• Rikki Lambert

The Murray-Darling - I love it when a plan comes together

They may have been a fictional team of dishonourably discharged American military operatives, but the A-Team knew how to bring a plan together under leader Hannibal. Perhaps it helped having a Mister T in the group to bring a bit of muscle when needed.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan has until 2024 to reach water saving targets, and all sensible commentators acknowledge those targets will not be reached on current form.

This week saw an audacious Hollywood style attempt to hijack the Basin Plan debate by National Party MPs in the federal senate, but as Nationals member for Mallee Dr Anne Webster reminded me on FlowNews24, she and neighbouring Nationals MP on the Murray, Damian Drum, had attempted to do the same before. We are led to believe the Basin Plan attack was merely coincidental in the same week that Barnaby Joyce sprung his trap and at last caught the mouse that was Michael McCormack.

Several Nationals sources have told us the Party policy as of Monday is now that the Coalition give up on seeking to recover the 450 gigalitre (GL) additional water target over and above the Plan's original 2,750GL. At last check, some 2,100 GL had been recovered.

To put that into a context rarely acknowledged, I did the math this week using the last federal government data available on the economic value of a megalitre of water. It was around $1,250 in 2017/18, so roughly that means 450GL - currently, and mostly, at large in the system with irrigators - is worth $550 million in agricultural production.

That 2,100GL already recovered, by the way - mostly through buyback - has taken $2.5 billion in annual agricultural production out of the system.

I'm not here to say that's a good or bad thing, but we ought to acknowledge the cost.

Particularly as the National Farmers Federation, the McCormack National Party and other peak farming groups have been going around the country promoting that Australian agriculture will grow by one-third production in the next 8-9 years to reach $100 billion in production by 2030.

You see, they have a plan for that too.

Conservative people - many of whom reside on the land - don't like the idea of plans or targets. Farmers are generally pretty good at deciding when the conditions are right to expand their operation or grow different value crops - and they aren't likely to keep doing something if it's not paying the bills. They won't walk away, they'll shift to doing something else, usually something more profitable.

That said, when it comes to government and farm production, what government can sensibly do to grease the gears of machinery for increased production, it can be to remove the impediments to expanding production.

After a fractious week in Canberra fired off by Joyce's own Howardine Lazarus-with-a-triple-bypass, some of the policy topics now said to be at the forefront of Nationals belligerence touch on these topics of farm productivity.

First of all, were 450GL to disappear from agriculture and horticulture - as is the Basin Plan - that sends Australia backwards on the $100bn production target by 2030. Granted, half-a-billion dollars backwards, but when primary production has stalled at $65 billion this financial year, and ABARES projects $64 billion next financial year, it won't help.

Second is the much-discussed net zero target for greenhouse gas emissions. The Liberal side of the Coalition has thus far in their governmental capacity held back from committing Australia to net-zero by 2050. The new power bloc in the Nationals don't want that commitment to be made, nor do they want agriculture to be included in emissions reduction targets. To do so, whether it be by confining what farmers can do, and/or imposing a carbon price, will also slow progress to the $100 billion by 2030 target.

Well, unless some creative green accounting magically grants to farmers a dollar value for 'carbon abatement' that their farm has 'produced'. Paid for by, presumably, governments or big corporations looking to make remission for their carbon sins.

The good news I shared on FlowFM on Friday was that a look at ABARES historical data shows that Australia can, indeed, increase farm production by one third over 8-9 years. In fact, it went better than that in the years leading up to 2016-17, increasing production by over 50 per cent over that period.

But I digress. The Basin Plan - regardless of what you think of central planning, government control or targets, and indeed the likelihood those targets will fail by 2024 - has shown that farmers and regional communities are resilient and will change tack.

That is not to dismiss the great pain felt by regional communities with water buybacks and farmers leaving the industry.

In a situation similar to the brouhaha that has stalled the Indian government due to farmer protests, the family farmer and less productive farms have begun to fall by the Basin wayside in favour of wealthier, better cashed-up or entrepreneurial farmers. The detachment of water from the land the water flows past has seen water trading make it possible for water to follow its most productive use - like it or not.

Almonds, for instance, have become lucrative for those who can secure the water, as have other 'permanent plantings' like vines. The shift toward permanent plantings already killed off dairying in much of the Basin, and is wiping out those that plant 'cash crops' using temporary water.

It is clear to see that the further downstream in the system you get, with the guarantees of water be it for 'security' or 'environmental' purposes, sees the continuing expansion of these permanent plantings.

The Basin may well have been unbalanced or top-heavy towards northern Basin economic interests across its troubled, pre-plan history, but the trendline now is that the Basin is becoming more economically balanced, or tipping towards the southern Basin. Or perhaps, the south-western Basin.

If there is to be a one-third increase in farm productivity in 8-9 years, using water on something that yields $1,400 per megalitre applied versus something yielding less than $1,000 a megalitre makes sense - on that cold analysis.

Was this rebalancing, not environmental concerns, the intent of the Basin Plan all along? The federal interventions of Howard-Turnbull and Rudd-Wong were anchored solely in the foreign affairs power implementing environmental treaties. The Basin Authority is quick to note that it has been able to achieve significant environmental flows thanks to the Basin Plan, which one would hope when the Environmental Water Holder has all that recovered, formerly productive water, at its disposal.

The environment has been helped by recent wetter winters and thereby healthy storages, such as the recently filled - and spilled - Menindee Lakes. Regrettably, sensible debate and policymaking rarely occurs during wet cycles and sits idle until frantic, angry action occurs as the water dries up.

Environmentalists and the Greens say the 2,750 GL plus 450 GL still aren't enough to save the riverine environments.

Nationals member for Mallee Dr Webster told me on the air that 'the science' no longer supports South Australia's environmental position on the Lower Lakes needing freshwater because rising sea levels would overwhelm the Lakes. It's embarrassing if that statement is wrong - if it is right, the Greens have a quandary. One would have thought the ancient barrages at Goolwa would have something to say about rising sea levels.

The Plan includes trade-offs across the social, economic and environmental fronts and some may comfort themselves in the old adage that if a political proposal angers everyone equally, it is probably right.

As the 2024 deadlines for the Basin Plan loom, and thereby the prospect of further buybacks, we will see just how angry people get.

Pity the fools.