Community voices must be heard

Learning from history, acknowledging past mistakes, listening to community voices and building long-term socio-ecological strategies are paramount to the future of the Murray Darling Basin.

These points were the main take away as academics, politicians, Indigenous leaders, and regional representatives converged in Rutherglen last month to discuss the future and management of Australia’s most important river system.The two-day conference, hosted by winemaker Darren De Bortoli with the support of Federation University, generated plenty of discussion through an examination of policies, environmental studies, communities, and histories of the Murray-Darling and its river systems.A strong line up of women including Former Member for Murray Professor Sharman Stone and Deniliquin farmer Louise Burge were part of a panel of keynote speakers who discussed the sustainability and future of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.Professor Stone, a passionate water advocate, kicked off discussions looking at the history of water policy decisions and how they have affected the basin economy and the environment.“Exactly 26 years ago, under Paul Keating’s leadership, there was a decision at a COAG meeting that there should be a whole new water resource policy for the nation and a framework for action,” she said.“They said the patented measures had to address environmental, economic and social implications. And then they said there had to be public consultation.“Why then are we here, yet again, 26 years later, trying to right the wrongs of what is an environmental, economic and social disaster?”Professor Stone stressed the need for the wider public to be aware of the “corruption” and “mismanagement” of the entire Basin Plan“The whole show is a national disgrace and not enough people know about it,” she said.“We have got to get this knowledge and outrage into the public domain where the public sees is relevant to their own lives.“This is about your own national food security. This is about your own national natural resources. Do you want to see your own biodiversity and environmental ecosystems of the Murray-Darling system continue to be degraded?” she said.Mrs Burge and her family run a predominantly dryland cropping and Merino business and have witnessed first-hand the devastating results of “centrally-designed” government policy surrounding the Basin Plan.In 2010 the Burge family lost all their crops because of environmental flows that were not “managed correctly” and again in 2016 with catastrophic flooding. She highlighted the importance of community voices being heard when it comes to decision making.“The Basin Plan is about political numbers and it’s rigidity and lack of adaptive management is precluding both good investment and good environmental outcomes,” Ms Burge said.“I’m a great believer that local people must be part of the decision making. We need flexible policy, and we need to invest with communities in sustainable solutions.“There are solutions and I sincerely hope that one day we see those.”Host of the event and managing director of De Bortoli Wines Darren De Bortoli is also passionately involved in the debate about water flows in the Murray-Darling Basin. His business like so many other district wineries and regional farms, is heavily dependent on the way water is handled.Mr De Bortoli said the conference addressed a number of issues with the current Murray-Darling Basin Plan and how the basin and waterways have been governed over the past 170 years.“The aim of the conference was to look at the Murray-Darling Basin from a historical perspective. Once you start looking at it from this perspective you begin to understand the whole plan is completely flawed,” Mr De Bortoli said.“Over the years the system has changed, and the climate has changed. The continued poor management is leading to a decline in fish species and increased river degradation from the excessive water flows.“It is critical to acknowledge there has been fundamental mistakes with the plan and the socio-economic impacts it has had.”Mr De Bortoli said a holistic approach with community input is required to manage the future of the basin.“Community voices need to be heard and the politicising of water needs to stop,” he said.“We can get some very good outcomes for everyone if the entire basin is properly managed with good science and good engineering.”Titled ‘The Future of the Murray Darling Basin: Lessons from History 2021’, the event was only the second Murray-Darling Basin conference in 20 years.