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Darling deal, but devil's in the detail

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Rachel Siewert 28 Mar 2008

Now that the fanfare of the announcement out of COAG of a 'historic' Murray-Darling Basin agreement has died down, it's time to look past the rhetoric and back-patting to ask what is in fact being delivered, how does this differ from Howard's previous water plan, and when will we see some real change for the better in the basin?

It seems to me that the big difference is that all the states are now on board, which, in itself, is a good thing. Whether what they have signed up to can actually ensure the fair and sustainable use of our limited water resources in the basin, or whether the political compromises it took to get all the States onboard undermine it, is another question.

Just what it is that has been signed up to is a concern - but the far bigger worry is not just 'what' but - when?

It is fair to say that there is general agreement by practically everyone that the system is in crisis and urgent action is needed to save the Murray-Darling system.

The biggest elephant in the room with this brave new deal is that the commitment to honour existing water sharing plans means that a real cap on diversions to bring extraction down to sustainable levels cannot actually be implemented until 2019!

Time is running out for the Murray (and parts of the Darling), yet the Government has locked itself into the previous government's promise to honour existing state water sharing plans (which continue until 2014 in SA, NSW and Queensland, and until 2019 in Victoria).

In reforming water use within the basin it is important that the Commonwealth strives to deliver a sustainable arrangement that delivers both fairness and certainty to all stakeholders, but it has to be clear that the bottom line is that all plans need to be sustainable. In this way COAG would be better off giving a commitment to honour existing plans to the extent to which they are sustainable within the new whole-of-basin cap on diversions.

We simply don't have another decade to sort this out.

If the Basin Plan cannot be operationalised until 2019 there is a real risk that the Murray Darling system will be dead by the time these changes take effect.

There are a lot more details that still need to be sorted out, and the devil is in that detail.

The most critical issue to the success or failure of the new Basin Plan is likely to be whether the new Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is truly independent of political interference, and whether it has the capacity to enforce the whole of basin cap if major players simply decide to overstep their allocations.

According to the COAG MoU, the final decisions on the Basin Plan and the cap will be made by the Commonwealth Minister (currently Penny Wong), and individual States can take objections to plan and cap to the new Ministerial Council.

Not only is the Minister the final decision maker, but when the Minister rejects the Basin Plan and sends it back to the MDBA to revise to her liking, she does not actually have to report this to Parliament until the revised plan has been rejected for a second time.

Without the necessary political independence, and without some real teeth to be able to enforce the cap, the MDBA could find itself in the exact same spot as its predecessor the MDBC and subject to the same kind of political decision making that so hampered efforts in the past.

There is still an opportunity for the Commonwealth to put in place a strong and independent water manager that has the ability to withstand political pressure and outlast changes in government and resolve.

To be able to make the plan stick, the MDBA will have its hands on the purse-strings and be empowered to hit recalcitrant states where it most hurts them - by withholding funding if they don't keep their side of the deal.

While the MoU does specify that states' access to the $10 billion in the plan will be conditional upon their achieving agreed water reform objectives, this power is at one step removed from the MDBA in the hands of the Minister, which potentially makes it a political bargaining chip. Furthermore, we have to presume that at some point the $10 billion will have been spent - what will be the carrot and stick then?

We have a narrow window of opportunity to tackle one of the most intractable issues since Federation, and one of the most pressing. We have made a small step in the right direction, but we urgently need to pick up the pace.

It would be a shame to finally shut this sticky gate after the horse had already bolted.

Published by ABC Online.

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