There is no scientific, intelligible or rational justification put forward for the reduction of 70 GL. The obvious inference to be drawn is that political considerations largely drove the NBR, not science. This is not only unlawful, but is deplorable. – Bret Walker SC, MDBA Royal Commission Report, p.63
The reek of corruption and decay mingles with the stench of another mass fish kill at Menindee this week. The nation gags in shock and disbelief as not one, but two, of our favourite forms of national theatre, the Royal Commission Show, conclude with the obligatory self-flagellation in the form of tabling excoriating reports. Traditionally, this leads to a frenzy of self-exculpation in the uplifting and compelling “Don’t blame me” chorus.
Officials, everywhere, are left gasping for breath; floundering like a forty-year old Murray Cod left to perish on the bed of a Darling River whose waters have been sold off to profit wealthy rice and cotton farmers upriver.
In his report, SA’s royal commissioner, Brett Walker, SC, a distinguished constitutional lawyer, throws the book at NSW and Federal governments for their “gross negligence” and their failure to follow scientific advice.
In particular, he is scathing about how MDBA modelling failed to factor in the effects of climate change certainties into how much water was a “sustainable” amount to be taken from the river system for commercial reasons. The failure is systemic, historically traceable to at least 2009. It may prove catastrophic. Walker notes, however,
“The damage and depletion of the water resources, ecosystems and biodiversity of the Murray-Darling Basin since European colonisation, and the trauma and dislocation experienced by Aboriginal people, are part of the same story. The necessary work to protect and restore the river systems must go hand in hand with the necessary measures to include Traditional Owners centrally in decision-making about water planning and management.”
Walker castigates politicians for their “head in the sand” attitude to climate change and also buckets the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) for its unfathomable predilection for secrecy; its history of “grossly inadequate disclosure, explanation and consultation” in the handling of its responsibilities under the Water Act (2007) which regulates how water is allocated to irrigation or environmental flows in Australia’s largest river system.
In a world record water rort, The Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has contrived to lower the required environmental release; deny the river its allotted 70 billion litres of water. No wonder fish are dying. Yet NSW wants to take even more.
NSW regional water minister and deputy leader of NSW Nationals, Niall Blair cops a personal serve, Friday, from Walker for his “grossly irresponsible” and crude remarks in promising to stick to the state plan in response to the Menindee kill. Anything less would “blow up” the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
It’s an alarming sign of the inertia, ignorance and hostility to sound advice as much as the vested political interests that threaten the adoption of the Royal Commission’s recommendations.
Blair wants to press on with the controversial Menindee Lakes project, a water-saving scheme to reduce the size of the lakes and empty them more often, a proposal which federal authorities caution would not help the environment – or as Walker puts it “threatens the national plan to save the Basin from irreparable degradation”.
NSW Nationals worry they’ll lose the local seat of Barwon as a result of the fish kills. Enter The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party whose donors include The Shooting Industry Foundation, a well-funded lobby group for relaxed or “simpler” gun laws and more gun sales. The party’s website takes pot-shots at “extreme” animal activists.
All up, the Shooters just shriek conservation and climate change science. Far too green for a National Party voter.
On the federal stage, The Nationals’ Big Dave Littleproud, Minister for Agricultural Resources and Water rorts, walks tall on the side of climate science denial. Last August, he told a Q&A audience and ABC viewers always eager to hear ignorance paraded in the interests of “balance” that he doesn’t understand the link between climate change and drought. Making the link is a “big call” for Dave. He does not “give a rats if it’s man-made or not”.
In minutes, it’s clear that for Littleproud, burning coal is the only way to safely generate reliable electricity.
This week’s fish kill? Dave is quick to blame the drought, but Walker painstakingly details a man-made river drought. Busts a National Party billion dollar boondoggling triumph. At least four billion dollars of taxpayers’ money, has been given by the commonwealth, over the last few years, to farmers and agricultural groups for water-saving infrastructure projects that don’t work. Water buybacks are cheaper and more effective.
Brett Walker calculates that projects cost taxpayers two and a half times more than water buybacks to put the same amount of water back into the system. Over ten years, the cost of buybacks was $2026 per megalitre. $970 was the cost of purchasing a megalitre of water through efficiency upgrades funded under the Sustainable rural water use and infrastructure program (SRWUIP). As Bernard Keane notes it’s a lot of “free money for irrigators”.
Can the boondoggle, in fact, be busted? It’s not shaping well. Does the Federal Minister have the independence, authority and experience? DLP, as Littleproud is known to mates and staff, was Barnaby’s pick, a shrewd move that excluded the vastly more experienced Darren Chester in favour of the work experience boy; someone who’d mind his seat until Barney regained the leadership and the water portfolio for himself.
And Joyce is especially proud of his boondoggle. In his 2015 white paper, he brags …
The Government is funding the largest investment in upgrading and refurbishing irrigation infrastructure in Australia’s history, investing in the future of competitive irrigated agriculture, as well as community sustainability. To implement the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, the Commonwealth has committed almost $13 billion through a range of programmes in the Basin through to 2024.
Clearly, Dave’s backers give him a boost. Sort of. Fairfax’s Mark Kenny gushes in a puff-piece how the “nerdy and bookish” looking Littleproud looks much bigger in real life than he is than on TV and how his electorate Maranoa, the only National electorate to return a No vote in the same sex marriage survey, is three times the size of Victoria).
But the key is SA. Premier, Steven Marshall, who hollered for a Royal Commission while in opposition, says Walker has exceeded his brief. He claims the commissioner was supposed to look at a bit of water theft and leave it at that. Still, it’s something he and Scott Morrison will get around to looking at later in the year. If Morrison’s still around.
Unafraid of doubling up, he’ll also look into the legality of the plan, something, it could be argued, Walker has just done. But Steve’s a crack-up as he wraps up with his dead-pan stand-up routine: “But I can assure every single person in this state, we are taking this royal commission report extraordinarily seriously.”
“Extraordinary and serious” doesn’t begin to describe the icy look given Josh Frydenberg by Kenneth Hayne, QC, who responds with a wintry glare as Josh Frydenberg tries to trap him into a photo-opportunity, Friday, as the Commissioner hands over his report to a Minister whose government is a big part of the problem. And let’s not forget that for a year in 2005-6, Frydenberg worked for Deutsche Bank as Director for Global Banking.
Hayne’s interim report depicts a finance industry rotten at the core by a culture of rampant greed and regulators too ineffectual to do anything. It’s safe to assume the theme continues in the final report. What’s wrong?
As Hayne puts it “Too often, the answer seems to be greed — the pursuit of short-term profit at the expense of basic standards of honesty. How else is charging continuing advice fees to the dead to be explained?” the royal commissioner writes.
Frydenberg is all smiles and faux-jovial affability; a rictus of offensive charm imposed over a shit-eating grin while former High Court Justice Commissioner Kenneth Hayne AC QC, skewers him with an icy disdain.
Hayne, a blackletter, black belt, in forensic dissection of fool and fraud, quite properly deigns a request to shake hands with jolly Josh, currently our federal treasurer, who had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept a royal commission into banking. Twenty six times you denied me, Hayne’s face says. Spin collides with integrity as Frydenberg’s charm offensive blows up in his face. It may be the most damaging encounter of a damaging week.
“Nope” is all Hayne needs to say in a salutary display of personal authority, integrity and laconic brevity when a photographer suggests the pair shake hands. It’s a refreshing contrast to our palaverous political discourse.
Frydenberg may be frozen out Friday but an eerie silence stalks the land. Two dragon-slaying royal commissioners bust banksters and expose the Murray Darling Water allocation system as a billion dollar water-rorting scandal. But no-one stands up for their nation. Instead there’s a rush of weaving and ducking for cover.
Royal Commissioners Hayne and Walker file reports no-one in government could like – even a fit and functioning NSW state or federal government that could be held to account. There’s a slow bicycle race by states and Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to say the least they can. Then it’s only to disavow responsibility.
Faux-Mo, our PM for standards, applies the choke-hold. He won’t release Hayne’s report, until Monday, giving himself time to remind us how to trust our banks. Swiftly, shiftily, he fills the gap with his own spin on that old standby trope – the table – as if a royal commission alleging criminal negligence and fraud is somehow an ambit claim; a matter for negotiation. He also pretends he doesn’t know what’s foreshadowed in the interim report.
“It will be a question of what suggestions or measures they put on the table but I will be very mindful that I want to see the oil that lubricates our financial system – which is access to credit – continues to flow, otherwise the consequences would be quite significant,” Mr Morrison tells Nine’s increasingly pliant newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Brisbane. He’s protecting the banks before the report is even published.
ScoMo’s propaganda 101 technique misrepresents the issue as a choice between not being able to borrow at all and seeing banks held accountable for a series of criminal acts exposed by the commission which include charging fees to dead people and banks and super funds charging fees for no service. As Bill Shorten says on ABC Insiders, Sunday, the choice ScoMo offers is between an unethical banking system or no system at all.
Prosecutions may well be one outcome; civil or criminal referrals to state prosecutors could be made.
On the water front, or ruined, dried-up backwater as it is now, there’s another massive fish kill at Menindee but shit happens according to David Littleproud, the former rural bank manager, whose RM Williams gear helps show he really knows the many hardships faced by those who live in the bush.
“Save the Gravy” Dave fronts the cameras again; reminds greenies, Guardian-readers and townies to stop carping. Again, the choice he offers is between a corrupt, unethical system and no river water allocation scheme at all.
“The basin plan is lawful and was lawfully made”, he blusters, despite Brett Walker SC’s excoriating report which accuses the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) of negligence and being “incapable of acting lawfully”.
There’s little chance Littleproud has time to read the report. Gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions by Commonwealth officials are just some of the multi-billion dollar failures of the MDBA to save Australia’s largest river system, according to Walker. Walker has to name names, including, of course that of Barnaby Joyce.
Star of the aquatic show, former Minister for water-rorting, Barnaby “boondoggle” Joyce is invisible, either white-anting Michael McCormack or busy showing prospective vendors around his property at Gwabegar which he bought for 12 years ago for $572,000 but must now sell, for family reasons, for a modest $878,000.
Those interested should note “the dams are full and cattle and sheep prices are very good”, a detail which will greatly cheer other farmers in drought, especially those downstream on the Darling. Above all the two parcels of land are openly advertised as being covered by an as-yet unused coal-seam gas petroleum exploration licence, PEL 428, owned by resources group, Comet Ridge, a detail old Barney used to shy away from.
Nothing to see here, says a government which has nothing to say for itself either. ScoMo’s “major” speech, another modest “headland”, “landmark” production, Tuesday, gets even less attention. Voters can’t stop yawning.
By Sunday, Nine newspapers publish a drop announcing that the last kids will leave Nauru for the US. Heaven. Not only will it ensure they don’t see their families, they can join government workers in living off food stamps. How does this square with “Peter Dutton has revealed that 13 refugee children on Nauru are with parents deemed national security risks by the US” late last year, tweets Michelle Grattan. But no-one’s over-impressed.
No-one listens. Fewer take ScoMo seriously. John Hewson jokes the PM’s “preaching to the deserted”. His slogans about growing 1.2 million jobs don’t match the lived daily reality of voters whose wages have flatlined for years.
Experts point out that jobs are not created by governments overnight. It takes decades to create the conditions favourable to a buoyant labour market. Others note that the promise is hollow. Our average job growth is around 200,000 a year for the past ten years. And how many of these are full time? Another evangelical gets this handball.
Party paragon of integrity and icon of probity, the unofficial minister for truthiness, Stewart Robert, is brilliantly deployed to assure voters that all the new jobs will be part-time, a claim he has to retract. Quickly. A truer figure, he admits would be around half. Even Leigh Sales is on to how ScoMo talks out of the back of his neck, pointing out to him that half his jobs will be taken up by migrant workers. Yet Morrison has promised to cap immigration.
Diversion! Furiously, Morrison flogs Labor with the big stick he has left over unused from his power company standover stunt. Energy corporations are laughing all the way to the bank. Energy Australia posted a 200% profit last August, a rise in earnings for the Hong Kong-based utility company from $129 million to $375 million.
Of course the taxpayer effectively gives our battling power companies generous support. Investigative journalist, Michael West reports Victoria Power Networks, paid no tax at all on a four year income of $6,120,404,139.
It should pay tax. Just the health problems caused by coal-fired power stations cost the nation $2.6 billion a year.
As a user of fossil fuels, Victoria Power and Energy Australia are both also eligible for the fabulously generous fuel tax subsidy scheme, and a range of other subsidies, which, last year, totalled $11,692 million dollars – that’s around $12 billion each year that won’t be spent on schools, hospitals or age pensions.
Labor will put up your power bills. Taxes. Run by union thugs. Tie businesses up in union knots. You can’t trust ’em. He fondly reprises the golden oldies from Abbott’s glorious but pyrrhic victory of 2013 when all you had to do was oppose everything Labor proposed – and promise to scrap a carbon tax that wasn’t a carbon tax to lower electricity bills – which it could never do and lie about no new taxes. And make up absurd scares.
Whyalla was going to be wiped off the map. Lamb roasts would cost $100. Barnaby Joyce’s incredible carbon tax-boosted price estimate of abattoirs having to charge $575,000 per beast at least is worth a re-run, ScoMo.
A fatuous two per cent News Poll rise puts lead in ScoMo’s pencil. But that’s only two party preferred. His approval rating is slumping along with his spectacularly bad captain’s call to parachute Warren Mundine into Gilmore. ScoMo sends an email to the Gilmore Liberal Party, half of whom have resigned in disgust. It’s another masterstroke. Sheer genius. The old impersonal unsolicited self-justifying generic email template is bound to win everyone back.
Tuesday, The Australian reports its latest Newspoll is a “lifeline” for Morrison, with a “bounce” in the polls – a lift of two points on a two-party preferred basis (Labor on 53, the Coalition on 47). It’s coy about how many it contacted but typically it contacts up to 2000 people – a sample size with an error rate of two to three per cent.
Once this is factored in, the so-called bounce of two per cent immediately is meaningless. A distracting public stoush always works wonders. Team ScoMo brawl openly over rats in the ranks as lone wolves appear.
At war with itself over climate change, energy, refugees, the government is hopelessly divided. Homophobic reactionaries still smart from losing their gay marriage gambit, but have yet to demand action on the religious freedoms ruse to reintroduce discrimination. The election plan is to bag Labor and to kill Bill Shorten. And scare. Scrapping dividend imputation and reducing negative gearing will cause the economy to tank.
Christopher Pyne says that Labor will cause a recession which is the Liberal party version of Pauline Hanson’s eminently sensible plan to get everyone to use up all the electricity to bring the grid down.
Truly sensible would be for ScoMo to call an election as soon while he still has candidates to field. Delaying further is not going to give him any election policies, his party’s too divided for that. And the hard graft of dealing with the Royal Commissions – both its recommendations but especially the issues they address cannot simply be left.
David Tyler (AKA Urban Wronski) was born in England, raised in New Zealand and an Australian resident since 1979. Urban Wronski grew up conflicted about his own national identity and continues to be deeply mistrustful of all nationalism, chauvinism, flags, politicians and everything else which divides and obscures our common humanity. He has always been enchanted by nature and by the extraordinary brilliance of ordinary men and women and the genius, the power and the poetry that is their vernacular. Wronski is now a fulltime freelance writer who lives with his partner and editor Shay and their chooks, near the Grampians in rural Victoria and he counts himself the luckiest man alive. A former teacher of all ages and stages, from Tertiary to Primary, for nearly forty years, he enjoyed contesting the corporatisation of schooling to follow his own natural instinct for undifferentiated affection, approval and compassion for the young.
- Here’s an excellent companion piece to Urban Wronski’s article. Martin Hirst covers essentials neatly and briefly.
- Secondly, here’s a timely explanation from Bernard Keane on how the big four fund political parties – just when we need them to be at arm’s length from political protection.