Politicial Bribes

“Scientifically indefensible”: How a $ 13 billion political solution kills the Murray Darling Basin

Image: Alex Anstey

The federal government continues to squander $ 13 billion of taxpayer dollars on an illegal mess that was supposed to fix this country’s biggest environmental disaster – the destruction of the Murray Darling Basin. It is a story of political interference, scientific censorship and deception, pressure from lobbyists and bureaucratic cowardice. Richard Beasley SC reports.

Never before this year has “the rule of law” been mentioned so frequently by our politicians in Canberra. What a precious thing they now seem to think it is. It is a shame that this rule of governance is not taken into account when it comes to Australia’s most important environmental laws – the water law and the basin plan.

The drafting and promulgation of the Basin Plan is a story of political interference, scientific censorship and deception, heavy pressure from lobbyists, bureaucratic cowardice, and the general bastardization of what “Canberra” generally does when it comes to government. environment.

And although this disaster is over 11 years old, it is once again raising its head because of a political agreement reached three years ago.

First Nations groups were promised $ 40 million in 2018 by the government so that water rights could be purchased for them. The government still has not returned money or water, and the Elders and leaders of our Indigenous nations are now testing their patience.

They are also concerned that the government is redirecting the money, which was not officially part of the plan to save the Murray Darling river system. Rather, the $ 40 million was part of a rotten deal to prevent the Senate from defeating amendments that have now passed that have defrauded the rivers and ecosystems of the basin of 70 billion gallons of water per year.

But first a little background.

A work of art

The Water Act 2007, a work of art, was passed in the dying days of the Howard government. The millennial drought (officially 2001-2010) was causing catastrophic damage – both environmentally and economically. Along with the certainty of a warmer, drier future, it was widely recognized that if we continued to pump the Murray and Darling dry to grow crops, we would kill our environmental treasures – the great wetlands and forests. from southern Queensland to Coorong in the south.

The water law stipulated that only an “environmentally sustainable level” of water could be withdrawn from the river system. We could still grow cotton, almonds and rice, but not to the point of eliminating all native fish and trees by doing so. In addition, this environmentally friendly level of use had to be decided on the basis of “the best available scientific knowledge”. Not what the nationals say or what the greens say. Just science.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has been tasked by parliament to draft a basin plan. When she produced a draft of the Plan at the end of 2010, she indicated that between 4,000 and 7,000 gigaliters per year had to be returned to rivers, of which 7,000 represented a strong chance of saving the river system.

A political solution

Irrigation lobbyists got to work, and less than a year later, the amount of water to be returned to the environment by irrigators and other users had magically dropped to 2,750 gigalitres per year: a volume of water that Bret Walker SC found in his Royal Commission report. in the plane of the pelvis not to be in the roar of a bull to be based on science or law.

The MDBA claimed to have reached this figure using a “more robust” modeling approach – but declined to release the full modeling. Basically, they said they had ‘changed’ their ‘modeling’. That’s it.

Rivers, wetlands, forests, native fish, trees, plants and other species of flora and fauna that science shows need 7 trillion liters more water per year to get good chances of survival, would suddenly and miraculously have a good chance of getting about 10 Sydney harbors less water per year. Try to find a good scientist who can explain this.

CSIRO, meanwhile, said it had no idea how the MDBA arrived at this volume of water, and produced a report indicating that this volume would not meet the necessary flow targets. for good ecological results.

Walker found that, based on the sworn evidence he had, the figure of 2750GL had been obtained by a “political solution”, not by science.

Intimidated by scientific censorship

In 2009, when the MDBA was developing the plan, CSIRO told the authority it needed to incorporate climate change projections into its modeling – something that was essential for a plan going forward.

After all, the law says that the basin plan must alone be based on “the best available science” – and the climate change projections for the Murray Darling Basin (it’s going to get hotter and drier for sure) are “the best available science”.

When the MDBA refused to incorporate such projections into determining how much water the environment needs to survive in the future, CSIRO and Walker called it “scientifically indefensible.” That doesn’t seem to bother the MDBA.

The amount of water our environment would need to stop its continued degradation is based on historical climate records from 1895 to 2009. Does this sound like the best science? And how can a Commonwealth agency like the MDBA simply decide that it can ignore the advice of our main Commonwealth science agency?

Later, in 2011, the MDBA hired CSIRO to prepare a report on the environmental benefits that would be achieved by a plan that would return 2,800 GL to rivers on an annual average. Scientists at CSIRO used a traffic light system in its charts to make it easy to understand how many key ecological goals set by the MDBA would not be achieved by such a plan. The MDBA did not seem to appreciate such transparency – it asked CSIRO to remove the traffic light system. Fancy the MDBA wanting readers to understand the CSIRO report?

The MDBA also asked CSIRO to change the language of its results so that they arguably look a little better for the environment. So, by way of example only, the people within CSIRO – but not the scientific authors of the report – agreed to change:

“The high elevations of the floodplains are likely to become increasingly vulnerable in the 2800 scenario, and their ability to continue to support the River Red Gum and Black Box communities is compromised. ”


“The higher elevations of the Murray River floodplains see little improvement in flooding.”

The CSIRO chief scientist responsible for writing this chapter of the report testified under oath to Walker’s Royal Commission that he was told that if the changes were not made, CSIRO leadership feared they would not be paid for. The report. The witness called it “scientific censorship”. Again, such behavior might not be in keeping with everyone’s understanding of the “rule of law”.

Review of the northern basin and “the rule of law”

Under the plan adopted in 2012, the northern basin – the southern part of Queensland and the northern part of New South Wales – only had to return an average of 390 gigaliters per year to river systems. However, in 2017, after a quiet four-year review, the MDBA decided that the northern basin should yield only 320 gigaliters per year. The environment was to lose 70 billion liters per year.

Again, there was no adequate, publicly disclosed science behind this – a blatant violation of the law. At first, such blatant conduct was even too much for our politicians, and in February 2018 the Senate was ready to reject an amendment to the basin plan to reduce it from a 2750GL plan to a 2680GL plan.

In response, NSW and Victorian threatened to “walk away” from the basin plan (whatever that means). That’s when our politicians made a deal, which in part involved a commitment to provide $ 40 million in water to First Nations people (they should already have a lot more than that, by the way).

According to Walker, who reviewed the evidence presented as part of the Northern Basin Review:

  • The only scientific evidence of substance had shown that the environment in the northern basin was already damaged by over-extraction of water, which would only get worse. The Basin needed more than 390GL per year, not less.
  • There was no “intelligible justification” to justify defrauding the environment of another 70GL.
  • Further, while the MDBA has stated that it has “took into consideration the latest knowledge on climate change ”in his review, he did not incorporated climate change projections in modeling.

Among a number of eminent scientists, Professor Richard Kingsford testified before the Royal Commission about the continued damage to wetlands and floodplains in the North Basin from over-extraction of water and climate change. Its evidence was widespread degradation – the wetlands and floodplains we so carelessly destroy are the “engine room for riparian ecosystems”.

And while the MDBA has declared a potential loss of up to 200 jobs unless the 70 billion-liter reduction occurs – and no one should be jaded about the job losses – Walker found that Economic evidence provided to support claims that there was a proportional relationship between a reduction in water for consumption and job losses could be debunked by an “undergraduate in economics.”

Overall, Walker found that the Murray Darling Basin Authority was “chronically unfit … to meet its clear legal requirements for transparency” with respect to its explanation for the North Basin Review.

The Water Act – that thing we can call the law – has been totally ignored in the Northern Basin Review. A rule of law violation for $ 40 million (still undelivered three years later) plus a few additions. Worth it? I doubt.

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