Groundhog Day for MDB reports

Katie McRobert

Six years after the historic Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) Plan was finally agreed, two major reports released in January have dragged water management squarely back into the political spotlight.

The Productivity Commission’s (PC) first five-yearly assessment on the Basin Plan is quite different in tone to the report from the South Australian Royal Commission (set up by the former South Australian Labor Government following accusations of endemic mismanagement, rule-breaking and water theft). Yet both reports address underlying questions which have gone unanswered for decades: how is environmental benefit decided, who manages the water managers and why is climate change still not part of the modelling?

The Royal Commission’s damning report has accused Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) officials of:

“… maladministration and breaking the law in their management of the $13 billion Plan (and) ‘gross negligence’ when failing to account for the devastating impacts of climate change.”

Frustratingly, much of this criticism is not new. In June 2010 (18 months before the Plan was passed by Federal Parliament) the AFI published a report entitled Making decisions about environmental water allocations (1) with contributions from economists (Professors Jeff Bennett and Mike Young) and environmental scientists (Professors Richard Kingsford and Richard Norris). Although the four authors differed on how much water should be allocated to the environment, the congruence between concerns raised on the allocation process in this nine-year-old report and in the current Royal Commission is both striking and disheartening.

As noted in Professor Bennett’s paper, the three core elements of environmental decision-making – biophysical knowledge of the outcomes of alternative water management strategies; information on the values derived by society from those environmental outcomes; and an understanding of the institutional structures that could coordinate environmental water management – were all lacking in Australian governments’ pre-Basin Plan policies. It would be difficult to argue that these elements have been substantially addressed in the subsequent nine years.

AFI was naturally not the only institution investigating these questions. The wealth of information published on the topic of Basin water management in the past decade is staggering, yet data (particularly on Professor Bennett’s first two points) remains inadequate.

What was true in 2010 is still true now – trade-offs between extraction and environmental benefits are a necessity – however no quantitative research has investigated the true economic and social value of irrigated agriculture to Australian local and regional communities in the past 15 years. (2)

Six months after the MDB Plan’s enactment, AFI also published a Farm Policy Journal asking, ‘Will the Murray-Darling Basin Plan improve with age?’ The articles in this issue reflect the ideological differences which characterise Basin politics today. In the face of the varied priorities of irrigators, environmentalists, industrialists, bureaucrats and other stakeholders, the establishment of the MDBA and agreement on a workable plan represent a rare triumph of collaboration and consensus. However, good intentions have proven no panacea for a lack of data and the flawed management which have compromised the Plan’s effective operation.

As a work in progress, the Basin Plan still has far to go – but perhaps it could progress more smoothly if concerns on strategy and implementation were addressed as they were raised, rather than reinventing the (water) wheel with new reports covering old ground every few years.


2. AFI is developing a research proposal on this topic for investigation in 2019.

Image:  MDBA