Australia's food bowl is in trouble

The Beardmore Dam on the Balonne River at St George, Queensland. Picture: Shutterstock
The Beardmore Dam on the Balonne River at St George, Queensland. Picture: Shutterstock

In her Quarterly Essay Cry Me A River: The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin, acclaimed journalist MARGARET SIMONS takes a trip through the Murray-Darling Basin, from Queensland to South Australia, and shows its plight is economic as much as environmental, enmeshed in ideology and identity.

People who demonise cotton farmers should meet Scott Armstrong, who is on the board of Mallawa Irrigation, which runs the St George irrigation scheme. He describes himself as "a part-time farmer and a full-time attender of water meetings," but he has largely given up engaging in water politics outside his local area, which he clearly loves. When it comes to state and national water politics, there is no point.

"No matter what data you bring, the political animal just does its thing."

Armstrong is impossible not to like - his pride in the St George irrigation area and his farm is evident in his every gesture. While we spoke, he drove his young son to a swimming lesson in the flat, bright town of St George, its prosperity unmistakeable even in these hard times.

Then the two of them gave us a tour of the farm, the boy and his father clearly devoted to each other in that understated, wordless Aussie way. They were upset I had to see their farm when the land was dry. If only I had been there when it was in full production! But there were a few crops being grown here and in the farms roundabout - a bit of cotton, some pasture and some vegetables. I told them this was the healthiest farming country I had seen since I left Mildura, and Armstrong was surprised, and torn between pride and concern that I, "like most journalists," was really here to blame him and his community for the problems of the river.

He leant against a gantry over one of the irrigation channels and together we listened to the flow of water. They are still getting some - nothing like their usual allocation - thanks to the Beardmore Dam.

"A beautiful sound," he said. "The best sound in the world for a farmer."

"Once Australia was proud of people like me," he said. Now - he squinted at me - "the country and the city really don't understand each other, do they?"

It doesn't matter what the season throws at us. What the government throws at us. We'll make the best use of the resource, and deal with it, and we'll grow food and fibre for this nation and the world.

Farmer Scott Armstrong

For Armstrong, the history of water politics stretches far back - long before the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The problems, he says, set in in 1989, when the state National Party government was in its dying days, and cotton was the equivalent of a goldrush and St George the centre of the success story. The state government decided there was enough water in the Beardmore Dam for extra entitlements. Armstrong recalls:

"We told them. We did all the modelling and we showed them that it was a very shallow dam and it wasn't a great idea to allocate more water out of it. And we said that doing so would kill the reliability of the scheme. And it didn't matter what data we showed them. They did it anyway. And they allocated extra out of a scheme that was already fairly well over-allocated. That was a National Party thing. And you know what was funny? Many of the new licences went to the well connected."

Since those times, there have been divisions in St George between the families who were there at the start of cotton prosperity and the beneficiaries of the later National Party largesse.

Soon after, in the early 1990s, the state government decided that anyone with a river frontage could harvest from it during floods. This was when Cubbie Station, among others, began to take off, treated favourably by state governments and overcoming legal challenges to its expansion. Says Armstrong, "We were sitting back and saying, 'It's all great in a wet year. But is this going to be long-term sustainable?' But it didn't matter what we argued. The regulators were happy, and so it happened."

He holds no grudges against Cubbie. It has only done what the politicians have allowed it to do. It has acquired its licences legally and has developed them to the fullest extent allowed. He has done the same with his licences. Anybody would. But today, from Armstrong's point of view, St George is being blamed and forced to pay for the poor decisions of bureaucrats and politicians.

Margaret Simons' Quarterly Essay.

Margaret Simons' Quarterly Essay.

"It doesn't matter how much we give up. Next time there is a change of government or a change of policy, there'll be another push, and another push. It's frustrating to see the erosion of the rights we thought we had as farmers."

The Basin Plan is just the latest example. Armstrong has arrived at a firm view on how water politics works: "Every time you hand over responsibility to a bunch of bureaucrats, it just seems to all end up in a big mess."

But despite his complaints, he is proud of the fact that he and his neighbours have adapted. They will continue to adapt, he says. I asked him about climate change. The worst predictions for its impact on the Basin are apocalyptic. Armstrong is no climate change denier. But he stood a little straighter as he answered the question.

"I can say I am confident that the Australian farmer can adapt. It doesn't matter what the season throws at us. What the government throws at us. We'll make the best use of the resource, and deal with it, and we'll grow food and fibre for this nation and the world."

As we drove around cotton country, crisscrossing the border between New South Wales and Queensland, my travelling companion asked me who among those we had interviewed would be most unhappy with this essay. It was a good question. There had been a roar fit to shake the town in the front bar of the Dirranbandi pub when we told them I was a journalist writing about water. In Moree and Goondiwindi, some of the interviews had been hedged with suspicion and hostility.

The cotton growers knew they were being blamed for the dry river downstream. They admitted little or no responsibility. Crop hating on crop, state hating on state. A society linked by water, but not a community. I replied that I thought everyone would be unhappy. That is the nature of the issue, of the failure of governance, dating back more than a century, that the Murray-Darling Basin represents.

The cotton growers of the north have, as Armstrong said of Cubbie, done what they have been allowed to do by governments and policy-makers. So has everyone else, all along the river system. Some have got away with more than others for reasons of lobbying power, money, networks and geography. The result is a river system run to the edge of its ability to survive. If we are looking for the bad guys in this narrative, there are the water thieves, and possibly corrupt politicians and bureaucrats - the ICAC will tell us soon. But that is a small part of the story.

Blaming individuals, individual communities, or the growers of certain crops obscures the larger failure - of our politics when faced with a complex challenge. Underlying that is the failure of our ability, as Australians, to recognise common interests. But you can turn this around and call it a success, of a kind. That is what the bureaucrats who are implementing the Plan prefer to do. They point out that it is extraordinary that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan exists at all. It is also why it is so hard to implement, to carry through the reform, and why success would be such an extraordinary achievement.

  • Margaret Simon is a Walkley and Quill Award-winning journalist and the author of 13 books, including biographies of Malcolm Fraser and Penny Wong.The above is an edited extract of her Quarterly Essay, Cry Me A River: The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin, which is available for purchase on Monday, March 23.
This story Australia's food bowl is in trouble first appeared on The Canberra Times.