‘Still water gone green’: The Murray-Darling Basin and the political economy of water

… one knows a river by a few streaks amid a long-gathered deposit of uncomfortable mud.
George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life


During my sanctioned hours of exercise, riding down country roads, I pass a set of small dams. They are constructed simply of earth walls, congregated in a semicircle to make an uphill facing embankment. Below me, three or four stretch downwards through the trees in the crook of the fields, the sharp, clear afternoon light repelled by their dark depths. Above me two more whose waters I cannot see but whose brown banks loom innocently. The picturesque aspect and rustic forms serve to naturalise what is effectively the privatisation of water.

Dams intercept water as they flow towards rivers and to the sea. Large public dams are increasingly being called for to provide hydroelectricity to replace burning fossil fuel. One report, eerily disappeared from the DEWLP website, extolled the possibilities of ‘pumped hydro energy storage.’ The dams that capture the waters of the Murray-Darling Basin are by comparison relatively modest. Yet their effects have been devastating for the environment, for the rural communities throughout the Basin, and for the future of public resource management in Australia.

Margaret Simons’ Quarterly Essay, Cry Me A River: The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin (2020) traces a brief history of this devastation. Simons describes driving through the irrigated environment during the drought, and encountering ‘an earth bank’:

It was holding back a small pool of water. It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing this crude earth bank. It is such a pedestrian thing – a makeshift dam – yet also profoundly shocking. It says this is no longer a river.

Along with efforts at environmental management – increasingly futile in the face of both climate change and the intensification of water hoarding – these dams are the barricades that reveal the contested political economy of water. If cattlegrids and fences mark the land as enclosed, the dams mark the water as enclosed, part of what Brett Christophers has imagined elsewhere as a new regime of government-enabled privateenclosure’.

If environmental dams are ‘crude’, ‘pedestrian’ things, the private dams that have been funded by the Federal Government’s water efficiency schemes enclose ‘vast swathes of country’. The geographic distribution of funds is noteworthy, skewing to the north of the Basin, as is the fact that politicians providing them have largely remained silent on their effects, as Maryanne Slattery’s report for The Australia Institute attests. There are intersecting stories here that can only be discerned by the ‘few streaks’ in the dry mud.

What alerted many to the dire state of the Basin were the ongoing fish kills, which the NSW Fisheries department tried to attribute to ‘the drought and only the drought.’ Even hard-right neo-conservatives like Patrick Byrne knew better, blaming ‘infrastructure neglect, deregulation, bank finance, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, radical free trade, to name the main culprits.’ The political alignments of rural and agricultural Australia are far from clear-cut, and often linked to nationalist myths. Chris Mayes’ exemplary research in Unsettling Food Politics (2018) tracks how alternative agricultural movements have uneasily co-existed with Indigenous sovereignty, although the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and other food sovereignty movements emerge from and explicitly support Indigenous, anti-colonial struggles.

Water legislation in the Basin divides along State lines, in accordance with the constitution’s declaration on water regulation. Simons calls the inhabitants

a society without being a community. A society in the sense that they live in an ordered, rule-bound way, and the relationships between them governed. Not a community, because they struggle to recognise common interests.

This may not be a product of farmers’ lack of solidarity, but of some farmers actively sabotaging the conditions of that community, and the politicians that enable them. Simons believes that the Basin society is defined by the rules that govern it, but these rules apply differently depending on access to power and money.

This stratification was exposed in the water buyback scheme that followed the ‘apocalyptic’ fish kills. $79 million dollars was spent on ‘strategic’ water for the environment. The price was far above the going rate. Authorised by Barnaby Joyce, the money went to Eastern Australian Agriculture through a Cayman Island’s based company called Eastern Australian Irrigation. Angus Taylor, another Coalition minister, had founded EAI and been director of EAA, and the relation between the companies is described as ‘a tax avoidance arrangement.’ Michael West’s detailed financial reporting asks the question of whether Taylor (& Co., including a British hedge fund) received ‘financial benefit’, but studiously avoids accusing anyone of ‘corruption’. He writes that it is not ‘illegal for a government minister, in this event Barnaby Joyce, to pay a record price for something which experts deem to be worthless.’

This worthlessness is due in part to the fact that the bought water has yet to flow. Maryanne Slattery joined the call for more information and an independent evaluation of this legally convoluted (and yet politically starkly clear) affair. In a sense, Slattery and Rod Campbell argue, the water remains available for irrigators, since

the Commonwealth’s water entitlements only exist at the property [from which it was purchased], which means that the Commonwealth has no legal right over the water outside the property. There is nothing in place to prevent that water from simply being extracted by other irrigators.

It is an ‘overflow’ license, with money spent to store it, but no actual rights to do so. If someone had tried to design a rort they could hardly have done a better job. This debacle represents the systematic problems with government and companies that dominate the ecosystem of the Murray-Darling Basin’s political economy. Simons’ story of a ‘tragedy’ implies a certain resigned fatedness that is far from the case in this fundamentally political – and so human – tale of environmental degradation, colonial settlement and agriculture, and greed stoked by political manipulation and self-dealing.


The environmental story: the limits and variations of nature

On my rides through the country, a pleasant smoky odour wafts across the road as the burnoff season begins. But it’s hard to forget the season of ferocious and destructive bushfires from which we are emerging. In 1918, Rosa Luxemburg quoted an official report into an 1891 famine, to which a ‘simple parson’ submitted this cry of despair: ‘How many feathered ones have perished in the forest fires, how many fish in the shallow waters!’ We seem wedged between disasters; this is our new climate.

Any chronicle of the Murray-Darling Basin that failed to take account of nature would surely fail. Yet the Basin’s ‘nature’ is ‘plumbed’, as Simons writes, ‘defined by big dams and storages’ in the south and ‘boom and bust’ cycles in the north. Peter Davies and Susan Lawrence call it ‘engineered’, marking the massive alterations to the landscape in the 200 years of colonisation, overlaying millennia of sustainable cultivation by Indigenous people across the continent.

During the Millennium Drought, Water Minister Penny Wong initiated a program of environmental water buyback assisting indebted farmers, but Simons argues that effects on rural communities were not considered. Exodus and unemployment followed, although some researchers have attributed the adverse conditions in rural Basin towns to water markets. They suggest that these markets have increased instability and the flexibilisation of both agricultural labour and crop choice. In an attempt to soften the effects of intensified irrigation under the market regime and climate change-induced droughts, the buybacks have continued in various forms in almost ‘constant spending’ programs on so-called ‘efficiency’. These programs are designed with large, often corporate farms in mind, rather than the small-scale or family-owned farms much loved of publicity campaigns.

The stated aim of the buybacks, however, is to ‘restore some portion of ‘natural’ flows’ to the river system. However, the ‘stories of the river’ concerning exactly what that means are highly contested. . Interest groups and politicians pick research that suits their narrative. Recently, Peter Gell stirred up mud by contradicting his own research into whether the mouth of the Murray was estuarine or not. Opposed by his co-authors, he re-interpreted the data they had collected in a way that suits irrigators.

More reliable are the claims over the land and river by the Barkandji people, who in 2015 won native title recognition – although it failed to acknowledge their right to the water. What the ‘people of the river’ know is that their river is dying. Having stolen the land, a confederation of Indigenous Nations argued to a Royal Commission in South Australia that ‘upstream irrigators were stealing billions of litres of water purchased by taxpayers to preserve Australia’s inland rivers.’ They confronted ‘aqua nullius’ with claims for water rights ‘to sustain our cultural traditions and build sustainable livelihoods for our communities.’

This precarious state is a product of the fact that water is ‘over-allocated.’ But water license holders, who Jamie Pittock calls ‘adherents of the pioneering myth’, refuse to acknowledge this fact. In 2012, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan tried to set ‘sustainable diversion limits’ based on ‘best available science’ to maintain the health of the river system. But these limits are contested as well, and their remit to consider ‘social and economic factors’ that are technically outside Federal jurisdiction is a source of conflict. It is a challenge to communicate the fact that sustainability means water allocation reductions, compounded by what Simons contemptibly calls ‘the political animal’ that is apt to ignore data.

Simons proposes that, since the 1980s, ‘the river has moved past natural variability and towards death’ coincident with the expansion of the cotton industry. It is a contest between large-scale industrial users and everyone else, leading to devastating water shortages. The discrepancies in management areas mean that water ‘clawed back through efficiency schemes’ can ‘disappear when it cross[es] the border.’ Pliant consultants rationalise these schemes as allowing private irrigators to ‘make efficient use of it and expand their operations’ with taxpayer money. Yet efficiency schemes by and large do not introduce more water into the environment and certain types of water trades conceal increases in water consumption.

A conventional economic division between ‘productivity’ and reproduction (of labour, or in this case the environment) enables this obfuscation. The data measures ‘productive’ use of water; what is ‘counted’ depends on where you look in the system and what kinds of values are taken into account. The ‘efficiency’ argument much loved by economists also ignores the creation of parasitic financial markets in water, which benefit directly from decreased water allocation as the number of water trades increases (I draw this conclusion from Fargher and Olsvak’s work). Who benefits? Financial investors have planted themselves downstream of the price rises that result from water scarcity. Efficiency, then, depends on where you look, and what you look for.

There are other absurdities in the water market system in the Basin. Water users ‘carry forward what they do not use’, implying that the water remains (or grows, like an investment) in the river, waiting to be drawn. The assumption on which this is based is demonstrably false. One of the architects of the water market system, Michael Young, initially suggested, quite reasonably, that

rather than locking in a fixed amount of water to be consumed in the future – a sustainable diversion limit – … a base flow – not to be touched, and used to run the water – be decided. Water consumption for the environment should then be set as shares of the remainder – not as a fixed amount.

The amount of dashes Simons uses to explain this eminently sensible proposal indicates something of Malcolm Turnbull’s reasons for rejecting it when he pushed through new legislation as Water Minister in 2004: pretend it was too complex; it doesn’t help the boys club network of irrigators, so fall in line.

Stories of the river matter. The Commonwealth Water Holder, Jody Swirepik, tells Simons that ‘because the living memory is after the Hume [Dam] was built … people don’t necessarily have an appreciation of what it might have been like before.’ But environmentalists and Indigenous people are not the only ones telling stories. If anything, their stories are the insurgent archive, the buried heresy against the economic rationalist consensus that has literally tried to buy them off. Our notions of (environmental and agricultural) science and the cost-benefit, choice-based models so beloved of bureaucrats and consultants both have histories, both recently told in relation to the Cold War. Climate denialist, coal-mining aristocrat, viscount and capitalist apologist Matt Ridley takes in a great deal of contravening archaeology and anthropology towards the conclusion that the success of homo sapiens can be attributed solely to the fact of exchange and trade. What we all need, he recommends, is to read more Hayek and innovate more. Our stories can diverge wildly based on similar evidence – is exchange an example of cooperation or competition? – but the discrepancy can prove disastrous.


Who governs? divided powers in the basin

There is an institutional story underlying the environmental destruction, one fraught with legal and political complications. Although Section 100 of the constitution effectively prevents the Commonwealth from legislating on water, since the 1980s it has used international environmental treaties such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands to protect certain habitats. The Water Act of 2007 established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, whose remit was largely environmental, ‘with social and economic aims tacked on.’ It aimed to transfer some authority over water to the Federal Government, but negotiations with the States resulted in a powerful State ministerial council.

The Authority’s task was to ‘use the ‘best available science’ to devise a Basin plan, incorporating every aquifer and irrigation channel’. But it has been both shackled and resented seemingly at every turn, tending towards top-down technocracy. Farmers feel ignored and treated as ignorant, and Simons seems to have little sympathy for the Authority’s efforts, referring to the ‘desiccated language of the bureaucracy, and of water engineers’, or what George Eliot might call ‘a melancholy absence of passion … and a passionate resistance to the confession that [Mr Casaubon] had achieved nothing.’

No one really wants to defend the bureaucracy. It is viewed as a sort of necessary evil by the advocates for free markets (however much they rely on these bureaucracies and government power to enforce and benefit from their ill-gotten property rights). The NSW State Government has proven very amenable to irrigators’ interests, and has blocked reforms, delayed essential changes and, like a spoiled toddler, threatened to withdraw from the plan. This makes the Authority’s position extremely difficult, especially when issues of corruption, water-metre tampering and compliance arise, since States are seen to collaborate in these practices. It is powerless to prevent floodplain harvesting, leading to reduced flows into the lower parts of the Basin and upstream farms underwater weeks after the flood.

One cannot envy the Authority’s labyrinthine task of balancing State and Federal Government powers, irrigators, industry and other water users with the environment that sustains them all. It seriously risks being disbanded if it doesn’t play nice with the right people. Added to this are the fact that there are powers at work that don’t quite figure in the legal map. David Connell calls them ‘non-state actors’, as though to imply that they operate on the scale of states but without their modicum of accountability. Connell argues that the ‘congruence of interests [between government managers and private water users] has broken down’ with ‘intensified competition between water users’ who were increasing their diversions from the system as a whole. Governments are now meant to manage and create markets rather than plan, hence the almost universal opprobrium for the Authority’s plan.

Michael Young calls the water trading system, which he helped design, ‘close to the world’s best practice’, and ‘one of the most advanced in the world.’ In his own writing he refers to it as the ‘world’s most sophisticated’ and ‘vibrant water market.’ Amidst all this congratulation, some explanation for how things went so wrong is still needed. Young tells Simons that the system’s ‘design is flawed and the execution lacking.’ He triumphantly ‘recounts the history of agriculture, taking evident pleasure in contemporary comparisons.’ But what his self-serving story leaves out is that, as Brian Fagan points out in Elixir: A Human History of Water (2011) – recalling Karl Wittfogel’s seminal theory of ‘hydraulic civilisations’ – the early ancient agricultural surpluses in Mesopotamia required not only deep social hierarchies and the use of corvée labour, but also ‘some form of central authority that supervised irrigation and farming on a considerably scale.’ Young’s story, like Mike Davis’, extols the market as the crucible of successful irrigation, and disguises the need for a strong central state to manage its self-destructive propensity to drain the Basin for the most profitable short-term gain.


The water market, or liquid neoliberalism

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Simons writes, water licenses that were attached to a particular piece of land’ were

progressively unbundled, and trade encouraged. You could own land and sell the water license that had belonged to it, or you could own water without owning land. The idea was that if water could be traded, the market would ensure it found its highest-value use.

Michael Young got his way, and although he demurs that water accounting and over-allocation should have been solved before water trading began, he nevertheless argues that unbundling ‘has made it easier to resolve issues step by step. It also makes it much easier for individuals to adjust and innovate.’ Well, bully for you.

Not everyone has fallen into the market order. Simons recognises that the water trading regime allows (large) ‘companies with deep pockets [who] can fight it out on the water market to make sure their [crops] stay alive.’ If ‘in drought, the prices rise’, then simply hope that you’re an upstream irrigator, who can take earlier, and lower water flows. Or have lots of money. Even a generous report from the NSW Government’s Natural Resources Commission in September 2019 acknowledged that the ‘provisions benefit the economics interests of a few upstream users over the ecological and social needs of the many.’

Much writing seems to skirt the issue of whether or not the introduction of water trading itself should be numbered among the causes of the dire state of the Basin, but it had obvious and immediate effects, including reviving ‘sleeper’ licenses so that ‘they could be sold, and environmental flows were routinely diverted and mismanaged.’ It also failed to recognise how water was used in floodplain harvesting, so that attempts to regulate that practice now might ‘result in people being compensated for ceasing to do something they shouldn’t have done in the first place.’ It sounds all too familiar; following the pattern of the Federal Government’s use of carryover credits to claim it is meeting emissions targets.

Information and knowledge

One of the chronic issues that beset all markets is the lack of transparency and active manipulation of the information available. Information is essential to accurately monitor the amount of water in the system so that buyers and sellers can price it as a commodity. But with the increase in water ‘being stored in private dams, it becomes hard to know’, leading to price distortions and manipulations such as the $79 million buyback from EAA. Moreover, there is no central registry of water owners. Simons laments that it is ‘not possible for the ordinary citizen to find out who owns the water, either in the system as a whole or in a particular catchment.’

Neoliberals claim, as Philip Mirowski describes in a paper aptly titled ‘This is Water (or is it Neoliberalism?)’, that markets are necessary because there is no way someone can have enough information and knowledge to manage or plan for the complexity of a whole society. What they leave out is the way markets (mis)manage information so that it becomes impossible for planning to be effective; in the recently revived words of Thorstein Veblen, they sabotage. Information is a commodity whose value rises with its scarcity and that is manipulated and privatised, just like water. Even apparently public information can only be monetized if you have costly institutional access, know where to look, or can buy it (like paying US$24,000 for a subscription to Bloomberg).

Alternatively, you can make sure you’re part of a powerful irrigators group that receives ‘special access’ from top Authority bureaucrats, as the ABC’s Four Corners program notoriously revealed in 2017. The investigation that a followed recommended ‘key transparency measures’ including a public register for licenses and better monitoring of water metres, which are systematically tampered with. Simons attributes some of the delay for actually instituting these measures to the NSW Irrigators’ Council, whose response insists instead on government accountability. (It is telling that they largely represent ‘upstream’ interests.)

Public spending for private gain

The NSW Irrigators’ Council’s report places the blame largely on government, deflecting the question of private accountability and responsibility. This is in line with what Loch, Wheeler and Settre found in 2018 when examining the private transaction costs of water trading: ‘institutional investment in water markets have improved irrigator private gains from trade.’ It demonstrates what Maryanne Slattery argued was happening with Federal funding for private dams. Similarly, Marshall and Alexandra use the concept of ‘institutional path dependence’ to illustrate how irrigators have been able to capture not only power, but also shape regulation that initially ‘took the form of the provision of subsidized or free water infrastructure and the allocation of free water licenses to irrigators,’ which eventually led to their holding (without paying anything) ‘water entitlements that in the southern MDBA are, collectively, worth some [AU]$16 billion.’ What Simons calls the ‘old school tie’ network is remarkably efficient at funnelling money from government to corporations, but when scrutiny trends in the opposite direction they close ranks and make a very noisy and obstructive fuss.


The defence of water markets rests substantially on their putative capacity to distribute water efficiently. In response to the obvious failures (or perhaps to the erroneous definitions of efficiency) that resulted in the fish kills and water shortages, some called for a single water market, like an ASX for water. Simons puts the free market case bluntly: ‘Let the market sort it out.’ But this assumes, according to the chief executive of the MDBA, Phillip Glyde, that ‘the market is perfect and everyone has equal access to information.’ If the bottleneck on information has caused what some academics call a ‘post-truth’ situation, Glyde simply sees ‘an inevitable part of a natural resource management plan. Such a plan,’ he says, ‘is always full of uncertainties. One must plan, review and adjust.’

Despite their role in directly sabotaging these carefully laid plans, irrigators continue to demand greater leniency and disproportionate oversight. Tim Napier, of the NSW Irrigators’ Council and Borders River Food and Fibre (the latter a euphemism for cotton), was ‘the most reluctant to agree that there were systemic problems with compliance in the region,’ according to Simons. Napier supports the program called Healthy Headwaters, which was allegedly used to defraud the Federal Government of (at the very least) $25 million. Unlike straight environmental buybacks, the program gives money to irrigators for efficiency schemes, like private dams (as Slattery insisted). But Napier complains that ‘the struggle has been to get the Federal Government to broaden the water products that are accepted under the Healthy Headwaters program.’ In other words, he wants to widen what counts as efficiency so that irrigators can bill more private infrastructure projects to the government for what even he admits are ‘quite small’ returns to the environmental water cache.

In the wake of an ACCC study into the water market, outgoing Water Minister David Littleproud told the ABC that ‘Water is a different commodity to gold or coal’ and that the ‘market place for water’, in his ‘philosophical view’, should not be the same as that for other commodities. Having created the market with the credo of efficiency, those who happily preside over financialisation in other sectors do not believe that water should be subject to speculators. Call it too little, too late, or simply hypocritical exceptionalism; capitalism has its consequences, intended or not. Certainly his mate Angus Taylor knew and enjoyed the consequences.

Winners and the rest, or, we’re all investors now

With concurrent investigations seemingly discovering the novelty of the water market’s financialisation decades after its introduction, the terms of reference in discussions of water have developed into an ossified language of market efficiency, share-holding and investor confidence. Michael Young sets the tone, stating that ‘[o]nce the system is set up the only way to secure an entitlement to a share of water in the system is to purchase a share from an existing water holder.’ I hear in this admission not only the high barrier to entry for new or small farmers (who will need capital above and beyond land simply to purchase water), but also the shift in the meaning of ‘share’ from something social and material to a financial asset.

The discourse of the Basin treats all-comers as investors. Although Napier presents this situation as a ‘win-win for the Government and irrigators’, it obviously skews in favour of wealthy farmers and big businesses, and has arguably contributed to a consolidation of agricultural land as small farms are priced out. In yet more reports of money simply siphoned to irrigators, Four Corners reported not only that funding of more than $4 billion was spent without effective monitoring, and that many farmers admitted they had been over-paid for works they would have funded themselves anyway; the report also revealed that multinationals like Webster Limited received $41 million which helped it expand and improve its land of hundreds of square kilometres. Earlier this year, a foreign investment fund bought Webster and became the largest single owner of water in the Murray-Darling Basin. The amount of water (200,000ML) and money involved are staggering. (Meanwhile, total Aboriginal water ownership is estimated at 8,237ML, or 0.00007% of the total Basin Sustainable Diversion Limit.) Given these affordances, it is hard to believe that these are simply ‘unintended’ consequences despite their ruinous effect on people’s lives, as ABC reporter Kath Sullivan has detailed.

The disciplining of all water users into investors is conducted in part by the ruthlessness with which they are treated, with regions, industrial sectors and different interest groups pitted against one another. The cotton growers of the north ‘knew they were being blamed for the dry river downstream’, Simons writes. ‘They admitted little or no responsibility. Crop hating on crop, State hating on State,’ they stoked a sectarianism that justifies any and all measures to preserve their over-grown power.

The worst offenders in the reported exploitation of the water market claim that ‘everyone else’ does it too. This conceals the fact that these groups have been instrumental in creating the conditions for such exploitation, which no one – not Michael Young, nor David Littleproud – thought were the proper functions of the market. The attitude of corporations and wealthy irrigators is that anyone in their position would do the same. They subject everyone to the same set of manipulative, venal self-interested motives they use in their own dealings. They claim that the environmental perspective is simply urban NIMBYism, calling them ‘Zealots for the Environment’ (why not?) who have ‘struck at their social license to operate.’ This euphemistic phrase always bothers me: why would you need a ‘social license’ if what you were doing was considered socially good or necessary? Their social license is parasitic on the respect many Australians have for farmers who are so often doing it tough while trying to do the right thing, and implies that their ‘legal license’ is not enough – even in their own minds – to justify their systematic malpractice.

Despite the campaign to homogenize all farmers, as I have argued, some farms are simply big businesses, with ‘high margins’, overseas corporate investors, tax avoidance schemes, and money to spend buying water when others have none. There’s a portrait of a landowner and farmer in Katherine Anne Porter’s story ‘Holiday’, the ‘richest man in his community; almost every neighbouring farmer rented land from him, and some of them worked it on the share system.’ Herr Müller is the patriarch of ‘a family of real old-fashioned German peasants’ who farm in Texas, who most evenings

sat by himself and read Das Kapital… [He] accepted its dogma as a religion – that is to say, its legendary inapplicable precepts were just, right, proper, one must believe in them, of course, but life, everyday living, was another and unrelated thing… He explained his own arrangements to me thus: ‘These men, they cannot buy their land. The land must be bought, for Kapital owns it, and Kapital will not give back to the worker the land that is his. Well, somehow, I can always buy land. Why? I do not know. I only know that with my first land here I made good crops to buy more land, and so I rent it cheap, more than anyone else I rent it cheap, I lend money so my neighbours do not fall into the hands of the bank, and so I am not Kapital.

Müller’s pseudo-liturgical explanation for his wealth conceals the background of colonialism, the violent resource acquisition and the brute effect of seasonal luck to his success. But he is not Kapital.


The political impasse

There are a number of reasons why there has been no decisive action taken, despite the literally countless reports, towards repairing the obviously broken system. There are so many fractures and dividing lines, each pointing towards different definitions of ‘the system’: does it mean the Basin Authority, or the water market, or the division of powers (and lack of responsibilities) between the States? One of the appointed auditors, dubbed the ‘top water cop’, reminded protesters demanding that the Federal Government ‘Can the Plan’ that much of the blame should be placed on the shoulders of the NSW State Government. The campaign to abandon the Plan reflect attempts to undermine trust in government regulation, and is opposed by a confederation of Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, who have tirelessly engaged, in good faith, with numerous consultations in order to fight for better water management.

Meanwhile, there is a new Water Minister – though he looks and sounds like old stock – and the waters of the Murray-Darling have joined for the first time in two years. Stagnant green gives way to murky brown as sporadic rain does what the politics seems unable to achieve. Simons argues that ‘the politics have become close to unmanageable’, briefly describing the dilemma faced by the Nationals, finding their base splintered in acrimony, and voters supporting minor parties like the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers.

In the middle, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority appears both necessary and utterly unloved. If all sides concede that central authority is needed, they very much disagree on its uses and function. Under the legislation, its explicit aims must remain largely environmental, with social and economic effects tacked on. But given the status quo, its de facto role is to manage the market. This puts it between the corporate profiteers who professionally smear this regulation even as they need and benefit from it, and the rest. This confutes Simons’ all too neat distinction between those with ‘strong faith in free markets’ and those who argue for a ‘managed system of agriculture.’ The markets are (always) managed, just for particular people and ends. Despite the endless consultations, there appears to be nothing particularly democratic about the Authority, and its decision are viewed as ‘top down’ and lacking ‘mediation.’ It represents a faith in liberal or market technocracy characteristic of the (centre-)right political consensus, and yet lacks the power to impose its undoubted expertise.

Michael Young, the erstwhile defender of the market, argues against no one that if ‘governments got involved in trying to choose crops, they would be very bad at it’. Yet he concedes – Simons implies – that the market pushes Australian farming to ‘run at the edge of capacity, not conservatively – but it generates enormous wealth.’ What needs clarification is the fact that ‘conservatively’ is here meant in the sense of conservation, so that Australian farming is far from sustainable, especially as climate change intensifies. And that the enormous wealth flows through costly, private channels to a very few.

The terrifying endgame of the market orthodoxy spelled out by Anthony S. Kiem is that

water trading will eventually do what [it is] designed to do (ie. Reallocate a resource to ‘high value’ users). However, given that the ‘low value’ users are in this case agriculture and town/urban water supply (not including drinking water) and the ‘high value’ users are mining, manufacture, and electricity production (i.e. high greenhouse gas emissions), do we really want the water trading [market-based instrument] to achieve its objective?

Kiem points out that this dichotomy between high- and low-value users doesn’t even factor in environmental water, so urgently needed.

These kinds of long-term fractures call out for new political formations to emerge. Yet the mainstream left-wing movements in Australia are largely abandoning these complex issues. Simons laments the sad spectacle of Labour, ‘the party born in the shearing sheds of Queensland now so irrelevant in the politics of rural Australia.’ The Greens, here as elsewhere, are viewed – justly or not – as representing wealthy urban progressives whose social and environmental conscience and periodic bursts of noisy outrage are no solution to the systematic failures and necessary compromises of rural politics; a non-option, justly or unjustly. The sheer fact (and scale) of agriculture confronts those whose agenda is founded on the preservation of pristine nature.

Rural movements like regenerative and sustainable agriculture or food sovereignty do not fit easily into mainstream political divisions; they are healthily mongrel, and admirably confronting basic problems like soil degradation, which jeopardise the capacity of the anthropologically-altered earth to produce enough food. Front-line activists are also learning from Indigenous people, and supporting their resistance struggles. They are also workers (perhaps uneasily since some are also landowners in the traditional sense, like Porter’s Herr Müller) confronting the challenges of corporate globalisation and defying growth- and profit-oriented ‘Big Ag’, which undercuts the ability of small, sustainable growers and producers to distribute their food. Australia’s celebrated ‘food security’ is reliant on a workforce of cheap, over-exploited labourers, many of whom are working under ‘slave-like conditions’ simply to retain their visas.

There are ample causes for greater solidarity across the chasm that divides rural and urban politics since the industrial revolution. Moreover, there are lines of radical left heritage within which to articulate this solidarity. If the Maoist experiment of sending intellectuals and students to the countryside ended in a ‘Lost Generation’ of ‘sent-down youths’ (xiafang qingnian) – as Tong Lam notes in Afterlives of Chinese Communism (2019) – it also ‘did help to address many of the deficiencies suffered by the rural communities.’ The disaffection that resulted was also a product of the fact that the regime failed to foster what it had created: ‘new political subjects.’ This abrogated experiment paved the way for French Maoist solidarity with agricultural workers, and contributed to a land occupation in the region of Larzac that forced the military to abandon the expansion of a camp. Kristin Ross, in May ’68 and its Afterlives (2002), describes how the

force of the movement lay in the diversity of people and disparate ideologies it brought together: antimilitary activists and pacifists; regional Occitan separatists; supporters of nonviolence; revolutionaries aiming to overthrow the bourgeois state, anticapitalists, anarchists, and other gauchistes, as well as ecologists.

This diversity of ideologies across the border separating the cities and country demonstrates that these issues affect us all, perhaps more so than many of the hotbed topics that normally circulate. Although I sometimes disagree with them, I admire those who choose to farm sustainably. We need be more aware of our food systems, which does not mean checking the back of the packet for the patriotic little sticker. Supermarkets, recently deemed ‘essential’ as though to grant them the sacred, untouchable status they already have in the economy, are throttling farmers and stifling democratic attempts to regulate them, as Lindy Edwards shows. Food and its production are often absent from political debate, as though a necessary but unsightly supplement to the busy commercial life of our major, urban population centres. But from first-hand testimony, I can attest that farming can sustain meaningful, fulfilling and vibrant communities full of life, politics and art.


The line in the title of this piece, ‘Still water gone green,’ comes from a ballad by Tony Smith called ‘The Dying Darling’, quoted in Simons’ Cry Me A River.

Image by Thong Vo

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a writer, academic and unionist whose work has been published in Overland, Arena, Index Journal, Memo Review and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique.

More by Scott Robinson ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. An eye opening read to the corruption of the groups who control our MDB water. The corruption arrow would seem to point to Water Minister Turnbull who allowed “Water Trading” on the stock market & to allocate water allocations to those entities that had NO land & NO usage for water. The Federal / State MP’s who have gained by purchasing Or setting up the purchasing should have those allocations returned at original purchase costs. It stinks like the rotting masses of fish.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.