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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —Welcome. There are a couple of formal things we have to go through. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceeding of the respective houses. We have received a written submission to this inquiry from your organisation. Do you wish to make any additional submission or make an opening statement?

Mr Womersley —We do. Thank you, first and foremost, for the opportunity to speak with you today and to clarify such elements of our submission as you might choose to inquire into. The South Australian Council of Social Service is the peak social service body in South Australia. It has a longstanding commitment to trying to address issues to do with social justice as it applies to the community of South Australia. We represent many of the welfare organisations that operate across South Australia both regionally and in a metropolitan context. We were drawn into making submissions originally to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan because of concerns we had about what was happening to communities, particularly communities along the Riverland and through the Lower Lakes in South Australia. We felt as though there were very few voices appearing in that discussion representing members of the community other than people, such as irrigators and farmers, who were well organised and had resources at their disposal. But when we look at the communities of that area of the world these days, they are very interesting places: there is a large number of new arrivals; there is a large migrant population. Many of those people are not well resourced, and they form much of the labour force. We were continuing to hear, through the periods of drought, stories of increasing social distress in those communities and increasing issues to do with depression. For that reason, we felt that it was appropriate for us to be having some involvement in and engagement with these activities, even though it is a little outside of our typical domain.

Our starting point for thinking about this conversation is that it is only worth doing if we get a healthy river system at the end of it. There is no point in our going through all of this angst and anxiety unless we achieve a healthy river system. We have known for a long time of the huge debate about how to do that and the large vested interests right across the country in terms of that. South Australia sits at the tail of the river. As a result, we often feel that we are left out and left behind.

We recognise that achieving a healthy river system will involve substantial changes to communities and that it may also involve substantial changes to farming and irrigation practices. Potentially, it might mean some agriculture that has been operating in those regions will no longer exist. However, we believe that the communities generally are well placed to start deciding how they can reinvent themselves. In fact, now is the perfect time. We believe that, given the huge amount of water running down the river at the moment, this is absolutely the time to be getting on with this conversation and sorting out the issues. We cannot afford to be back here in five or 10 years time having this conversation again, because we know the stress and division which is created as a result of that.

We believe that these issues of concern are also of concern to many members of the community and not just people who are simply irrigators or farmers. There are many other people, as I said at the beginning, who are disenfranchised or who have limited resources who also have an interest. Those communities need to be well supported to think their way through what a new community might look like in the future.

I guess the other thing we would note is that we were extremely disappointed that the socioeconomic modelling—the limited amount that it was—in the guide to the basin was all downside modelling. It did not have any kind of examination of what might happen if there were a healthy river system and other industries operating in the region, and so we were left with a plan that was not hopeful. We think a core ingredient in moving forward is that whatever plan emerges needs to be a hopeful one. It needs to inspire communities to act together. We need to resource communities to come together, to reunify and to think about their futures moving forward.

Ms Verity —Can I add one thing to that. We have a view about the social which is a broad view in terms of diverse interests and population groups. I know that might sound simplistic and a statement of the obvious but it is often not taken into consideration. So, in any sort of planning for the social of our constituency, we need to include older people, people who are not well, people who are unemployed and people who struggle for all sorts of other reasons. We think one of the weaknesses thus far in the planning process is that the frame to look at the social is too narrow. It needs to be expanded to really appreciate what diversity of community—the two million people across the basin—actually means, and what the different interests and aspirations of people are. On Ross’s point about hope, the planning, from our point of view, has to be about hope. If there is no guide to hope in the plan then how on earth can people embrace it in terms of thinking about a future? So we would recommend that any further process has a really wide view of what a social is—a deep view of the social and all the nuances of that—and that it has hope in it.

CHAIR —Do you have anything further to add?

Mr Womersley —I think that is us for the moment. Thank you.

CHAIR —Any questions from the committee?

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —Would you elaborate a little more on your comments regarding ‘Modelling different pathways’ in your submission. I bring to your attention what you said there:

The economic modelling, at least as published, does not distinguish between different models of how SDLs—

the sustainable diversion limits—

are reduced.

Would you like to elaborate a little more on that in terms of your assessment of the plan and then tie that into what you are talking about here, which is that the plan should involve ‘social’ and ‘hope’.

Mr Womersley —I guess the conversation about SDLs is a conversation about what ultimately is a sustainable amount of water for people to remove. At the moment a lot of that is influenced by the nature of the industry undertaken and the amount of water required in order to sustain that kind of industry. The other way of thinking about it is that, if you have industries which, in fact, are much less water reliant, you might have a different sustainable diversion limit result. If you could imagine a community which was operating in a different way, having different industry at its disposal, thereby you would have a different SDL requirement. Mr Sidebottom, what was the second part of the question?

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —You talked about what you thought was a limitation of it. I just need you to flesh that out. By that you are really talking about alternatives, more efficient and effective use of what we have and so forth—

Mr Womersley —Yes.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM ——but trying to marry that into your concept of what we should be talking more about, society as a whole, in terms of hope. So I suppose your alternatives are hopeful alternatives.

Ms Verity —Yes and also engaging citizens in those discussions about what a hopeful alternative would be. One thing which struck me reading the plan, from our experience in SACOSS, is that often departments can be in their own silos. We are aware of heaps of programs, the cousins, as it were, to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority work, in FaHCSIA—stronger families and community work. They have done fantastic work about community resilience, community adaptation and community capacity. There are all sorts of rich repositories of information about processes to do future scenario modelling that engages a wide range of people in a social world, not just people involved in economic production. We are not saying that engaging those people is not critical; it is, but it is that and, and, and, actually having a really holistic formulation of who is involved in participation.

I was looking at some stuff on rural research development about community resilience and models for development—they are absolutely fantastic. One thing we were talking about, coming up in the car, is that we applaud the authority in terms of the plan and the guide to the plan. What they have done makes it really clear. This is really tough and hard stuff, a complex, wicked problem, but other areas of government are doing other work which could come in with this, not just leaving it to the hydrologists or the environmental scientists, as good as their work is. There are social scientists and community development workers. I know examples from Tamworth of community development—it is absolutely fantastic. There is stuff in Ipswich. So kind of drawing on the richness of what has been done historically to inform the future I suppose is what we are saying in terms of hope.

With the stuff that is happening in Queensland, communities know about resilience and they know about adaptation and what needs to happen. We also need to harness that as a guide to the future. It is not just about sustainable development limits. That is important, but it has to be that and that and that. That is one of the things we want to emphasise.

—When we reflect on the South Australian experience particularly, we have seen communities living through a decade of drought. The stress they have experienced in that process has been enormous. Yet still there are threads through those communities of some people who remain absolutely determined to keep connected, to sustain life and to be enthusiastic about the possibilities that exist in the region. I think that competes with a very gloomy picture that the world is going to end.

In practice, the plan is not talking about a situation where we are saying the world is going to end. The plan talks about a situation where we have less access on an ongoing basis to a resource that we know is incredibly precious. But there will still be quite a high level of access. There is still quite a high level of water available to communities; it just will not be at the same level as we have plundered, in a sense, or as we have taken.

Ms LEY —Thank you, Ross and Fiona. You talk about community engagement and capacity building and say that this is not just about economic production. Given your views on the plan and the fact that it is heading in a future direction with a future with less water—something I suppose we all understand—what do you see as the future economic underpinnings of these communities, such that they can produce sufficient investment and income to support the elderly, the recently arrived migrants who would be working in the industry and so on? Can you paint a picture of your view of the local regional economies for these communities?

Ms Verity —I have a perspective. I think we need to think in different paradigms. One of the troubles that we get locked into is that we think economic production equals something and we follow that trajectory—so the future is a continuation of how we have done things previously. We are really strong on community engagement. We need to muster people’s imaginations about what resources they have got, what futures they have got, the totality of what is available, and to imagine different economic forms of production.

Ms LEY —Could you elaborate on those different forms of economic production? You can engage a community to the nth degree but people have to get up and go to work and do something in the end.

Ms Verity —Exactly. I cannot say without looking at a specific context, because the issue is also about the fact that in different places there are different natural resources that are available and different human resources in terms of the capabilities people have got. There could be more of a service focus that might develop in a regional centre or it could be more the IT kind of economic production that is then networked out to the country. I cannot say in terms of specifics. But it is critical given the importance of the food bowl that there is agricultural production.

Mr Womersley —I suspect agriculture will remain a key feature of the production process. I do not think the plan has talked about removing agriculture, by any stretch of the imagination. What we are really trying to imagine are things that we would add on to that. For example, a health river system, particularly at the lower end of the system, has meant in previous years that there has been a large investment in tourism along the Coorong. So, in fact, if there is a healthy Coorong, people may be attracted to and drawn to come to the area. There may also be other versions of tourism that might emerge if that exists. However, without spending time thinking about the region’s specific assets—and that could be the economic as well as the human assets that are in particular regions and the skills of the people in those regions—I think it is hard to make other than big generalisations.

I do believe that we are not in any way saying that agriculture is going to disappear and nor are we saying in any way that the important place of the Murray-Darling Basin as a key source of food production for this country is going to disappear. That is not at all my understanding.

Ms Verity —Can I answer that again, because I think it is such an important question too, because otherwise you do stay vague, don’t you, when it is generalisations? But I know that we have had that problem in South Australia. Our manufacturing industry is disappearing, so I think we are facing that in terms of how you actually reinvent what your economic means of production is. So there have been developments in terms of defence and other small, local economic development, particularly in areas where there is lots of unemployment. That is just another comment.

Mr MITCHELL —Going back to what we have just been discussing, economic production and community capacity building are not mutually exclusive. You have raised a point in there about how, given the response to the guide from some sections of the community, it is important to account for the costs of taking no action. Can you tell us about the increase over the last few years—obviously through the dry period—in demand on your services, what you are seeing, the people that are coming forward to you for assistance and whether that has changed over the recent period when we have had good water coming down—how that has changed the social scope of the communities.

Mr Womersley —Maybe I will go to the latter first. The thing about water arriving is that in fact it has certainly lifted many people’s spirits—spirits that have been very depressed for a long period of time. So there has been that lifting of spirit somewhat. But then I notice from what we are hearing that people then move back into the space of: ‘What happens now? How secure can we be? How confident can we be about the future?’ I suppose some of the process of the plan or trying to deal with this is trying to give people some security looking forward and trying to afford that to people. So I think people have reached a point where they are a little lighter than they were. Again, that might be the reason why this is the opportune time to begin these conversations and get them to happen.

In terms of what we have heard from our members around the communities along the river, we heard stories of increasing poverty—people losing opportunities and losing employment, and the result of that being major financial hardship—which converts to issues of major family distress and stress. We heard, certainly, conversations about increasing social unrest in many of the communities where people were competing for resources or for attention around certain issues. We heard stories of increasing numbers of kids turning up at school not having had a decent breakfast because families did not have the means or the wherewithal to do that, which then had all the flow-on consequences of what happens to kids through the day and their inability to concentrate through that stuff. So I guess much of the theme that we kept on hearing from people was about social distress and social disharmony, if you like, or increasing disharmony.

On top of that, we have had large inflows of people from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds, and part of the reason for that is that they are some of the people that have gone to those regions seeking employment. So people who come as migrants to the country, not being able to find work in the cities, often go to pick fruit or do the labouring jobs as an entree—a way of earning a living. So in fact that has created some other tensions in some of our communities about how we incorporate people and ensure that people from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds come to be supported to be members of our community. We heard stories. Of course, that creates tensions in other elements of your community where those people might encounter each other. If we use the example of schools, if your children are going to school and you happen to have particular needs and another group of people arrive with particular needs, it creates another level of competition for the needed resources in the community.

Mr ZAPPIA —Just briefly, following on from Rob’s question, can you identify whether any particular South Australian communities were worse affected?

Mr Womersley —I think that is a really hard call, and, no, I would not go there. There were certainly many communities that—if we think about the communities right at the tail of the river—suffered in ways that was very significant because of the hardship that was created by the lack of water at that end. But there were other areas. No, I am sorry.

Mr ZAPPIA —Okay, thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for appearing. You will be sent a transcript of the Hansard and, if there are any issues in terms of the reporting and what you have said, please let the committee know. If I could just recognise that Geoff Brock, the member for Frome, is with us today as well as former Premier Dean Brown. Thank you to both of you for being here and to members of the general public who have taken the time to become involved in this issue. We thank all of you.

[11.01 am]