April 24th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Islamic militants threaten to derail Iraq hand-over

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Defence reserves crisis looms

FAMILY: AFA report shoots hole in lower fertility theory

National superannuation (letter)

Whither farming? (letter)

True samurais (letter)

UNITED NATIONS: Kofi Annan and the Rwanda genocide

FAMILY: The solution to today's fatherhood crisis

FEEDING TUBES: Pope condemns 'euthanasia by omission'

BOOKS: The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, by A.J. Conyers

COVER STORY: Federal inquiry puts brakes on river flow plans

COVER STORY 2: Report vindicates farmers over Murray-Darling Basin

EDITORIAL: Family Congress confronts new challenges

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Budget - next test for Federal Government

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Pumpernickel politics / Latham's folly / George Carey

Books promotion page

Report vindicates farmers over Murray-Darling Basin

by Neil Eagle

News Weekly, April 24, 2004
There are those who have been blinded by the continuing rhetoric of many of our State politicians, the official position of the Federal Opposition and the extreme 'Greens' that the Murray River is in decline and dying. The rhetoric is being peddled, in defiance of the facts, by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Wentworth Group of scientists and even the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) itself.

Some members of the Wentworth Group are scientists from the CSIRO who have compromised their scientific positions by becoming advocates, and the MDBC has a lot to answer for in not proclaiming, but rather only now admitting grudgingly, the many improvements in river health which have taken place in the last 20 to 30 years.

The makeup of the Committee is touted as being dominated by the Liberals. The composition was six Liberal, 3 Labor, 1 National and 1 Independent. The fact is that all but one member of the Committee were in agreement with the published findings.

It concluded, "During the course of its inquiry, the Committee has received a considerable amount of evidence questioning the science underpinning the Living Murray initiative. Concern has been expressed, both within the scientific community and the general community, that the scientific evidence presented to justify increased river flows has not been sufficiently robust. In the Committee's view, the science is certainly not adequate to justify far-reaching commitments to reallocate water from irrigators to the environment."

The Committee then went on to make a list of sensible recommendations to get this debate, which has far-reaching implications for the welfare of the basin and Australia as a whole, back on track: to base decision-making on proper agreed science not on rhetoric and assumptions built upon previous assumptions and supposed expert opinion.

Of the eleven Committee members only one member dissented from the report. I must congratulate the other two Labor members who had the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff in coming to their conclusion and then have the courage of their convictions to stand up and support what they believed.

In view of the Parliamentary Committee's very clear interim report, one is surprised to see the NFF News Release indicating farmers and the State and Federal governments are each ready to fund a third of the cost of an Environmental Trust, presumably to purchase water for agreed environmental objectives. Such a move is based on questionable scientific evidence and ignores:

Firstly, the Parliamentary Committee findings have put in question the benefits to river health of large amounts of water being returned to the river and sourced from productive use.

Secondly, the view first stated by Professor John Pigram in 2001, since reinforced by Dr Lee Benson, and the MDBC's own Scientific Report concluded that environmental flow regimes are the least likely method of providing river health gains. Non-flow options and initiatives are actually certain to provide greater river health gains.

Yet in that MDBC Scientific Panel Report, and defying all logic and the conclusions in their own report, the MDBC actually recommends increasing environmental flows as its main method of improving river health.

The MDBC sidelined the range of non-flow options which were identified as providing greater and more certain benefit.

Thirdly, in the event that additional environmental water is identified, with proper science, to have benefits that outweigh any adverse socio/economic impacts, the costs should be borne by the total community (both State and Federal Governments). To have the NFF suggesting that farmers should pay over and above their present provision through the tax system to the State and Federal Government, beggars belief!

The NFF, if it was properly pursuing its real role, would be:

  • demanding that the science behind any proposal is rigorous and incontestable, involving scientists of the community's choosing;
  • ensuring that the communities in the basin have people of their own choosing from each State involved in the evaluation of the needs of each icon site;
  • ensuring that in the event of any additional environmental water being sourced, that it be sourced equally from the three states (NSW, VIC, SA) whose allocated share of the resource is roughly equal. SA's share is virtually guaranteed (as high security) with the upper two states sharing the remaining resource.

Finally, I applaud the Parliamentary Committee which obviously put a tremendous amount of work and energy into sifting through the mountain of information - from the zealots who blindly advocate more and more environmental flows as the cure-all for river health, to the factual evidence presented by such as Dr Jennifer Marohasy and Dr Lee Benson, that properly agreed science should underpin the initiatives to further progress the health of our river system.

This return to common sense and reality is the first ray of hope that there can be sensible outcomes, providing environmental gains to the Murray-Darling river system and basin, whilst at the same time maintaining the economic and social base of the region.

  • Neil Eagle

See also COVER STORY: Federal inquiry puts brakes on river flow plans

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