Politics and the art of high-stake negotiations

Thursday, 21 February, 2019

The Murray Darling Basin has drawn much attention in recent months, sparked by allegations of illegal water extraction, drought and the devastating consequences of reduced environmental flow resulting in mass fish deaths. As many stakeholders with varying interests vie for a part of the valuable resource, it is not surprising to see all invested players join the debate.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan, and its operation by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) at a system level, and state authorities at regional level, is rightfully recognised as one of the most sophisticated and successful transboundary basins plans. The implementation of the plan is not without its challenges and needs to evolve as new science becomes available.

In support of new science, on the 20th February, the MDBA launched a new initiative to better understand the likely impacts of climate change on the Basin. New phase of climate change research to improve Murray–Darling Basin management. 

So what is the role of politics in achieving a resolution and determining who receives the best outcome? Can political will be influenced by the masses or should it be led by evidence-based science and independent expertise? The Hon Karlene Maywald shares her thoughts on this critical situation.

“Take the politics out of water”, “Where is the political will?” and “What happened to common sense” are common catchcry’s when talking water.

Taking the politics out of water is like taking the apples out of apple crumble. The politics of water is not just about politicians. It is embedded in the very fabric of the people that make up our diverse communities. Politics is all around us and it usually happens whenever two or more people with opposing views try to come to a consensus on something. For example, sporting clubs or school councils – all goes well when everyone’s agenda’s line up. When they don’t, the happy cooperation can be sorely tested despite best intentions. In the Murray Darling Basin, opposing views and personal agendas are on steroids!

Likewise, having a lack of “political will” is often the catchcry when politicians are perceived to have failed to take the hard decisions, but it is much more complicated than that. Political will is about people and how they are mobilised to achieve a consensus that will get enough votes to enable change to occur. In the Murray Darling Basin there is a very long list of people with very different views and no shortage of activists, academics, industry lobbyists, scientists, local politicians etc. etc. trying to influence the political will and, to complicate things further, there is no one homogenous view within each sector. To top it off, once consensus is achieved, the reforms have to pass through ELEVEN houses of Parliament!  So, you can see just how tricky achieving political will in the MDB is.

So how can politicians from four States, a Territory and the Commonwealth possibly find a way to see the wood from the trees in such an environment? Well, we did just that. The Basin Plan is not perfect, but it is the best possible outcome at the time, given all the factors involved. The process was one of exhaustive consultation, building the bank of knowledge through research to provide the scientific evidence to underpin decisions and staying at the negotiating table until consensus could be reached. To walk away with bat and ball because you didn’t get everything you wanted was not an option.

In that light, South Australian Water Minister, David Speirs, was right to negotiate an agreement on the social and economic criteria to keep the additional 450 GL on the table. Water can be saved while enhancing social and economic outcomes. South Australia has already done just that, and it can be done in the other States too. It requires an understanding and a commitment to parallel programs that recover water and concurrently enable regional economic restructure on and off farm. Supportive investment that enables farmers to be more productive with less water leads to more wealth creation, healthier communities and more water for the environment.

There is still much to be done to get the plan implemented in full and continued vigilance will need to be applied to ensure that there is no backsliding on the commitment to deliver. This includes introducing more robust independent monitoring and auditing of all actions to ensure projects are delivering what they say they are going to deliver. This is essential to build community confidence over time that the Plan is doing what it is intended to do.

Makes sense to me – but that’s my version of “common sense”. No doubt there will be many other versions.

Hon Karlene Maywald
Former Minister for Water Security and the River Murray