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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —It is now my pleasure to call the first group of witnesses and to welcome them to today’s hearing. 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 proceedings of the respective houses. We have received a submission from you, and we thank you for that. Is there any additional material that you would like to present, or would you like to make some opening statements and then go to questions?

Prof. Knight —Certainly, we would endorse our local member welcoming you to Swan Hill and express our appreciation that you have taken time to come back again. Obviously, for Ms Ley and Dr Stone, it is just popping in to see the neighbours; nevertheless, we recognise that it is a commitment in an already heavy schedule.

Mr Chairman, you have had a submission from us, which was predominantly the work of my colleague, who will happily answer questions in relation to that. I guess it is a contribution that focuses on the nuts and bolts issues you have raised in your opening remarks. We are seeking to make an additional presentation that, with your permission, I will present. It is really homing in on the importance of why this needs to happen. You will no doubt be inundated by a raft of materials in relation to social and economic impacts. Mallee Family Care believes that part of its role is to advocate for the communities in which we work, and to make clear why it is so important that the work of your committee takes account of the needs of those communities.

In making that comment, I should say that Mallee Family Care is not large by national standards, but we do cover an enormous territory—much of south-west New South Wales and north-west Victoria. We employ about 180 staff over probably 60 program areas and boast of a volunteer army of about 600 people. So it is a substantial contributor and has a substantial involvement in this part of the world.

I also want to thank you, Mr Chairman, at a personal level, for your very obvious advocacy for the needs of regional Australia—and I guess that is what got you this gig. But we are delighted that that representation has come forth, and we know that it will be reflected in the findings of the committee.

I will move to this presentation, which is under the title ‘Regional Australia: the solution, not the problem’. While we readily pride ourselves on being a nation that believes in a fair go for all, there are times when it seems that the needs of a third of all Australians are easily ignored. The guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is probably a case in point. The work of the standing committee will hopefully bring some balance to the needs of the environment and the needs of those who happily regard the catchment as their home.

The need to make the basin productive and sustainable goes without saying; but the thought that we might even consider any proposal that takes no account of its economic and social consequences for the communities that populate Australia’s most significant region is beyond belief. We are the driest continent on earth, so the confluence of our two major rivers and that catchment must remain a matter of national importance, and one which clearly warrants the most careful attention. In classic terms, we have a triple-bottom-line agenda, which calls for balance, creativity and compromise—and I again repeat that your appointment as chair of the standing committee will hopefully give all Australians their best chance of discovering a plan that is workable and welcome.

Your committee will obviously be presented with a raft of projections for what will undoubtedly flow—or perhaps I should say ‘not flow’—if the plan were to be implemented in its present form. I have little doubt that much of what will be presented will be consistent with the thoughts of Mallee Family Care. It is on that basis that we propose not to enter into any repetition in this presentation but to draw particular attention to some of the other aspects of the issue that we think bear consideration. In particular, we want to focus on the reasons we should be concerned more generally with regional development, the consequences of not getting concerned, and the importance of giving regions a greater say in their own destiny.

By way of background, I should probably declare that I am actually a regional ‘import’, but that, I suspect, is true for most of us. I moved to Mildura in the 1970s on a two-year assignment to establish Mallee Family Care. My decision to remain here is evidence of my love for the district and my belief in the role that regional Australia can play in the growth of our nation.

Despite its relative youth, Mallee Family Care employs a large staff and a volunteer base working in programs like foster care and family support, legal services, community mental health, early intervention, relationship counselling, disability programs, financial counselling and community development. It is an agency that works with our region’s most vulnerable families. But I have to say that even that demographic is growing, as the drought, commodity prices and other challenges threaten the region’s economy and the livelihoods of its residents.

While much of our focus is on services of last resort, we strive to give equal attention to what might properly be termed ‘community building’. In an ideal world, we would wish that we did not exist, but at this point in time, that is little more than a noble thought. At best, we can only strive to level the playing field and create environments that give all children their best possible prospects in life.

It is for that reason we have developed programs like Chances for Children—and I will happily leave you with some information in relation to that. It is an initiative that seeks to ensure that all the young people of our region get the chance to realise their potential, irrespective of their family circumstances. You will be interested to know that the program is now supporting young people in schooling and higher education, with a community—and I say ‘community’—investment of more than $2 million. The fact that this has been achieved without government support is testament, I believe, to the resilience, determination and creativity of our ‘can do’ communities.

Chances for Children is a program that seeks to ensure that country kids get the same opportunities as their city counterparts. This is not about special treatment or positive discrimination; it is simply an endeavour to redress the disadvantage which attaches to growing up in communities that are isolated socially, economically and geographically.

Maybe the real challenge for the standing committee is to apply the same balance and creativity to the social, economic and environmental needs of the Murray-Darling Basin. My years in the Mallee have alerted me to numerous areas of disadvantage, and it is all too easy to get lost in a maze of needs. But I am now of the view that the key ingredients for regional viability are absolutely basic. Some time ago, I would have suggested that there were three keys: access to quality health care; pathways to further education; and efficient and affordable transport. The last couple of years have compelled us to add a fourth: water security.

While many of us happily talk about the attractions of rural life, the above are all essential to the creation of a good place to live. My conviction in relation to these issues is evidenced in the priorities that I personally adopted in my extracurricular activities: involvement in higher education; on the local hospital board; Chair of the Alliance of Councils for Rail Freight Development; Sunrise 21, which is a Sunraysia rural initiative for sustainable environments; and, until recently, my service as a Mildura Rural City councillor. These connections are not accidental; they attest to my belief that they are interrelated and essential to building strong, liveable communities.

Given free choice, people will want to live in proximity to good health care. Good health care requires access to GPs and specialists. Medicos will want to practise where their kids can get a reasonable education. They will also want access to good transport, if only to get to the football at the weekend.

So why grow the regions? For far too long, those debating Australia’s population distribution have imagined that the regions are the problem. It seems that our city cousins are inclined to the view that the regions are too expensive to service, their economies are too fickle, they are under-resourced and, in the context of climate change, they may cease to be the nation’s food bowl. In some ways, it is a view that is reinforced by the work of Professor Tony Vinson, who I am sure is no stranger to your committee, to the extent that our regions are often characterised by low average incomes, incomplete education, high accident rates and high levels of mental illness. Sadly, of course, most of these issues can be sheeted home to the fact that the regions have rarely received their fair share of the nation’s resources.

Australia is almost unique in its population patterns. The vast bulk of our nation clings to sections of the coast and clusters in major capital cities. Not surprisingly, our national concerns focus on the needs of urban areas: congestion, planning issues, pollution, commuting, housing and homelessness, and street crime. In reality, Australia now has to address the fact that most of our capital cities are rapidly becoming unliveable. The projections of Dr Ken Henry point to an even bleaker picture. Population forecasts for Melbourne predict that numbers will grow to around seven million by 2050. Similar forecasts can be applied to Sydney and Brisbane, and their respective governments are now preoccupied by the need to manage this growth.

It was interesting that the former Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, said at the point of his retirement, ‘We probably lost the election as a result of our success in growing the city of Melbourne.’ Maybe he should have said, ‘We probably lost the election because we were too unsuccessful in growing the regions.’ Ironically, it is a lesson that was learned by a previous premier, Jeff Kennett, a decade earlier.

The point I really want to make is that the regions are not the problem; they are, in fact, the solution. We would do well to consider the model for decentralisation in Sweden, which requires that a range of cultural, educational and social provisions are mandatory for regional areas, once urban centres reach a specified population size. It is the sort of planning which will ensure that rewarding and sustainable lifestyles are possible in the sticks.

It comes as no surprise that the regions are inevitably ignored in Australia when governments set out to tackle the needs of urban centres. We might take as an example the development of the north-south pipeline in Victoria. The pipeline was constructed when it was identified that Melbourne needed a more secure water supply, and it was all too easy for a Victorian government to determine that water from the regions should be redirected to meet the needs of Melbourne. The fact that the region from which the water was being taken also happened to be the food bowl seemed to be incidental. I suppose one might wonder how the debate would have rolled out if the proposal had been for the establishment of a south-north pipeline, on the basis that the regions were in need of more water and the water should be supplied from Melbourne.

There are numerous examples of such double standards. I will attach a copy of a letter that I wrote to you, Mr Windsor, at the end of last year. One of the services provided by my organisation involves the delivery of counselling and mediation programs for separating couples. In December 2010, it was announced that there would be funding cutbacks, and these cuts would be met by the imposition of fees for those in receipt of services. This fee structure was to apply to incomes of over $50,000. What was not recognised in the proposal was the fact that this will seriously disadvantage rural communities, where lower average incomes will probably mean that very few families will be able to contribute to the costs. Obviously, there is a notion that incomes are equitably distributed across the nation and that each centre, be it urban or rural, has the same ability to pay. They clearly do not.

Another potent example was an earlier decision to impose restrictions on access to youth allowance for tertiary students. Had it not been for the persuasion of the Social Inclusion Board, the policy would have seriously eroded post-secondary education opportunities for regional students. It is a simple reality that young people from regional Australia wanting to pursue tertiary education require additional relocation expenses, in the order of $15,000 a year. This is far from a level playing field.

I conclude with the need for change. The appointment of the standing committee is, in itself, evidence of that need for change. In saying that, let me hasten to add that this is not about the need for change in the debate on farming versus the environment. My farming friends are just as passionate about the environment as those who live in the city. It is not surprising, given that this is where they live. What is at stake is the fact that they do not get a say in the debate. For as long as I can remember, critical decisions affecting the lives of those living in the basin have been made by those who live in Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne. We now face the same prospect in relation to the Basin Plan. A group of scientists or others with no physical connection to the region will potentially have the ability to determine the future of the basin without any local input or local recourse.

We are at a moment in time when we can nationally give attention to the balanced development of city and country. It is an opportunity which must not be lost and it can only succeed if locals get the chance to have a meaningful say in the decisions that affect their lives. In doing so, they may just happen to save our capital cities, too.

Mr McCORMACK —Vernon, you might be able to answer this. On the way in, there was a sign which really quite alarmed me. I have not seen it in any other region or city that I have visited—and I have visited quite a few, let me tell you: ‘If you are dead, family and friends suffer instead.’ Obviously, it was a sign promoting wellbeing and it was against the threat of suicide, I assume. I know that prolonged drought and uncertainty over water have caused a lot of rural hardship. Do you think that sign is endemic of a problem that is being caused by these sorts of uncertainties?

Prof. Knight —I do not think there is any doubt that the uncertainties have contributed to the mental health issues that confront many in our community. Sadly, there is evidence of suicides as a consequence. I am not entirely sure that the sign you are pointing to may have been delivering that message. I am aware that there are signs relating to road safety which indicate that, if you kill yourself on the roads, it is not just you that dies. So I cannot comment on the sign—

Mr McCORMACK —It could have been a road safety issue.

Ms Harley —I believe the Victorian government’s latest campaign is focused on that.

Prof. Knight —But it is a reasonable inference that you draw.

Ms LIVERMORE —Your submission is really great. It paints a picture of disadvantage, and you have a lot of statistics in there backing that up. Is this something that has always been a feature of this region or is it something that has changed over time? If so, why would you say that that has happened? Have there been other structural changes in the region or in its supporting industries that have contributed to this over time?

Prof. Knight —We might double-dip on this one. Perhaps I can kick it off first. Again, this is a very appropriate question. My history in the region over 30-odd years has put me in a position to observe a number of changes. One that occurs to me in terms of your question is that I am imagining that expectations have probably changed. I suspect that, 30 or 40 years ago, the need for further education and the expectations around that were probably not as high. But, as things have changed, and there is the importance of kids achieving now, if you have access obviously your ability to achieve will be heightened; if you have not, it will not be. I suspect that regional Australia may well have been left behind because of those obstacles. My colleague is much closer to those issues.

Ms Harley —I think the disadvantage has been there for a long time—many, many years—and I think what Vernon has said is correct. What we are finding now, though, is that, for people to be able to achieve in life, they need to remain engaged with education. For young people to be able to pursue tertiary studies is going to be well beyond the means of many families and young people know that very early on in their lives, so they do not actually aspire to that. I think that is what perpetuates that ongoing disadvantage in our community. I think it has also created a culture around engagement with education as not necessarily being all that positive, because it is quite unattainable for a lot of people.

Dr STONE —On page 2 of your submission, you quote a Mildura Rural City Council case study done by Stubbs and Associates—and it was done very recently, in 2010, so we can believe that the data is current. It talks about the predicted loss of at least 661 jobs if in fact there is a permanent reduction in water, as is outlined in the plan. You extend that to 14.2 per cent of jobs in agriculture-related activities and population losses ranging from 1,800 to 8,200 if there are further water reductions. Self-evidently, we have had similar feedback throughout the basin as to the relationship between water security and jobs. If there were to be no further losses of water—if the government were no longer, for example, having non-strategic buybacks and, instead, there were investment on-farm and investment in irrigation infrastructure—would you be comfortable that there is still a resilience in the community to respond to the fact that they have just gone through seven years of drought, floods and extraordinary distress associated with this particular plan? Do we still have the human capital with sufficient energy and resilience to come back on stream, or do they need further, very special help?

Ms Harley —I think it is an incredibly resilient community. Their problem-solving abilities are great but they are very tired; they are worn out. A lot of them, having got through the drought and seeing and end in sight, then had floods. From our work with families, I know that, for a lot of them, going from one extreme to the other has been the last straw—to sit on your veranda and see your paddocks fill with water, knowing that EC is finishing, and asking how you are going to actually make a living. I think they are worn out and there is a need for some interventions to rebuild these communities—build the resilience and build the capacity—and have them rethink the way forward for themselves and their communities.

Dr STONE —So it will not be enough for us just to say, ‘There’s an alternative way to find the water for the environment, and the community can then take care of itself’?

Ms Harley —No. I think there needs to be more than that done.

Prof. Knight —Perhaps I can add a postscript to that. The mere fact that our communities are active and viable after a horrendous period of drought is not only testament to the resilience of the communities but also, I think, an endorsement to some extent of the way the drought has been managed in terms of the river.

Ms LEY —Thanks for the work that Mallee Family Care does; I am aware of it, certainly in my electorate. Is there any research that you can point to that links the quite alarming statistics you have presented on child welfare to the state of irrigated agriculture or the Basin Plan?

Ms Harley —No, none that comes to mind. In general, though, you do see high rates of child maltreatment where there are low income levels and high levels of disadvantage; those indicators do seem to work together.

Ms LEY —I do not want to suggest that there is a proportion of the population that would be difficult to change regardless of the drought or water allocations. Anecdotally, can you talk about whether you have seen more examples of children in this position than you would normally expect to see?

Ms Harley —Certainly, through the programs that we are offering, we are seeing families coming for assistance that we would not normally see. Just as an example, they would be Italian families that have been on the land for many years who have probably coped okay and managed their children and managed to meet their family needs and who, through the drought, have really struggled and have needed to seek assistance through our organisation for a range of issues—family relationship issues and a range of other issues—that are impacting on their ability to meet their children’s needs and to care as one would like for their children; absolutely. We have not seen that before. They are not the sorts of families that, unless they were desperate, would seek that assistance.

Prof. Knight —I made reference to Chances for Children. As I said, there is some information about that program. Like Fiona, I do not necessarily see a connection between the water issue and child neglect or need for child protection. However, if I step back from that issue and say, ‘What’s the best potential in life; what’s the thing that’s going to give you the best opportunity?’ it is going to be growing up in a family where the family can afford to house itself, where mum and dad have the skill sets needed to maintain employment, so that there will be food on the table and you will be able to participate in community life et cetera. All of that heightens the importance of education.

As a welfare organisation, yes, we deal with what comes in the door, but our long-term view is that every child that we come into contact with who ultimately becomes a parent with the ability to hold employment and be secure in life will be a blessing for their children. So we have to think a generation out. Anything that happens in relation to water that denies educational opportunities is going to present to us victims of the drought in another 30, 40 or 50 years time.

Ms LEY —Finally, if can you give the committee any statistics that indicate the increase in numbers of cases related to children and families in the years of the drought, which one could theoretically map as future years under very reduced water allocations, those statistics would be very useful.

Ms Harley —I will look into that for you.

Ms LEY —Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Vernon and Fiona. We are on a pretty tight time line and we are right on time now. Thank you for taking the opportunity to come here. I thought a number of your comments were very pertinent, particularly the last one: the damage we do now does not just go away when you shift some people around; it passes on to a future generation. I would not be surprised if that appears in the document. There will be a Hansard record and, if there are any issues with that, please let us know. If there is any other material that you would like the committee to have, let us know about that as well.

[12.12 pm]