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Tuesday, 23rd July, 2019

By By Callum Marshall

The ABC and Australia Institute researchers have dismissed a letter written by scientists denouncing the 4 Corners ‘Cash Splash’ program, likening it to the Bankers’ Association dismissing a banking royal commission.

The July 8 program, which shed light on billions of taxpayer dollars spent under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s national water infrastructure scheme, received a number of negative reactions from irrigator and farming groups over what they perceived to be a biased program. 

On Friday, 23 scientists signed their name to an open letter which questioned the ‘Cash Splash’ program and backed the MDBP. 

“We are concerned that the Basin Plan and the institutions implementing it are being unfairly maligned and that this is eroding public support for what we regard as generally sound public policy,” noted the letter which was published in The Australian on Friday.

“It troubles us that some in the community imagine that most scientists regard the Basin Plan as a mess. 

“We worry that negative populist rhetoric may hold sway and derail the Basin water reform process entirely.”

The letter goes on to say that it’s wrong to assume new irrigation developments in the Basin are extracting more water than before the MDBP was in place.

It also says that it’s wrong to assume that little or no water savings were being achieved under the scheme’s efficiency projects and that the Basin Plan had no environmental benefit. 

During the course of the ‘Cash Splash’ program, Chair of Water Economics at UNESCO, Professor Quentin Grafton, said water savings were “less than half of what the government claims” and that they “could be backwards of more than 100 billion litres.”

In reference to that point the scientists’ letter noted that, “assertions that water efficiency projects funded by the Federal Government are yielding little or no water savings are not supported by available evidence.

“The most detailed study on this complex issue, undertaken by the University of Melbourne, estimates that about 85 per cent of the projected water savings are being realised. 

“Though considerably more expensive than water buybacks, these infrastructure investments are generating substantial water savings, whilst enhancing agricultural productivity.”

The scientists who wrote the letter include university professors at the University of Melbourne’s ‘Melbourne School of Engineering’, University of Canberra’s ‘Institute for Applied Ecology’ and Griffith University’s ‘Australian River Institute’, amongst others. 

However, as a disclaimer within their letter notes, “many of the above experts have: been remunerated by one or more Basin governments for participation in advisory committees; received payments from one or more Basin governments for consultancies; and/or received research grants from one or more Basin governments.”

A list of further interests seen by the BDT confirms at least 14 of the scientists listed have, or have had, some sort of relationship to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority either through membership, being part of a committee or receiving MDBA funding.

Several others have received Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder funding as well. 

Roderick Campbell, Research Director at the Australia Institute, said the scientists’ letter was “like the Bankers’ Association saying ‘no need for a banking royal commission’.

“Most of these scientists consult extensively to the Murray Darling Basin Authority and other Basin agencies, but somehow this was barely disclosed in reporting of the letter. 

“What’s happening in the Basin is not agriculture vs the environment, it is the public interest against entrenched commercial, political and bureaucratic interests and these scientists are part of that bureaucracy.

“With the Darling/Barka River dry, fifth generation dairy farmers walking off their land and small irrigators suing the Basin authority for $750 million for wasted water, it’s clear there is something wrong with Basin management.

“A royal commission is needed to provide transparency and restore public trust in the management of our greatest rivers.”

Early Friday morning, the ABC responded with a statement saying they had not been permitted to see the full letter before it was published by The Australian.

“The ABC was not permitted by The Australian to see the complete letter referred to in its article today before its publication,” noted the statement.

“However, the extracts provided to the ABC contain nothing more than vague assertions and allegations. 

“There are no statements of fact that contradict the Four Corners’ investigation “Cash Splash”, concerning the Murray-Darling Basin plan.”

On Friday afternoon, an ABC spokesman told the BDT there was nothing of substance within the letter to contradict the program’s points.

“Now that the letter has been published and the ABC has had the opportunity to review it in full, it is clear the letter does not address the key focus of the program, whether the infrastructure scheme is working effectively to manage water resources to the benefit of regional communities, agribusiness and the river system itself,” the spokesperson said.

“There is nothing of substance in the letter that contradicts the facts presented in the Four Corners program.

“The ABC also notes the declarations of interest mentioned in the letter.”

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