When the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) released its discussion paper about revised water allocations in the Basin late last year, copies were publicly burnt in communities throughout the area. This was because the plan recommended substantial reductions in allocations for irrigation - 4,000 gigalitres a year all up, a reduction of up to one third of allocations in some areas. The Commonwealth Government quickly withdrew the plan and changed the terms of reference to put more weight on economic concerns. The chair of the MDBA resigned in disgust and was replaced by former NSW Labor Minister Craig Knowles.
Now we read that the Wentworth Group, a group of environmental scientists attempting to shape water policy round the country, has withdrawn from discussions about the new plan. They say proposed reductions being discussed are less than 3,000 gigalitres and this would be an expensive and useless exercise. They want an independent review of the science behind the plan.
Mr Knowles responds:
Science is important, but so are other things. This is not just about a science exercise for a whole lot of academics and scientists. It's actually about real lives, real people, real economies. If it was just as easy to say, "Let's pour 4,000 gigalitres down the river and everything'll be right," they don't need me in the job. They probably need the chief scientist of Australia. But I think Australia has said, that communities in the Basin have said this is more than just a science exercise. This is about people, their lives, their hopes, their futures.
So if the new plan is not going to be based on science, what will it be based on? Guesswork?
Mr Knowles thinks scientists are just another interest group, with their views needing to be balanced against everyone else's. We'll lean a bit towards the scientists, a bit towards the farmers, a bit towards the city-dwellers, and come up with a compromise everyone can live with.
The problem is, science is not like that. It's the study of natural phenomena. Of course scientists are real people too. They have their own views and values, but they also have detailed knowledge and skills in the various subjects needed to inform environmental decisions. To use the word Mr Knowles seems to love, science is about what's real, not what we wish was real.
Unlike the farmers and small town business people along the river system, these scientists don't have an immediate financial interest in the outcome, They will be able to keep on researching riparian ecology whatever the decisions of the MDBA. It's just that if these are bad decisions, the results will be a lot more depressing.
So, instead of a plan based on good science, it looks like we are going to get the sort of compromise that is typical of Australian politics. We will half solve the problem. The ecology of the river will almost be recued. The farms will almost be viable. Mr Knowles will look like a fix-it man, but nothing will really be fixed.