The failure of the Murray Darling Basin Plan is an example of what happens when decisions are taken out of the hands of locals and given to distant Canberra bureaucrats.
By taking an extra 2000GL of water out of the agricultural sector every year since 2012 – the largest re-direction of water to the environment for any large river basin in the world – the Murray Darling Basin Plan has created nothing less than a man-made drought.
This could all have been avoided if the Australia’s state and federal governments had heeded the advice of our founding fathers, who deliberately left responsibility for the administration of rivers to the states.
Our founding fathers understood that when it comes to juggling environmental and economic needs, local knowledge is crucial. People on the ground have a vested interest in ensuring both the viability of long-term investment as well as the environmental sustainability that will keep that investment secure.
But when decisions are made at a distance, environmental utopianism is often given priority over people’s livelihoods. This phenomenon was demonstrated in the May 18 election, when Queenslanders reliant on mining jobs voted overwhelmingly to reject the ecological extremism being pushed in the inner suburbs of distant major cities.
This local knowledge is why New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro has called for his state to withdraw from the Murray Darling Basin Plan. As the MP for an electorate near the Murray, Barilaro has first-hand knowledge of the damage the plan is doing to hardworking Australian farmers.
Constitutionally speaking, NSW should be able to act on the deputy premier’s proposal. The question of rivers was raised during the federal conventions of the 1890s, with the South Australians concerned that Victorian and New South Wales agriculture would use up the water they wanted for river boating. In the face of this controversy, the delegates deliberately chose to leave the issue to the states under the premise that decisions should be in the hands of those immediately affected by them.
The only mention of rivers in the entire Constitution is in Section 100, where it deliberately restricts the federal government from using its Trade and Commerce powers to “abridge the right of a State or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation”. “Conservation” in this context meant pastoralism, with the founders aware that in a country as dry as Australia there was a limit to how much water could be used for irrigation.
Unfortunately, the federal government has bypassed this protection and taken control of the issue, damaging the principles of federalism in the process.
While there have been centrally coordinated agreements over the use of the Murray River since 1914, the current Murray Darling Basin Plan is based on Section 96 of the Constitution, which allows the federal government to make grants to the states with attached conditions.
Because the Commonwealth has deliberately monopolised the major sources of taxation, states are now reliant on these grants which allow the central government to dictate to them on policy areas where they have no constitutional right.
As a result, any attempt on the part of NSW to withdraw from the plan would carry with it significant financial penalties.
Even if the state government was willing to endure this, there is every chance that the High Court would allow the federal government to legislate on the basis of the External Affairs power in Section 51(xxix) of the Constitution. This has been interpreted as allowing the federal government to enforce international environmental agreements regardless of the intended delegation of powers.
If we want a healthy system of federalism, we need to reverse this process and restrict the ability of the Commonwealth to centralise control without a constitutional mandate.
As far as the Murray Darling Basin Plan is concerned, it is probably too late for such a structural initiative. The Morrison government must urgently tear up the plan and allow desperate farmers to access the water that is flowing agonisingly past their front doors.
To lessen the likelihood that such awful decisions are made in the future, policymakers should look to the wisdom of our founding fathers and allow decisions to be made at the most local level practicable. At a minimum, this means the state level, where the smaller size of the electorate allows individuals to have a greater impact on political decision-making.
The concept of federalism is about letting individuals take control of their own lives – it is a principle on which our great nation was founded, and it’s a principle we must revive.
Zachary Gorman is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.
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