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Turnbull twist tests common good in Murray-Darling Plan


In recent reflection on the future path of Australia the common good has made a welcome return. At the same time the Turnbull Government has transferred responsibility for water resources, including the Murray-Darling Basin, from the Department of the Environment to the Department of Trade.

Darling River at Menindee, New South WalesThe two things seem to be unrelated. But the concept of the common good, which is often criticised as woolly and soft, has been embodied robustly in the Murray-Darling Basin plan and survives in the midst of continuing conflict.

Those who appeal to the common good implicitly reject the view that society is composed of competitive individuals and that its good is achieved by unregulated economic freedom. They emphasise that human beings are interdependent and are shaped by their relationships. The good of society is therefore achieved through cooperation, so that the good of each individual is realised through looking to the good of all, particularly the most vulnerable.

The common good depends on the commitment to it by individuals and groups in their economic and other relationships. It also demands that governments take an active role in establishing a regulatory framework ensuring that all live decently.

The development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan shows how the common good can be sought in a complex and inherently conflictual context.

Many competing individuals and groups have an interest in drawing water from the basin. Queensland, New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian users draw drinking water for their towns from it, depend on it for agriculture and industry and, use it for drainage. All Australians rely on it for food. And all these states and different users naturally focus on their own interests and defend them strongly.

The capacity of the river system to meet these demands depends on the health of the basin and its ecosystems, including fish, vegetation, micro-organisms, groundwater and flood plains. Its health in turn relies on a reliable flow of water through the streams and rivers from source to the mouth of the Murray. If water users collectively do not provide this flow their individual interests will be harmed, as well as those of all the other beings that compose the environment.

It takes time to move from thinking competitively to acting cooperatively. In the case of the Murray-Darling Basin it has also taken droughts, including the Federation drought, the drought of1967 and the Millennium drought, to bring home the threat to the Basin and to secure agreements about its management. The challenge is to ensure the flow while preserving the communities and economy that depend on drawing water.

The Murray-Darling plan was agreed by state and federal governments in 1912. It established the water flow that needed to be returned to the system.

To ensure the flow, the government established a market in water rights that allowed it to buy them back from users. It also provided incentives to ensure more efficient use of water in irrigation and for other purposes.

The negotiations leading to the plan were messy and fractious. The 2004 National Water Act required regular audits of the health of the system. They were essential to gain a more complete knowledge of the river system and its interconnections, and to evaluate the effectiveness and unanticipated consequences of actions.

After the drought broke, the NSW government withdrew support for the audit, leading to its lapse. (Mr Joyce has now commendably promised its restoration.) The plan has been revised to give a priority to social and economic considerations equal to the needs of the environment, the level of water returned to the river has been recalculated and reduced, buy-backs have been capped, and users have continued to push their competitive agendas. The political struggle to control the plan is just the latest example.

But tattered though it may be, the framework of the plan has held.

This example illustrates what in practice is needed to pursue the common good, most directly when dealing with climate change. We must assume that people will defend their own interests, that those interests will conflict, that the process itself will involve conflict, and that backsliding will be endemic.

We must also assume that people will cooperate when necessary to protect the common source on which their interests depend. They may first doubt, but will eventually accept authoritative evidence of a crisis. But of its nature that evidence always needs to be augmented. And ultimately people will accept action that clips their interests if they believe it is fair and necessary.

The Murray-Darling Basin plan also demonstrates the importance of coordinated government action for the common good, not simply through regulation but through participation. It assumes that they will seek authoritative scientific advice and adjust their actions to new information.

Finally — although this has not often been recognised by its participants — it assumes that we are not masters of the environment, but part of it. It follows that environmental protection does not compete with political and social goals but is a condition for achieving them. As will be the case in addressing climate change, care for the environment must take precedence.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Murray-Darling Basin, Turnbull Government, climate change, environment, common good



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Existing comments

One of the great flaws of the human being, Fr Andrew, seems to me to be the failure to appreciate beauty underlined by an urge to destroy it. As occupiers of planet Earth we ignore beauty in each other, in the magnificent creation we live in and in the wonderment of life. We destroy all these things in our selfishness, our self-mutilation, our ruination of the environment for personal wealth and by using what used to be an ethical law devoted to the common good to permit threats to the common good. Damned If I know why God went to the trouble of creating human beings or whatever moved him to adopt a human profile Now I'm probably in eternal peril, sentenced for that last sentence !!!

john frawley | 12 November 2015  

There was no Murray-Darling plan in 1912. The first Murray Rivers Agreement was in 1915. Of course the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was passed in 2012. In 2004 there was no National Water Act but there was a National Water Initiative. The NSW Government didn't withdraw support for the Sustainable Rivers Audit, they withdrew some of the funding they were providing to the MDBA due to the view that there was a lack of transparency and accountability. The decision to cut the audit was as a result of the reduced funds and was taken by the MDBA to the Ministerial Council. Very happy that the audit may return - long-term comparative monitoring is vital to ensure the Basin Plan is working.

OntheRiver | 12 November 2015  

Very good article which I hope hits home to those directly involved in the "water conflicts". A problem Australia has, i believe, is that it is not really based on social solidarity but rather on sectional self interest; indeed "mate-ship" is about defining a rather closed circle of those with a common background and common agenda. In some situations such as surviving a Pow camp, that can work but not in this instance. It is interesting to compare England and Australia in this regard, even choosing a rather low-brow issue: the water from the Thames goes through 7 sets of kidneys and no one really minds and just joke about it, but when Towoomba was asked to recycle water, i think even for grey-use,there were shreaks of protest and all the "trendies" effectively got behind it to stop it.

Eugene | 12 November 2015  

It is encouraging to witness the emergence of a plan that promises to harmonise the competing needs and wants of so many and so produce the best realistic outcome for each and all. Success in this complex arena inspires hope for progress in the global sphere, where economies, nations, and even religions sometimes push their claims towards extremes that lead to confrontations, conflicts, and the threat of total destruction. Awareness and acceptance of limitations is a vital step towards curbing destructive self-interest and for promoting the common good, where each and all receive the maximum realistic benefit.

Robert Liddy | 12 November 2015  

If "common good" is woolly (maybe so), what about "common heritage" (ala international law) and "common humanity" (ala Dickens)? :-)

Louis Joseph | 12 November 2015  

In some countries, like France, rivers like the Loire are so much part of their history that no-one would dare to do the sort of things we have done to the Murray-Darling system. One of the great problems we have is most of us don't have that sort of connection with the land and its history. We don't see ourselves as custodians of the place. I think it is high time we did.

Edward Fido | 12 November 2015  

An inspiring expose' of the need for all interested parties to work together for the common good. Thank you for your heartening reflection!

Lucy Kert | 12 November 2015  

Thank you Andrew. Great to see another theologian entering into yet another contentious environmental issue. I get a bit worried about that “common good” concept with its strong, almost exclusive anthropomorphic emphasis. Before science so dramatically defined the intricate links between human and pre-human life, the term had different authentication. That authoritative “common” concept is now clouded by the reality of our biological connections to the world we seek to manage. It assumes a state of empathetic relationship between humans and other forms of life, an assumption far from present reality. The market place remains a more central driver of that “common good” reality. In the contention for Murray water and the basin’s soil what magnitude of natural ecosystems, fish, birds, kangaroos can be destroyed while we mindlessly poor drinking water down toilets? How is the voice of Australia's heritage plants and animals to be heard in the concept of the “common good”?

Jim Bowler | 13 November 2015  

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