Budget goes to water on Basin
Currently the globe is contending with this; France has elected a socialist government that wants to change its budget austerity measures; the Greeks, for all intents and purposes, don’t actually have a current government; the Germans have reluctantly underwritten a European bailout package and Australia has made a $7 billion commitment to the IMF to bail out Europe, and it’s not looking too good at the moment.
In light of the European dilemma, Mr Swan has predicted a heroic 11% increase in receipts and a budget that is apparently going to go from $44 billion out the back door to just about making it to the front door mat with a $1.5 billion surplus. If you believe Mr Swan, I have a bridge to sell you on Coronation Drive.
One of the biggest cuts Labor has made is to our nation’s insurance policy, our defence budget. Their argument is that the house has not burnt down lately, and therefore we don’t need any insurance. But how the budget deals with water, is for me, the classic example of Labor mismanagement, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.
Labor has been clumsy, flawed and, now, disingenuous. It is hard to buy water infrastructure improvements if you don’t have the budget and buried in the fine print, was yet another round of delays to water infrastructure spending. $940 million of spending on irrigation efficiency to provide environmental benefits to the Murray-Darling Basin has been deferred to help with this fictional surplus. In some dark corner of Treasury, someone may believe that they have achieved enlightenment by this esoteric stroke of fiscal brilliance but I can assure you that that person will never have to live in the town that it affects.
Tony Burke’s capacity to indiscriminately buy water from farmers, ripping economic productivity out of our regions and continuing to put upward pressure on food prices, has not suffered the same parsimonious curse. Food prices shall come under pressure from a reduction in water and the ludicrous carbon tax. Tony Burke may be buying less water from Mr Swan this year, but Mr Burke will have Mr Swan well and truly afloat from 2014/15 onwards as they buy over $1.5 billion of water entitlements in 5 years.
They have made a new announcement about ‘strategic purchase’ of water. This will satisfy Tony Windsor because it uses his favourite tag line which nobody understands, but it won’t satisfy the people it is targeted at. The Government ‘consulted’ with irrigation service providers who told them that the program was poorly designed, but they’ve gone ahead with it anyway.
Then there is the ominous cryptic encoding of compulsory acquisition, something that they’ve denied they would ever do, like the carbon tax. They say their buyback program is ‘subject to willing sellers’ and then list a contingent liability for what they call ‘risk assignment’. Let me decode that; they are going to buy so many water entitlements that they’ll run out of willing sellers. When that happens, they will simply take water off anybody that’s left.
So what are we going to do with all that water? Well there’s another question that the Budget raises, but never answers. They have set up the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office to water 2,442 paddocks of frogs, swamps and moss. How they get it there and how much these paddocks require, nobody knows.
Whilst this office is receiving hundreds of billions of litres of water, at a time when they’re still learning how to manage it, Mr Swan is cutting their budget by over 10%.
On top of this, in 2015/16 $61.2 million will be taken away from the ‘Driving Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin’ program. If you can afford to take that much out, why on earth were they doing it in the first place?
Water reform is not a simple task. Good government is about finding a sensible and rational approach. Investment after homework to build the infrastructure that deals with the environmental needs, without killing the country is the desired outcome. Burke will tell you from his seat in Sydney, that he has the best interests of the Basin at heart. But just like the budget that promised pious fiscal certitude and delivered an unbelievable yarn that wouldn’t pass muster at the St George Hotel on a Friday night; the Murray-Darling Basin is starting to look like a Catherine wheel in a petrol station.
Senator Barnaby Joyce is the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate.