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Time to take a stand

Monday, 17th December, 2018

Ken Matthews Ken Matthews

By Craig Brealey

Irresponsible water ministers could derail water reform and it was time the “voices of rationality and science” stood up to them, a former National Water Commissioner has said.

Ken Matthews AO made his comments in a recent address in Canberra, entitled “Water Management in Australia - Time for a Rethink”, and was especially critical of a former federal water minister.

He did not name the ex-minister but it was obviously Barnaby Joyce.

The address was presented by Mr Matthews last month as the Peter Cullen Lecture for 2018. He and Mr Cullen were fellow Commissioners of the National Water Commission from its foundation in 2004 until Mr Cullen died 10 years ago. 

Last year the NSW Government commissioned Mr Matthews to investigate water management following allegations of water theft, corruption and collusion between certain cotton growers and senior public servants in northern NSW. 

Mr Matthews recommended the protection of environmental flows, the formation of an independent regulator and that all irrigation properties be properly metered without delay.

In his lecture he said the main problem with water reform today was the poor quality of government. 

“There are many so-called ‘political’ judgements that need to be made by a representative of the broader community, alongside that apparently ‘scientifically straightforward’ environmental watering proposal. 

“But what if the relevant minister is simply not interested in the science advice - or even totally dismissive of it? 

“What if the minister has a world view which, for example, dismisses all the science of climate change or argues in a Shepparton pub about the ABC Four Corners show on alleged water theft, that ‘we can’t have the greenies running the show basically sending you out the backdoor’ and ‘The greenies are trying to take more water off you. They’re trying to create a calamity - for which the solution is to take more water off you, shut down more of your towns’. 

“In other words, what if we had an irresponsible minister who did not take serious science advice seriously? 

“What if we had a minister who pandered to ignorance and base prejudice, rather than seeking to lead, educate and persuade?

“What if we had a minister who sought to ingratiate himself with a narrow group of voters at the lowest common denominator level, rather than take on the really tough leadership role of seeking to balance the interests of the Australian environment with the many other interests in water that the community as a whole expects to be looked after?” 

Such ministers, said Mr Matthews, were “a fundamental flaw in an otherwise-sound Westminster decision-making process. 

“With ministers like these, the best, careful, analytical advice risks disappearing in a fog of irritable, shouty, partisan, partial decision-making where the politician may have their petty ephemeral win but the loser is the broader long term community interest.”

Mr Matthews said he realised that taking politically-hard decisions when ‘the base’ is going feral” was difficult and the pressure to ignore the science could feel overwhelming. 

“But for a serious minister,’hard-to-do’ should not mean ‘not-to-do’. And for the rest of us observing our elected ministers, we should not settle for clearly expedient or partisan decisions, or decisions pitched shamelessly at what Donald Trump calls his ‘base’. 

Mr Matthews appealed to government bureaucrats, MPs and scientists to resist the pressure to play this game.

“We should not excuse decision-makers who value playing a parliamentary political game over their heavy national or state responsibilities to manage Australia’s water wisely,” he said. 

“We should not look away when good science and analysis is ignored because it’s too dificult.” 

Mr Matthews said the public would have more confidence in government if the advice given to a minister was published.

“This not only enables public testing of the advice, but also enables interested stakeholders to test the quality of the minister’s eventual decision against the professional advice that he or she received.” 

For example, he said, people should know what advice was being provided to state and commonwealth ministers about the “critically-important” round of Water Resource Plans due in the Murray-Darling Basin. 

Water would also be better managed nationally, rather than state by state, Mr Matthews said, and if ordinary people were not denied the same access to government that wealthy irrigator groups enjoyed. 

“One familiar example would be some of the floodplain graziers and small communities on the Lower Darling. 

“The big end of town is catered for well enough. But smaller groups and special interests need to be built in to the processes better. Until we do, alienation, frustration and misapprehensions based on exclusion from the processes and ignorance of the facts will continue to dog water management decisions.” 

Irrigators should also develop a set of principles by which they are prepared to be judged, said Mr Matthews. 

“It could include also acknowledgement of the importance of river system and floodplain health, environmental flows, indigenous interests, regional and community benefits, and the many other externalities associated with responsible irrigation. 

“It could also commit to maximise transparency about where, how and when publicly-owned water is being used. 

“It worries me that although the broader community’s goodwill towards farmers in general is strong, the irrigation industry continues to struggle for enthusiastic community acceptance.”

Metering and monitoring of water extractions “or the lack of it,” said Mr Matthews, was a “running sore.”

“Most urban people are astonished to learn that there is not already universal water metering. This is a big opportunity to build public confidence in water management. 

“Environmental water continues to cause dispute. We have opportunities to tell the story of the effectiveness and efficiency of environmental watering much better than we do. 

“We have opportunities also to require the effectiveness and efficiency of the use of environmental water to be just as rigorous as the requirements we place on consumptive users. 

“And Commonwealth/State relations in water continue to be fraught with dispute and disappointment. It needn’t always be like this. Better intergovernmental processes can be designed. Better institutions can be built. Commonwealth funding can be used more creatively. Better Commonwealth/state relations can be developed. We certainly need them. 

“The point I really want to make is that there is much to do, and no time to be lost.”

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