Dam the Naysayers, and let these good ideas flow
by ROSS FITZGERALD
Winning a federal election the pundits thought he would lose makes Scott Morrison a first-rate politician. So far, though, he’s been much better at politics than policy. If he wants to be a first-rate prime minister, he’s going to need an agenda for government and it can’t just be modest tax cuts and prudent budget management. He has to tackle some of the big problems the country faces — and there’s none bigger than persistent drought.
Right now, the federal government is doing what it can to help struggling farmers and their communities with low-interest loans, income support payments and local infrastructure grants. These are important short-term palliatives but they don’t address the problem of too little water.
At some stage, the drought will break, and when it does, in this land of “drought and flooding rain”, chronic water shortage will almost certainly turn into temporary abundance. Australia doesn’t have a shortage of water. We have a shortage of water management. This is what the Morrison government needs to tackle.
So far, the Coalition government has pushed on with the measures originally envisaged in the Murray Darling Basin Plan. There’s been grants and loans for on-farm improvements to make existing water allocations go further, and there’s been the welcome recent development in turning on the Adelaide desalination plant, so that South Australia needs less river water, leaving more for farmers and communities upstream.
But the Morrison government has also pushed ahead with water buybacks for environmental purposes, and now Water Minister David Littleproud is reportedly threatening even more of them. The one thing the government has not been prepared to do is build more dams, even though this is the only way to secure much more water both for farmers and for the environment.
Morrison must know that there’s a problem. He would not otherwise have appointed former Northern Territory chief minister Shane Stone as the drought co-ordinator. For most of the past year, Stone has been quietly but effectively managing the aftermath of the floods in western Queensland with tens of thousands of dead cattle and farmers traumatised by a succession of enduring natural disasters.
Morrison is no doubt hoping that this can-do former politician (who has no time for the climate cult, who’s not in awe of bureaucrats, and won’t take any unreasonable “no” for an answer), can take the heat off the National Party ministers whose feuding has made them so ineffectual. While Stone can’t make it rain, any more than anyone else, he might just have the combination of independence and political authority to tell the Prime Minister that the phobia about dams must end.
The NSW government is cautiously venturing down this path, with two proposals (that the federal government is quietly supporting) to increase the capacity of the existing Dungowan and Wyangala dams. And the Queensland Coalition opposition has formally committed to a feasibility study of a modern version of the 1938 Bradfield scheme, originally conceived by the engineer responsible for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
This would be a tropical version of the Snowy Mountains scheme, damming coastal rivers and, through a series of tunnels, exploiting much of the water that would otherwise flow out to sea into Australia’s western river system.
When the Howard government briefly flirted with the idea of damming a tributary of the Clarence, in northern NSW, to increase Brisbane’s water supply, local reaction was a factor in losing the seat of Page. But that proposal was to send water to another state, not to tunnel water under the Great Dividing Range to help farmers at a time of the worst drought ever in northern NSW.
So there are at least two credible proposals that should be considered if the government is to ensure that the next drought has nothing like the adverse consequences of this one.
What ought to be crystal clear is that we can’t continue to add to our population without any significant increase in our water storages. Indeed, increasing population is the elephant in the room.
At a time that our population has increased by a third over the past 30 years, we’ve added less than 5 per cent to our water storage. And any ambition to be a food bowl to the emerging middle classes of Asia is obviously dependent on more water.
Morrison has done well presenting himself as the plain-speaking everyman of Australian politics. Not for him the economic reformism of Hawke, Howard or Keating. Yet even cautious, careful, pragmatic leaders are expected to solve major problems. Otherwise, what’s the point of being in government? At some stage, it won’t be enough to point to the dangers of an unreconstructed Labor Party in order to keep winning elections. The Morrison-led Coalition needs something visionary; and drought-proofing Australia could be just the ticket.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and author of 41 books.
The Australian, December 9, 2019, p1 and 12.
PM’s biggest challenge: water crisis
Ross Fitzgerald (“Dam the naysayers and let these good ideas flow”) and your lead editorial (“Limited river water must serve thirsty farmlands”), both on Monday, identify dams as the single vital resource to alleviate drought and save inland agriculture.
Dams can also mitigate floods, support bushfire water bombers, increase agricultural production, rescue inland towns and bolster national security through economic resilience.
Red and green tape preventing new dams has meant population growth has outstripped the paltry increase in numbers or capacity. Navigating a state Labor government and federal Greens will require Scott Morrison’s utmost sure-footedness.
If he is able to bring voters with him and succeed in “fixing water” it may determine much more than just the next election.
Craig Mills, Kew, Vic
The Australian, December 11, 2019, letters, p 13.