Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Don't think you can keep on neglecting me, Darling

Sustainability is a dangerous word, but one to which politicians are irresistibly attracted. It has a wonderful ring to it and drips with virtue. Can you think of anyone who would admit to supporting anything that wasn't sustainable?

And Julia Gillard has brought sustainability back into its own. Kevin Rudd appointed Tony Burke our first Minister for Population, but one of Gillard's first acts was to change his title to Minister for Sustainable Population.

These days Burke is Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Phew. Anything else you'd like me to fix while I'm at it?

One of his tasks is to soothe the anguished and outraged response of irrigators to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's "guide to a plan" to restore the river system's environmental flows by reducing water allocations by 27 to 37 per cent.

Apparently, the bureaucrats at the authority have no idea of the devastation they'd cause, wiping out whole river towns and causing horrendous unemployment, while prompting a huge leap in the price of food, ending the nation's food security and prompting a surge in food imports.

Clearly, there is a requirement for commonsense to prevail and for the needs of people, their livelihoods and their communities to be put ahead of worries about the environment.

Just one problem: that dangerous notion, sustainability. The authority's guide says many of the challenges and risks faced by the basin and its communities are the direct result of the actions of successive governments over the history of the basin. "In retrospect, many of these decisions failed to strike a long-term balance between meeting the needs of the environment and those of a growing economy and population," the guide says.

"The amount of surface water diverted for consumptive use such as [in] towns, industry and irrigation has increased from about 2000 gigalitres per year in 1920 to entitlements of approximately 11,000 gigalitres per year in the 1990s. However, the impact of drought over the past decade has seen actual diversions drop significantly.

"The combination of drought and historic diversions means there have been no significant flows through the Murray mouth since 2002."

It is clear the impacts of the necessary adjustments would fall on the current generation of farmers and irrigators, industries and communities. So effective transitional arrangements would be needed to help people.

But it is also clear the environment has not had sufficient water for decades. This has led to serious environmental decline. "Twenty out of 23 catchments in the basin are in 'poor' to 'very poor' ecosystem health," the guide says. "The past decade has seen increasing water quality problems and more frequent outbreaks of blue-green algae blooms.

"The real possibility of environmental failure now threatens the long-term economic and social viability of many industries and the economic, social and cultural strength of many communities."

Over the past few decades, the focus has swung primarily to looking at the economics of the basin and what it can produce, such that the role of the environment in underpinning that economic development has been "somewhat overlooked".

But that can't continue. "If the focus does not swing back towards considering water required for the environment, then the nation risks irretrievably damaging the attributes of the basin that enable it to be so productive," the guide says.

See what this is saying? The sustainability of the ecosystem is, in the end, non-negotiable. It's not a question of being reasonable, of politicians splitting it down the middle and everyone going away grumpily satisfied. It's not even a question of imagining we can put the interests of flesh and blood ahead of mere inanimate objects.

The natural environment is utterly unreasonable and unforgiving. For years we have been able to abuse it - knowingly and unknowingly - confident in the belief it would recover from that abuse or some new technology would pop up to solve any problems.

But now it is clear to our scientists we are reaching the tipping point. Keep flogging the horse and the horse will die and leave us in the lurch. You can't negotiate with the environment, asking it to remember how many people's livelihoods are depending on it. And no amount of abuse of ignorant, city-living greenies will make the problem go away.

If what we are doing to the Murray-Darling is ecologically unsustainable it won't be - can't be - sustained. Sooner or later, it will come to an end. The only choice we face is whether to take the pain now in the hope of saving something for the future or do what all our predecessors have done and close our eyes to the problem, take a few token steps to confound our consciences and hope to be dead before the final devastation.

But politics as usual - create such a fuss the pollies back off - remains dominant. And the standard tactic is to hugely exaggerate the amount of pain that would be suffered. The authority's guide says its plan could lead to long-term job losses of 800. Just one irrigation lobby has "modelling" showing that 17,000 jobs will be lost in NSW alone.

A tip: worry about the decline of country towns if you wish - that would really happen - but don't worry about job losses. Why not? Because our economy's problem is just the opposite: we are already close to full employment, where we don't have workers to fill all the (mainly city) vacancies. That's why our interest rates are already so much higher than other countries' and why they're set to go higher. That's why economists and business people are clamouring for higher immigration.

And to country people who fear the change the authority's suggested cuts would impose on them, I'd say just keep carrying on the way you are. This is a weak federal government without a majority, opposed by a Coalition wedded to populist obstruction.