Performer behind the politician
Saturday, 1st May, 2021
By Neil Pigot
The opening of the gates at Menindee last week saw the NSW Water Minister step into the local spotlight, and Melinda Pavey didn’t disappoint the throng that had gathered to witness the event.
It was a regal visit, a woman of substance meeting her people. Ably facilitated by a media advisor who terrorised the journalists on hand like a Hollywood-style Marine Sgt Major addressing a bunch of gormless, meek recruits.
And the film analogies continue.
In the acting world, there are players of all types. Those with gravitas and the lightweights, those with authenticity and the fakers. Our political leaders are want to use the performance analogy when talking about members of their ministerial team. Minister Pavey is what they call in the political game ‘A good performer,’ one who can sell a message, one who is unflappable in a crisis. And last Thursday, all of the Minister’s silken performance skills were on show.
It began before the camera’s rolled. A private stroll with an indigenous leader. Head bowed, empathetic. When the press conference was about to get underway and the Minister was miked up, like any true professional actor, she attended to her hair and clothing and volunteered a soundcheck to make sure that whatever she said would be of appropriate quality.
But like a B-grade movie, it was when she opened her mouth that the problems started. You see, Hollywood deals in fiction, and, so it seems, does Minister Pavey.
Speaking to the ABC, when asked about the heated conversations she’d had the night before at the Menindee pub, first, she buttered us up.
“I just love coming out here and even just spending a couple of hours. Sometimes those conversations can get a bit fiery.” A statement accompanied by an amused and slightly patronising chuckle. A sort of self-satisfied delight at meeting some “people”.
But just to be sure we didn’t get too far ahead of ourselves, she went on to make sure that we knew that she knows more than we do.
“I had some of my experts with me who put a few facts on the bone because there’s a lot of myths out here, a lot of blame and pointing directions to the north.”
Which frankly is where the problem is. If the water doesn’t flow down the system we tend, as a community, not to point south. But then she abruptly contradicted herself and pointed her own finger north.
“Sometimes I think Queensland could be doing more, installing metering. But we’re all a lot happier when there is big rain in the north.”
Which is where the water comes from. Then, like a conjurer performing a card trick, she subtly led the conversation away from questions of over-extraction in the northern basin by talking about compliance. With theatrical exuberance.
“We’ve lifted our game. We’re leading Australia now in terms of compliance. Even Mick Keelty said that. We should be proud.”
The Mick Keelty she was talking about was the former Federal Police Commissioner who was tasked by the Federal Government to look into the Murray Darling mess. Perhaps buried somewhere in Mr Keelty’s report there is a passing reference to NSW doing something well in that area. Who knows? What we do know is that the report, delivered in April last year, found that there was an absence of leadership, transparency and “a single point of truth” across the entire Murray-Darling Basin Plan. A view no doubt arrived at because State Water Ministers, including Pavey, refused to allow him to interview witnesses across borders.
It went on to refer to analysis that showed the “median annual inflow into the system over the past 20 years is approximately half that of the preceding century”. Again, a look at the map of the system shows that much of that flow comes from the north. Particularly from tributaries around what is referred to as the northern basin, the area of the highest extraction rates from the Darling, and from those tributaries before it reaches the river.
When asked about environmental flows on Thursday, Ms Pavey insisted that they are always in place. Mr Keelty disagrees.
“There were perceptions that environmental water licences had been prioritised and treated differently to irrigation licences, but the enquiry found that “the environmental water holdings are comprised of exactly the same types of entitlements that are held by irrigators. In times of drought, the delivery of environmental water is scaled back which “implies that the environment does not need water during a drought.”
This is exactly what happened during the recent drought - no water - even in response to the Menindee fish kill in 2019.
Then there was the actor who, like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, pleaded her case. “NSW has given back a thousand Gigalitres to the environment from our farmers. And it hurt.”
Perhaps it did hurt. But let’s unpack that statement. We don’t know where that water came from. Moreover, we don’t know where it went. If it was in fact 1,000 gigalitres, not for the southern basin and the Menindee Lakes, but for the environmental flows mandated by the Murray Darling Basin. It certainly didn’t come down the river, so presumably, it flowed into the Murray from the Murrumbidgee.
But given that reports over the past decade suggest that the system is bedevilled by patchy metering, unmetered takes and the lack of real-time, accurate water accounting, that is hardly surprising. It may explain why the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists report published in 2019 found that in some of the years since the Murray Darling Basin Plan came into effect, the River Murray received up to 60% less water than expected, and the Darling River received as much as 80% less water, even when taking into account drought conditions. The Darling is principally under the control of Minister Pavey, who wants to have honest, mature conversations.
“It’s gotta change and it’s gonna change,” she said. Which was catchy, like a line from a musical before a big song. Then she burst the bubble. When asked when it was going to change, instead of singing Tomorrow she floored the crowd with, “Who knows if it’s going to keep raining. I hope it does.”
But the high kicker in all this was when she was asked how long we would maintain levels in the Lakes. At which point she mused on the ideas around what she called “dead water” and “active water.” In simple terms active water would appear to be water we can sell and use for agriculture, dead water is water like the stuff that currently sits in the Menindee Lakes, water that is vital for the sustenance of the complex ecosystem. Moreover, she made no commitment to keeping flows of “dead water” heading into the lakes, instead, throwing the responsibility for keeping the water in there to the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which controls flows in the Lower Darling Basin.
“There are some very big conversations the MDBA needs to start having with communities. They’ve started that. I think they got a real sense people were upset. Menindee has a right to this water as much as the people of Adelaide. This is a vital fish breeding ground, it is vital to culture, it is vital to the environment. It’s vital for all Australians.”
The issue with that statement of course is that control of the Menindee Lakes only ever falls to the MDBA when they achieve a certain water level and that level depends on flows. But the control of flows rests in the hands of Minister Pavey.
Perhaps if she had her time again she could have reworded the script to read something like this:
“There are some very big conversations I need to start having with communities. I haven’t started that. I’ve got a real sense people were upset. Menindee has a right to this water as much as the unsustainable agribusinesses of the northern basin. This is a vital fish breeding ground, it is vital to culture, it is vital to the environment. It’s vital to all Australians.”
Her crowning achievement, however, was her concluding statement. “I just want to have good conversations based on science and based on data. We have to listen to the science.”
I clarified the science the minister was referring to. According to her office, that science amounted to hydrological numbers on lake capacity and evaporation rates. And, I quote, in the following 2.5 years from the 2016-17 inflow event more than half of that water - 1,237 GL - was lost to seepage and evaporation from the lakes.
* 252 GL was delivered to government environmental water licence holders for release into the Lower Darling and Anabranch, for the benefit of the riverine environment, including native fish species.
* 388 GL was provided in releases on behalf of the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). (When the storage volume exceeds 640 GL the MDBA is able to call on water from the lakes until the volume drops below 480GL, and the lakes’ management reverts to NSW Government control).
* 189 GL was released by Water NSW for the Lower Darling as required under the operating rules for the lakes.
* 91 GL was delivered to Lower Darling customers holding a water entitlement licence.
* The 74 GL difference relates to the variation in starting and ending volumes for this 2.5 year period.
That, Minister, is not science. It’s accounting. And you can’t pull a science card and be selective about it. You either listen to the science or you don’t. Science that supports an ideology, science that tells only a part of a story, science that suggests that water in the Menindee Lakes is dead water?
There are several other significant scientific opinions floating around at the moment. None of which seem to have caught the ministers attention.
Let’s take the science around waterbirds. From a peak in 1984 of 140,000 birds at Menindee – one of the country’s major inland bird breeding grounds – numbers in 2019 had dropped to less than 20,000, a decline that has been steady over the past 20 years. Breeding events, which rely on cyclical, natural filling and draining of the lakes have also steadily dropped to below a hundred a year.
Or invertebrates. The science around the management of the system has shown that with levels being kept artificially high when water is available in the Darling and then drained too quickly or, with no flows at all, the natural concentration of invertebrates and other food sources for birds and fish are unable to develop.
Or the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists who used science to investigate floodplain harvesting and the “water-saving measures” funded by the Federal Government and found a reduction in runoff and groundwater recharge that would have otherwise benefitted the environment.
And yes, the Lakes seep and water evaporates. That is the science - the reality of a delicately balanced ecosystem that is rapidily reaching a point of no return.
But, of course, the big science, the big elephant in the room that Minister Pavey wants to ignore is Climate Change.
“It didn’t rain for three years in the north,” said the Minister, “that’s never happened before.” But it will almost certainly happen again. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, “In the southeast of Australia, there has been a decline of around 12 per cent in April to October rainfall since the late 1990s.”
The report on Australia’s climate outlook continues by saying that “There has been a consistent decrease in streamflow at the majority of streamflow gauges across southern Australia since 1975.”
That report was researched before the recent drought, that drought of an intensity “that’s never happened before.” We cannot continue to farm the Darling Basin according to old science or even old accounting. There needs to be urgent, major reform. And that is the science Minister. Perhaps we can have a mature conversation about that.
As the performance ended and the minister strode away from the stage, I approached to ask her another question. I was met with the performer at rest. A mute response accompanied by a killer stare. Then, like a stage door Johnny who had lingered too long, I was shooed away by the Marine. Ah, Hollywood.
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