Dr Peter Barker, Cohuna, 1 March 2021
To the honourable Mr Keith Pitt, Federal Minister for Water.
I would like to apologise for not being here in person as prior commitment means I am in theatre at the local hospital today. I have been asked to talk to you from the perspective of a local doctor.
Firstly, I would like to thank you for coming south to see what is causing so many sleepless nights for those in our towns. My phone tells me that you were an electrical fitter in a past life and also interested in occupational health and safety. So, you are interested in people and their lives. I note that you also have the very sensible idea that nuclear power is a no brainer to fill the base power vacuum when coal goes offline. I agree and think possibly, for a generation, until we really figure how to harness the sun, this is such a sensible idea.
I’m hopeful you can apply the same personal and long-term view to our water mess. To quote Gandhi: “the earth, the air, the land and the water are not our inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children, so we have to hand to them something at least as good as what was handed to us. Your job, as a custodian for the future of our land, is such an important role and your actions will be discussed by our children’s children. I’m hoping you have the clarity to find a way forward and the determination to see it happen.
You are surrounded by the passionate custodians of the southern Murray Darling Basin. I deal with these ladies, gentleman, and their kids on a daily basis and when they are sad or vulnerable, I hear the stories. So, what is it that is driving some to want to sell the farm as a best counselled option after weeks of therapy as opposed to the suicide planned when the wife brings her husband in the night at the point of desperation. I’m going to talk about some of the straws that are breaking backs and what follows is extracted from many conversations I have had with troubled farmers when they see a problem with no solution, they can influence.
The unfairness of water trade. We have an entitlement, and we pay for it.
We also pay a delivery fee and a drainage fee. A water trader does not. Why not? His water needs to be delivered somewhere. There was a cap on trading between irrigation districts. This seems to have miraculously disappeared. It would be harder to find out who initiated that rule change than it would be for the royal commission to find out who in Dan Andrews government decided to OK untrained quarantine workers.
I’m sure you have heard the history of changes to water trade and the results of subtle rule changes culminating in an unregulated water market now regarding water as a commodity for trade. A generation back, water entitlements were tied to developed irrigation farms and there were set rules for applying water with local agencies allocating entitlements.
There were no more entitlements to be bought and they were sold with the land they were used on. Generations of farmers worked their blocks but also met in groups to consider the health of the district. Salinity was recognised and dealt with. Land was productive. The riverine ecosystem adapted years ago and there were thriving wetlands both on farms and in adjacent forests. Our communities loved the interaction of wildlife and farming and farms were profitable.
Farm viability related to corporate encroachment. Unregulated trade in the name of free trade has seen Australian farmers subtly become uncompetitive compared to countries hiding subsidies. This forced lower and lower produce prices on, for example, dairy has led to viability issues when mixed with fixed or rising costs (as in water). Corporate raiders have seen the development of Timber plantations, also new crops like olives and almonds. The business cases to open these new pursuits were not based on realistic long term returns but glossy prospectuses for investors and projected profits which were/are unlikely to be achieved as once supply increases and prices fall. Timber plantations supported by super funds went bust. Super funds are artificially inflating water prices to get water for their agri pursuits. Everyday a farmer tells me the water needed to supply the almond trees once they are fully developed down the river cannot be delivered as there isn’t enough in the system and if there was it can’t be delivered. So super funds are starving basic farm producers in irrigation areas to develop products not confirmed as sustainable. There is a lack of a guaranteed base price for essential farm produce like dairy and no recognition of need to be nationally independent of imports of basic food essentials. Perhaps, the corona virus will change the value of primary produce, like dairy in the eye of government.
Environmental degradation. This has brought more than one inter-generational land custodian (that’s what a farmer is) to my door in tears. The many studies suggesting the forests along the river are dying have not been confirmed by the results of environmental flooding which, in many cases, is damaging what it wants to help. In the last while we have seen artificial floods in our forest enacted by environmental engineers. The timing in spring followed by heavy natural rains and heat led to widespread destruction of plant life, wildlife (no grass) and marine life. The delivery of the floods damaged waterways and the Blackwater events that followed sterilised waterways. The science involved may have quotable sources to justify it but the implementation has been disastrous. There has been a complete lack of respect for the knowledge of the local custodians- the farmers. There remains a disrespect for the knowledge of those who know, that is those sitting in front of you now.
They have personal understanding of their land and their wildlife. Many have names for each undulation on their land and know the animals which reside there by sight. When a swamp filled with catfish is drained or a grey box forest is flooded as opposed to a red gum one and damage occurs they are the ones who cry .
There is the South Australian issue. I have had more than one farmer tell me they have gone to South Australia to check the construction of the artificial barriers on the lower Murray. Why? They were planning their explosive destruction. One must be on the edge to consider that. The forcing of water through the Barmah Choke, damaging the river is a scar every farmer carries and they all shake their heads at the management which is trying to move irrigation water from regions where it has been managed east of the choke to other new areas west of the choke. There appears lack of understanding that the Murray is not a drain or a conduit for irrigation water but a huge ecosystem with limits on how it can be manipulated. The thoughts I hear is how many palms are greased to allow that to happen.
As a northerner you have a better idea than us if it’s climate change or illegal diversions which is killing the Darling. Seems remarkable that South Australian needs now come from the southern profitable environmentally diverse farmlands at the expense of farming. Tell me I’m wrong. That is the feeling of the farmers. In this time of COVID-19 we have seen the necessity of being independent of other countries for basic commodities like food. When we hear of influential South Australians sailing on fresh water transferred from farms in our regions and water price hikes often initiated by water traders buying water for the government making it impossible to buy water to farm in the Murray Darling Basin it is another straw on the back of the battered local farmer.
The city-based papers love to green bash farmers. The animal rights groups invading land molesting goats and pigs. The general feel that we are being pushed off the land and we have not cared for it and don’t deserve it. The corporate talk that all food can be imported more cheaply.
There is a leftist slant in some media saying farmers and other manufacturers are not worth looking after. When we are not valued or significant this becomes another straw on the farmers’ back. The Murray Darling Plan’s lack of recognition of its effects on the inhabitants of the districts enhances our feeling of worthlessness.
Perceived Governmental inaction. Water transfers out of productive land continues with bad effect. The classic yes minister reply to the current mess seems to be that’s a State issue or the state people say that’s a Federal issue. No one owns it and the irrigators lose out. What my patients tell me is that there is no excess water. So many excuses for savings have been made resulting in water being removed from irrigation systems and sent west to new farms or to placate South Australian politicians. No one is owning the problem. I’m hoping, you Mr Pitt, will.
If there is indeed climate change leading to a drying of the southern basin the answer is not in stopping agriculture in the area but in long term planning for more efficient usage as is currently happening with the irrigation modernisation project.
Does the northern inland river need a connection to the Burdican as John Bradfield proposed? Can science engineer increased rainfall? Does Lake Eyre need to be filled? Does South Australia need a desalination plant? All long-term areas to spend time planning from a responsible coordinated government if it wants to increase the supply of water. But we see diversion of focus from these key ideas into the straws breaking farmers’ backs mentioned above.
We need a wise politician – to quote Benjamin Franklin “who sees the water and the land not as static sterile possessions but as life giving assets to be directed by wise provision for future days”
Possibly, it’s on a day when his milk cheque was reduced, or when he noticed the brolgas have left his swamp which has dried out, but it is the day another of my farmers arrives in the night to our local hospital.
Yet, we are resilient. We are valuable. We are productive. We are the custodians of the land for our children. We would like to hand them something of ecological value as we were handed from our parents. A place to live with nature and a place to be valued and productive. We would like formal recognition that farmers lives matter.
It’s not more counselling that is needed but an addressing of the problems in the system causing the distress that needs the counselling.
Thank you for your ear. I hope our children remember you as the man with the courage to deal with the unplanned consequences of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which have been raised in part here today.
Dr Peter Barker, OAM
From poet Christopher
No one owns the water
No one owns the land
No one owns the oceans
No one owns the sand
These are given by our mother
The planet provides for free
Only by the hands of the greedy does the earth require a fee
This letter appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 18 March 2021.