SUNRAYSIA: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Family farmers v. corporate agriculture
, October 4, 2003
Sunraysia irrigators are battling to maintain self-determination over their life's blood - water. But the state government's new Green Paper on water reform, Securing Our Water Future suggests that their struggle against the might of corporatism is unwinnable.
In 2000 the Bracks Government launched the Deakin Report, which outlined the Deakin Project, a plan to quadruple the irrigated area in Sunraysia to 37,000 hectares in five new precincts to the south and west of Mildura - with extensions to the South Australian border ultimately accommodating up to 100,000 hectares.
The dual developmental and conservation agendas driving the Report meant that hundreds of thousands of megalitres of water from high environmental impact/low economic value agriculture would be transferred into the region and used for high value/low impact viticulture.
Private Public Partnerships (PPP) would mean private investment could supply the necessary infrastructure, and lucrative tax advantages and government guarantees would lure investors.
Unfortunately, the funding proposals involved utilising and leveraging the assets and cash flows of the area's three water authorities, and contracting out their operations.
The Deakin Project will require big infrastructure investment and a high uptake of new land - and, therefore, water - largely for wine grapes and dried fruits. So large is the project, that the markets for these products would quickly be oversupplied, collapsing prices and forcing family farmer irrigators out of business.
Water transport is another issue - the river, even now, often being unable to supply existing development at times of peak demand.
Still, all visions have their downsides, and the benefits in the eyes of the government and big business were overriding. Bipartisan political support was achieved and a campaign saw industry leadership brought on side.
No social impact study was undertaken, and a "submission process" (controlled and manipulated by the government) effectively neutered any dissent. Astute appointments by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) meant pro-Deakin forces dominated the boards of the water authorities and the influential Mallee Catchment Management Authority (MCMA).
Eager corporates came on board, committees were enabled. All the groundwork was done. Dissent was anticipated and containment strategies put in place - "roll out" was only months away ...
Then disaster struck. Despite being buried in the fine print, the organisational structure underpinning the project - amalgamation of the district's three water bodies - came to the notice of irrigators.
The local water authorities in the Mildura/Sunraysia district are the First Mildura Irrigation Trust (FMIT), Sunraysia Rural Water Authority (SRWA) and Lower Murray Water (LMW).
The FMIT and SRWA are irrigation authorities pumping to about 1500 and 2500 irrigators respectively. LMW is the regional town water body with a huge rate base and millions in assets and reserves.
The SRWA and LMW have government-appointed boards. The FMIT is a trust with an elected board. Amalgamation has long been a dirty word amongst FMIT irrigators - and a core of irrigators took exception to this latest attempt to hijack their assets and their unique rights to self-determination.
A Growers' Action Group (GAG) was set up which held public meetings and organised a petition against the two Board members who had gone on the Deakin Committee at the behest of the DNRE. This petition and a related vote of no confidence succeeded, but to no avail. The government and the three local MP's, Mr Bishop MLC, Mr Forrest MHR and Mr Savage MLA, all supported the two Board members as against the irrigators and the GAG.
In addition, FMIT Chief Engineer, Mr Terry Perera, seen as the whistleblower who alerted irrigators to the Government's machinations and supported the formation of the troublesome GAG, was sacked on Christmas Eve 2001. Effectively blackballed by a resentful establishment, Mr Perera has been unable to get a similar job in his field again, and may not be able to, at least not locally. His sacking had bipartisan support.
The Government having sunk $3 million into the Project was never going to change its mind. It decided, however, to put the project on the back burner. Poor harvests and a flooded wine grape market in 2001 and 2002 vindicated this decision.
In the interim the Government Green Paper was now completed. Vastly ambitious, the wide-ranging paper comes with the usual trimmings - open-ended statements about aims and objectives with little or no detail, and promises of "stakeholder participation" and a "submission process". Amongst its 150 pages, the Deakin Project is put back on the front burner in its original ambitious form.
Buying time also brought complications, however. In 2002 GAG stood two candidates in the FMIT elections and won. In 2003 it won another two places on the Board and now has a majority. Foreseeing this possibility, the government changed the rules in 2002, and the old convention that the elected chairman was automatically approved by the Minister, has been abolished.
As a consequence, newly elected Chairman, Jim Belbin, is merely "Chairman Elect" until approved by the Minister on the advice of his senior water bureaucrats, the architects of Deakin and the Green Paper (Deakin II), and the GAG opponents. This struggle has now spilled over into the SRWA, whose irrigators are now demanding that they, also, have self-determination.
Who will win? David, in the form of battling, rough-edged, poorly resourced and information-poor growers? Or Goliath, the sleek and powerful alliance of establishment, big corporate business and government?
Goliath has the advantages. Hundreds of millions of dollars are involved. Deakin is corporate gold. There are political payoffs to be honoured. A powerful "conservation" agenda is supposedly achievable. There is glory to be had and careers to be carved out.
Triggers to justify intervention have been prepared and when the time is ripe the FMIT Board will be replaced by an administrator. Such triggers might be based on any number of spurious "governance" grounds.
Another scenario attracting short odds is for a non-GAG member to be appointed Chairman in order to split the Board and justify intervention on grounds of unworkability. Whatever the pretext, the FMIT will then be duly absorbed by the SRWA and Deakin will proceed.
The irrigators who created and sustained their authority will become passive consumers of a commodity controlled and sold by another big brother corporation.
The victory of corporatism will be complete.