Friday, October 31, 2008

A misguided desire to save the bush

There has been much written about Australia's national character emerging from a bush ethos -- the idea that a specifically Australian outlook emerged first amongst workers in the Australian outback.  But few now have anything much to do with the bush.  They mostly live in cities, or close to the beach, and spend holiday time on the coast.

However, the concept there is an outback still looms large and successive federal governments have claimed they can save it.

The previous Howard government was going to save the Murray from salinity and largely achieved this through the construction of salt interception schemes.

The new Rudd Government plans to save the Murray from climate change.  This is perhaps a more ambitious undertaking.

The Rudd government was elected with the help of internet campaigners, GetUp, and this group recently joined-in with a major online campaign claiming to provide an opportunity for ordinary Australians to "keep the rivers flowing" and "save Australia's food bowl" through a few mouse clicks at the home computer.

In particular it seems many city-based Australians believe that there is no water because of over-allocation exacerbated by climate change and so if the Government buys back some water there will be more for the remaining farmers and this will "save the food bowl".

Certainly, much of outback Australia is under pressure from a series of dry years and reduced runoff, including pressure from changed land management practices.  But as some farmers explained on ABC television's Four Corners, you can't buy back rivers, not even with billions of dollars.  The reason -- water allocations are just air space until it rains.

Furthermore, only a few thousand hectares of the Government's recent purchase, Tooralee Station, involved irrigated agriculture and now the 91,000-hecatre lot will be converted to national park.

While the latest city-based internet campaign claims to be about "saving the food bowl" there is much precedence to suggest that government interference will only result in less agriculture generally and the redistribution of some water downstream when it does eventually flood.


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