the right to that water they can't use, and then charge them more for "delivery" of the water that isn't delivered, they get very angry indeed.

And then, when their last desperate option is to buy water on the open market and the equation is 11 megalitres to grow a single hectare of corn, or 13 to 15 megalitres per hectare for rice, and water is $600 a megalitre, it is no surprise they get mad.

Dairy farmers in the region who haven't folded are spending huge money they don't have to maintain their herds, knowing that if there is no spring rain this year, they'll be lucky to drive away in an old ute.

Up and down the dry irrigation country people are declaring themselves angry enough to turn their backs on the National and Liberal parties that have always held political sway in this slice of the country.

"I've been a Liberal and Nationals voter for 18 years," Mr Clark said.

"I won't vote for either of them again. The only way I'd go back is if they said they'd stop sending fresh water out to sea."

His conviction is proving infectious.

The electorate of Farrer, which runs the length of the Murray to the South Australian border, has been held easily by the Liberal's Sussan Ley since 2001, before that it was Tim Fischer's kingdom.

The online bookies just six weeks ago had Ley at short odds of $1.25 to hold the seat against the outsider, Albury mayor and independent candidate Kevin Mack, at $8.

This week, Mack became the favourite: $1.55 to Ley on $2.10.

Farmers Andrew Crossley and Mick Clark. Photo by Jason South.

Farmers Andrew Crossley and Mick Clark. Photo by Jason South.

One of Mr Clark's neighbouring farmers, Andrew Crossley, whose family normally farms 2000 irrigated acres, says the entire Murray-Darling Basin Plan should be "paused, reviewed and re-set".

"We're just sick of what's been happening, it can't go on," Mr Crossley said.

Water politics and regulations in Australia's irrigation districts, which are supposed to balance the competing needs of farmers, towns and the environment, have become so dizzying they might have been a creation of Franz Kafka, the master of socio-bureaucratic absurdity.

Mr Clark, Mr Crossley and all their fellow farmers on the northern, NSW side, of the Murray River are on what is called "zero allocation" of irrigation water.

Yet they can look 100 metres across the strong-flowing river to Victoria, where farmers are on 60 per cent of their entitled allocation.

And they know, with furious envy, that if they were downstream in South Australia, they would be enjoying 100pc of their allocations.

Bill McDonald, the publican of the Grand Hotel at the tiny town of Nyah West, in the far north of Victoria's Mallee, is perfectly blunt.

"Don't ask me about politics, if politics comes on the TV on the wall there, everyone calls for it to be turned off straight away," Mr McDonald said.

"They've just had a gut full."

And yet the electorate of Mallee shapes as one of the more interesting of the contests in rural Australia.

Held by the Nationals (formerly the Country Party) since its creation in 1949, its future was thrown into confusion when the sitting member, Andrew Broad, sensationally blew away his political career last year by an indiscretion with a so-called "sugar babe" in Hong Kong.

No less than 13 candidates - more than ever before - have nominated for election.

Every one of those candidates lists water as high on their lists of concerns.

The vast dimensions of Mallee - a third of Victoria - means the troubled Murray isn't necessarily a shared concern, however.

Lifetime grain and sheep farmers Ron Smith and George Allitt, in Jeparit. Photo by Jason South.

Lifetime grain and sheep farmers Ron Smith and George Allitt, in Jeparit. Photo by Jason South.

Lifetime grain and sheep farmers Ron Smith, 90, and George Allitt, 83, Jeparit, meet every morning for a natter in a cafe in the little town's supermarket.

Jeparit's water, the Wimmera Rivera, flows from the south.

Mr Smith said he didn't care about politics at all, though he didn't want to see "that bloke Shorten" running the country.

Mr Allitt said he would be happy if Scott Morrison continued as prime minister.

He said he didn't see any difference between Liberal or National, and though neither men can name a Mallee candidate, he said he wouldn't mind an independent "so long has he was on the right [conservative] side".

In fact, the Nationals' Dr Anne Webster - the founder of Zoe Support, a community organisation that helps young mothers reconnect with studying and training - is favourite, but four independents are offering a red-hot challenge.

Up in Nyah West, Mr McDonald agrees that water is the big topic around the bar.

"They've cut the water off to the farms, they've sold it to overseas interests and no-one seems to care," he said.

One of his customers, Kevin Lee-Jones, says he no longer farms his own land.

"I've got land with water rights, but it's too expensive to farm it," Mr Lee-Jones said.

He never turns on the water, but he still has to pay Goulburn-Murray Water $2000 a year just in case he decides he needs it one day.

Instead, he leases out his water rights to anyone willing to pay between $300 and $500 a megalitre, and has swapped sheep farming for spray painting for a living.

This story originally appeared on the The Sydney Morning Herald

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