History has taught us that properly looking after our river systems requires long-term thinking and strong leadership.

Imagine you’re on the emergency room table with life threatening injuries and having lost a considerable amount of blood. The surgeon orders a blood transfusion but is interrupted by a rather opinionated hospital orderly.

“That’s very expensive blood you’re talking about. How about we give the patient a bit less and to make it up we’ll fix their broken arm.”

It sounds absurd, yet that is more-or-less the argument being made by the Irrigators’ Council, the National Farmers Federation and other farm lobbyists in their latest assault on the Federal Government’s plan to bring the amount of water taken from the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin down to sustainable levels.

It wouldn’t wash in the emergency ward but worryingly it seems to have convinced some of the nation’s most powerful elected representatives, including deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce. Earlier this week the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) also fell for this false choice and recommended letting irrigators take more water from the rivers of the northern Basin so long as a toolkit of ‘complementary measures’ are implemented.

So how did we reach this bizarre point in history?

It is 22 years since the Council of Australian Governments officially acknowledged they had mucked up in granting Australia’s farmers the right to more water than our river systems could sustain. This was, and still is, particularly acute in our largest and most heavily utilised river basin, the Murray-Darling.

Progress in fixing this imbalance was at first slow, particularly due to the intransigence of the two states that have contributed most to the problem — New South Wales and Victoria. They remained recalcitrant even as the horrific Millennium drought turned internationally protected wetlands into acidic wastelands.

Which is why in 2007 Prime Minister Howard intervened “to address once and for all water over-allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin.” He and his freshly minted water minister, Malcolm Turnbull, established an independent authority to set and enforce ‘Sustainable Diversion Limits’ on water use in what became known as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

It is these limits the irrigation lobby is now arguing should be relaxed in favour of other ‘complementary’ environmental management techniques.

Instead of leaving enough water for aquatic life to survive, the argument goes, we should be dealing with problems such as dams that make rivers too cold for native fish, and weirs that stop them swimming upstream to safe breeding sites.

These are real problems for Aussie fish — and it’s fantastic to hear support for action to address them. But there’s no reason we need to choose between ‘complementary’ measures and providing adequate flow. This is a false choice that has been swallowed hook, line and sinker by Barnaby Joyce and now the MDBA.

Every year two million tonnes of salt washes out of Australia’s ancient soils into the Murray-Darling rivers.

Fresh water dilutes and transports this salt, eventually flushing it out the Murray mouth.

Without sufficient flow, that salt instead chokes the system from the bottom up, threatening the water supply of Adelaide and South Australian Riverland communities.

That is precisely the kind of perverse outcome that will result if the campaign being spearheaded by the Irrigators’ Council and the NFF is successful.

Expect to see it rolled out in the southern basin next where limits on the Murray and its tributaries will be reviewed next year.

The NFF have a political champion in New South Wales water minister Niall Blair. He seems to have conveniently forgotten it was his own government that killed off the biggest program of complementary measures in the Basin only four years ago.

The now defunct Native Fish Strategy was investing hundreds of millions of dollars in precisely the kinds of measures Minister Blair now argues are so important.

At the federal level, Barnaby Joyce seems to have swallowed the bait too.

He recently told parliament that another kind of ‘complementary measure,’ – killing carp — could offset the need for irrigators to abide by sustainable limits on their water use.

Perhaps mindful that this kind of doublespeak takes a master to sell, he then recruited the National Irrigators Council’s spin doctor, Tom Chesson, to run communications for the National Carp Control Plan.

Spin campaigns by the NFF and their friends in the New South Wales government are neither new nor surprising.

It’s exactly that kind of skulduggery that led John Howard to intervene.

The former PM also knew that if he was to succeed he would need to put in a water minister that was free from influence of the farm lobby.

Which is why he separated the water and agriculture portfolios, giving water to Malcolm Turnbull.

Ironically, one of Turnbull’s first acts as Prime Minister last year was to capitulate to the National Party and put water back in the hands of the loudest farm lobbyist of all, federal agriculture minister and deputy PM, Barnaby Joyce.

History has taught us that properly looking after our river systems requires long-term thinking and strong leadership, the kind that led the NFF to support Landcare and John Howard to promise ‘radical and permanent change’ in the Murray-Darling.

We cannot afford to succumb to false choices in the name of short-term gain.

We cannot afford to succumb to false choices in the name of short-term gain.


Jonathan La Nauze

Environmental and social justice activist. Healthy Ecosystems Program Manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation.