Saturday, February 24, 2007

The recent announcement by PM Howard of a $10 billion water plan stimulated me to put finger to keyboard

An editied version of my essay has been published in the New Matilda Magazine. Below is a full copy of the essay.

Now, some weeks after the initial announcement the politics seems to be tipping towards the proposal, with a number of negotiated changes and the state of Victoria still holding out for alternative arrangements. I cannot claim to have any inside knowledge but many of the arguments I made in my essay still seem to stand. I had forgotton how much State-Federal negotiations include ploys to get as big a share of the cake as possible (the proposal to run Northern Rivers to the south by Premier Beattie has to be one of these - otherwise it is just plain foolish), rather than to do the right thing by the nation as a whole. In what is happening there is little deliberation - it is a highly politically charged process designed to deliver poor outcomes. The Federal plan does not bode well - it was clearly developed on the run and to grab political momentum.

$10 billion water plan perpetuates old thinking that takes us to the same old place

With global warming and climate change managing water is a situation of uncertainty and complexity where no individual or group knows the right answers or exactly what to do. The Prime Minister’s recent statement acknowledges what most Australians are coming to know: climate change is real, the drought is unprecedented and current arrangements are not working or able to adapt. It is not clear though whether the PM is fully aware of the implications of his proposals. For the first time a major policy statement accepts that climate change is real. By doing so it acknowledges, implicitly if not explicitly, that managing water is a situation of uncertainty and complexity. It is a whole new ball game!

Doing the wrong thing righter

The statement and its release at this time have to be considered at two levels, that of substantive content and as a political act. Considered individually and at face value it is difficult to disagree with the 10 points that are the centre-piece of the PM’s proposal. Together the 10 points are somewhat of a dogs breakfast, especially when the Northern Australia task force is thrown in. The whole is certainly less than the sum of its parts! It also perpetuates a form of thinking consistent with doing the wrong thing righter. It contains no sense of vision for the Australian landscape in a climate-change world, nor does it consider what is urgently needed – a national rural development strategy to deal with the nature and sustainability of rural livelihoods. Let me be clear here. Such a strategy cannot be confined to rural people as it involves thinking about the types of relationship urban Australians wish to have with rural Australians, and thus with the bulk of the food they eat, the water they may drink, contributions to balance of payments, the ecosystem services that they are prepared to pay for and, ultimately, the country they will inhabit in the future. This is a big issue but it is a long overdue conversation to be had.

Recognition of the need for a new set of governance arrangements is the most significant as well as the most challenging of the 10 points. A revamped Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) is proposed. The idea of managing the Murray-Darling basin as a whole system is a good one and long overdue. But can the thinking and practices on which the proposal is based deliver what is needed to achieve this? The record of Federal bureaucracies delivering joined-up outcomes is not always good as evidenced by immigration and defence-force procurement. So an important question to ask is can a Federal bureaucracy, over-sighting a revamped MDBC, recast as a new Commonwealth Government Agency, achieve what it was unable to do in the past? This is a big ask! Recent history suggests the new agency would not be sufficiently independent of the short-term election cycle, political manipulation and control. South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, possibly recognizes this with his call for the basin to be controlled by an independent body. Water and its management needs arrangements suited to the long-haul. The MDBC may also have a history from which it is unable to escape - particular worldviews and practices no longer relevant may govern the politics and knowledge that counts within the organisation.

The PM said the plan will only work ‘if the governance arrangements for the basin are put on a proper national footing’. The espoused aim is ‘to significantly improve water management across the nation’. These are noble aims but ones we have heard before. The first wave of investment in Integrated Catchment Management Committees, to some extent Landcare, and the recent formation of Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) had similar aims. In short there have been a plethora of new institutional arrangements, key components of governance regimes, set up to better manage our water. Where are these in the new proposals? What role will they play, if any? The record is not good: each wave of innovation has added to, rather than reducing the complexity. Often stakeholders have been burnt-out and disillusioned in the process. In some situations CMAs are now competitors with Landcare groups. The old thinking believes in ‘magic bullets’, but it is now recognised that thinking in terms of ‘magic bullets’ exacerbates complexity rather than managing it. To break out of the present thinking pattern we need systemic thinking and practice which is at the heart of ecology and managing complexity.

It is no cliché to say that water is the essence of all life. This sentiment is built into the ambitious European Water Framework Directive (WFD). The Directive, legislation, applicable to all EU countries, started in 2000 and runs to 2027 and says: “Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage, which must be protected, defended and treated as such”. The WFD reflects a political struggle between the view that water is part of our common heritage and that of water as a commodity. The resultant policy is a hybrid between communitarian and utilitarian concerns – for example it also states that “sustainable, balanced and equitable water use” is to “safeguard and develop the potential uses of Community waters” and “will provide economic benefits”. Here in Australia there seems limited awareness of the potential unintended consequences of the current policy trajectory. It is clear that water is well on the way to being a commodity like any other. A friend seemed to sum up the established position when he said: ‘just give it all to Macquarie Bank!’ In drawing attention to this policy trajectory I am not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater – water rights and pricing policy and environmental flows are significant and necessary achievements but I doubt they alone can deal with managing the emerging complexity.

What does handing over control mean?

Despite its limitations the WFD protects European citizens from outcomes based only on market mechanisms. The WFD is changing the historical basis of water management throughout Europe – water quality is now defined in terms of ecological status as well as chemical measures. No longer can water management be restricted to the water running between river banks or channels, the traditional domain of engineers and chemists. The WFD recognises that water flows through catchments on and below the surface, is linked to groundwater and estuaries; that farming and other practices affect it just as much as point-sources of pollution from industry or sewerage works. In other words, water is now the means to consider whole landscapes and human practices in those landscapes. Water and its management is now firmly a socio-technical issue. So when the PM asks the States to hand over control of the Murray-Darling river system just what is he asking? Is it merely pricing policy? Coordination of buy-backs? Or the management of water, landuse and planning – and thus social development - in the Murray-Darling basin? And what about Australia’s other river systems? Australia would do well to consider a version of the WFD overseen by an independent regulator concerned with the environmental, economic and social role of water.

The PM’s statement is testimony to the fact that our current Federal form of government does not work. It seems too simplistic to imagine that power can be ceded to the Federal Government for every complex, systemic issue that emerges as climate change unfolds. By all means debate the future of states, the needs for stronger regional government (it needs more lucid articulation) but in the mean time learn from the Europeans and also ask: In the face of climate change, how does running a Federal system differ from what is needed from nation states at a global scale?

Learning from Europe

What is significant about the WFD is that it is being implemented in a giant federal system (the EU) that is one of the most significant social experiments of our time. The WFD is also a unique piece of legislation, it is a social technology – just like the score for a piece of music it is orchestrating a performance. All agencies with some involvement in water and its management now have to ‘play together’ – within and between countries it is enabling agencies and stakeholders to work together in ways that have not happened in the past. Most will recognise that to produce a satisfying performance people in an orchestra need to do a lot of work – as individuals and together. The Europeans are beginning to do this work. In the process new understandings and practices are developing – it is a massive exercise in social learning.

My own research over the last six years has involved me with the WFD and its implementation. Through this involvement I have come to recognise that the WFD is not a blueprint but a vehicle for the adaptive management of Europe’s water. It will run over several cycles and in each cycle and in all countries implementation will change as people learn, work together and respond to changing circumstances. Taking a learning-based approach is not the incrementalism deplored by the PM, it is what is required in complex and uncertain situations. Abolishing the states or ceding all power to the Commonwealth will not escape the inescapable – that people will have to work together to deal with the uncertainties we face – we need to develop practices and understandings with supportive policies and institutions which enable this to happen. Market-based mechanisms may be necessary but they will not be sufficient. The recent conclusions of the Stern report on climate change are testimony to market failure in the face of complexity.

Social learning happens in the process of jointly constructing what is at issue and then doing something about it through concerted action. It is based on changes in understanding and practices. The PM’s plan offers “concerted action on issues important to all Australians” but are all the elements together to produce a ‘satisfying performance’? The allocation of money for upgrading ‘water information’ reveals a way of thinking that suggests more data gives more control. It is unashamedly designed for centralised decision making rather than local, distributed and self-organizing action that is context sensitive. In today’s world this seems a misplaced notion. Local and community knowledge is often as good, if not better and there is less attenuation between data and action – something vital in highly variable contexts. But even this is no good unless it is valued and practices and institutions allow its effective deployment. In the UK for example it is slowly dawning on those responsible for implementing the WFD that recreational anglers, the most popular ‘sport’ in Britain, are a valuable sauce of data for monitoring Britain’s waterways. What is more, if their stakeholding in the WFD is built they can also contribute to action to make things better.

Spotting old thinking

Australians need to recognise the limitations of old ways of thinking for managing in situations of uncertainty and complexity. Whenever reference is made to a blueprint (this implies a policy prescription unable to adapt to changing circumstances), ‘being objective’ or using ‘the best science to decide’ then caution and critical thinking is advisable. Scientific explanations will continue to play an important role, but science itself often exacerbates complexity, and provides an escape from honing processes of deliberative judgment. The WFD is a case in point. What constitutes good ecological status and thus what constitutes a ‘good river’ are essentially ‘unknowable in ‘objective terms’ – the final outcomes will be based on deliberative processes orchestrated around river basin planning and managing and comprising a wide-range of stakeholders. Moving natural resource management towards deliberative decision making is aided by use of, and investment in, social learning’ as a governance mechanism but people need to learn how to do it! Social learning involves concerted action – and the dynamics it enables are different to those induced by the traditional governance mechanisms – markets, regulation and education or information provision.

Learning from history

In policy development it seems easy to forget lessons from history. Current farming methods and irrigation schemes within the Murray-Darling basin are the direct result of past government policies, the action of scientists and advisors and many others – they did not just happen. They were conceived out of a romanticism for making a dry continent green and productive and as means to extend engineering expertise. It is easy to see this with hindsight. Understanding in hindsight is a primary characteristic of complex issues but hindsight is not ethical or equitable. Residents of the Murray-Darling basin, especially land managers, deserve to have a stake in creating future possibilities. Even so, conserving current practices and even whole industries in some contexts seems untenable. Many within these communities and sectors will already realise this, but they may not feel able to say it. Funds for buying back water and addressing historical over-allocation are to be welcomed, but in the absence of a broader rural livelihoods strategy the proposals run the risk of creating winners and losers. European Australians have transformed the Australian landscape and collectively we must take responsibility for it. There is no pristine ‘natural state’ to return to so as a society we need to determine how best to encourage, reward and relate to those to whom we delegate responsibility for managing the land. The essence of this is a social contract which market forces alone cannot negotiate.

What is staggering, given the history of farming and irrigation in southern Australia and the thinking that accompanied it, is the PM’s proposal for a task force to oversee a ‘Northern Australia Land and Water Futures Assessment’. This is clearly a political sop. The PM and task force members would do well to begin by reading the late Bruce Davidson’s ‘The Northern Myth’. It seems too easy to forget earlier bouts of misplaced romanticism regarding Northern Australia. If this initiative gains any legs it will merely recreate the systemic failures we are now trying to address in Southern Australia.

I said earlier that the PM’s statement also had to be considered as a political act. From a distance, and as someone who has lived much of the last 12 years outside Australia, I am not that well placed to divine the political implications. I perceive many of the elements of ‘wedge politics’ for which the Howard government has become infamous. It is an election year after all! Perhaps Kevin Rudd’s ready endorsement of the proposal is symptomatic of this? Or perhaps it is consistent with his views on a new Federalism? If so then both have in common the conservation of a way of thinking and reacting that is well past its use-by date. What also has to be discerned is whether old money (and proposals) has been repackaged to look like new? Despite $10 billion the stubbornness of old politics has little to offer in the face of significant changes to the way our future lives will be lived in Australia. Think of Iraq and the mess that particular ways if thinking and acting get you into when failing to appreciate complexity!

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