Have the scientists got it right
Research and Consultancy
November a group of environmental scientists, the Wentworth Group,
released a ‘Blueprint for a
Living Continent’. The blueprint received extensive media coverage and
consideration at the highest levels of government. What weight should be
given to the Blueprint? Have the scientists got it right? Where is the
Sensibly, the Wentworth Group is building
on the back of the drought-induced public awareness of the state of our
environment. However, the Blueprint needs to be critically reviewed. It
should be the beginning of a public debate, not the end of it.
Scientific reductionism is alive and well
scientists, like moths to a light, promote a fatal reductionism. They
advocate a water policy isolated from considerations of the economic,
social, spiritual and biophysical realities of our ecosystems. The lessons
of history – even our recent history- are forgotten, not learnt. We
struggle with the narrowly conceived national program on salinity. We
forget the lack of impact of the equally narrowly conceived tree programs
of the 1980’s. Most astoundingly, we forget that we are now wrestling
with the aftermath of the father of all reductionist programs, the Snowy
lesson is that there are grave risks in dealing in isolation with one part
of the ecosystem. There is no recovery from such a reductionist position.
The total ecological jigsaw is greater than the sum of the bits. Once the
elements become packaged separately-into their own administrative and
policy boxes as is proposed-wild horses will not pull them back together.
Group puts its considerable weight behind the runaway train that is the
alleged need to better define property rights. Although the Group sensibly
defines the water right in terms of it being ‘a right to use a
proportion of available water for a finite time’ just how this removes
the uncertainty allegedly limiting investment, development and
environmental flows is far from clear. And in any event, has the certainty
of land rights prevented land degradation? Quite the contrary one might
The reality is
that water rights are vested in the State.
What we are looking at here is a claim on public resources
reminiscent of the squatter claims on land. We need to examine the basis
for these claims and what might be the national benefit from meeting those
claims. As the Group says there is only one cake and for every allocated
litre there is one not available for an alternative allocation.
In a novel yet
bizarre twist the Group suggests that uncertainty about water property
rights flows through to uncertainty about the obligations associated with
water use. One might have thought that the water user plagued by any such
uncertainty might take surety from a clearly regulated need not to
For over two
centuries Australian agriculture has operated within institutional
arrangements that have defined land rights and enabled market- based
transfer of those rights. Over the same period we have extensively
degraded our land resource. However, this has not deterred the Wentworth
Group and others from the notion that applying similar arrangements to
water will markedly improve the environmental impact of how we use water.
acknowledges the self-interest of large water businesses (“the history
of water development in Australia is a history of articulate interest
groups seeking to have water used for their advantage”) yet it promotes
the establishment of a market mechanism to give expression to those
Group advocates that ‘from 2006, water trading could be limited to those
The point to be
made here is that although the market can be a useful tool to give
expression to the values of a community, the market does not establish
there are values that lie beyond commodification, beyond the ability of
markets to sensibly price resources for exchange. Environmental flows fall
into this category, as do many landscape attributes.
Group, like many technically deterministic groups and individuals before
it, is apparently sufficiently confident in our understanding of the
biophysical features of our landscapes to enable it to assert that there
are best practices that should be applied universally within and across
catchments. Land managers applying these best practices would be exempt
from economic costs. Such approaches do not account for the heterogeneity
that exists in our landscapes, they constrain creativity and cycles of
continuous learning and they stifle innovation.
proposes that farmers ( and others?) ought to be paid for eco-services and
the example they list is the provision of clean water. Does that mean that
farmers should be paid for not polluting water? Nice work if you can get
foundation for the Wentworth blueprint is perhaps most evident (and
unsurprisingly so) when they enter the field of tax policy. These leading
environmental scientists are ‘not advocating another new tax’ but
rather merely that ‘a major investment of public capital is needed’,
that ’we can’t expect farmers to pay the full cost of repairing past
mistakes’, that we ‘might add a one cent levy onto income tax’, that
‘ taxpayers should not be expected to support bad land management
policies (sic)’, ‘we need to ensure that our tax systems support
sustainability’. Elsewhere they suggest that the needed capital
investment might come from:
- consolidated revenue
- the full sale of Telstra
(direct transfer of public assets to private interests);
- an environmental levy
(new tax); and
environmental costs into the cost of producing food and fibre (so the
higher the pollution cost the greater the price!).
and equity implications of these various proposals are not detailed.
Perhaps it might be better on both counts if we took stock of what
responsibilities farmers should have. If individuals can’t meet these
responsibilities then they should be encouraged and helped into another
proposes the establishment of a National Commission to set priorities and
national targets, accredit institutions and plans and to recommend the
funding of investment priorities—a Commission to be managed by an
independent board of experts in salinity, biodiversity and community
We need to look
closely at this proposition for it is the forerunners of these experts who
have given us the agricultural practices we have today.
The first step
is to accept that water rights don’t equate to environmental policy and
water rights don’t equate to an ecologically sustainable development
The second step
is to recognise that market based mechanisms are only as effective as the
regulation that governs the operation of the market—and this regulation
needs to be based on sound ecological and equity foundations.
We need in fact
a broadly based consideration of what Australians want from their rural
landscapes. We need to be informed by independent analyses on the role of
agriculture in the Australian economy. How is it that the non-corporate
agricultural farm sector pays no net income tax? How is it that there is
no economic growth in the agricultural sector notwithstanding enormous
increases in the volume of production (achieved at what environmental and
social costs)? How is it that we do not have a public debate in Australia
on the multiple functions of agricultureand of
farming more broadly?
The answers are
simple. It is not in the interests of captured agricultural support
agencies and politicians to lead such a debate. And farm organisations
mistakenly believe it is not in their interests to lead such a debate.
The problem is
that we have outdated institutional arrangements. They lock us into our
past, and they deny opportunities for change. We need more diverse,
contestable and open innovation systems. We need policies that build on
the responsibility of consumers and managers – including land managers
– not to pollute.
This article was first published in ‘Online Opinion’ – thanks to
Tony Gleeson is a contract researcher and farmer with extensive
experience in rural policy and research.