Bernard Eddy of the Australian Water Network has forwarded us a heartfelt Online Opinion article by Kellie Tranter – lawyer and writer who dedicates much of her time to promoting social, environmental and political responsibility, calling for government and business accountability and speaking out for the underprivileged and voiceless. Read on:
“As we go about our daily activities it is hard to believe that we are probably on the verge of a water collapse.
How did it come to this? That’s a question I often ponder, and I’m sure I am not alone in contemplating that fundamental question.
Almost three quarters of New South Wales is now in drought. Yet not withstanding a recent Australian study linking drought with rising emissions, and warnings from international experts that the reasons water scarcity has become a major global concern include population growth and climate change challenges, the march of “progress” continues exponentially. More people are concerned about these things than not, and their level of concern is increasing, but does that mean anything at all to our governments?
It is hard to believe that we conceive democracy as a government by all the people, direct or representative, or more generally as a form of social organisation that ignores distinctions like race and class, tolerates and accommodates minority views, and acts with the principal object of maximising benefit to all citizens. Is that what we have in Australia today?
It seems to me that we have lapsed into something much less than a democracy of that kind. I see our relationship between citizens and the state as more like an arranged marriage. An imposed but loveless marriage. A marriage of empty promises. You try to make the best of it for the sake of the children, but when your head hits the pillow at night you are struck by the reality that you have over-invested in the relationship and it has cost you your life.
In Australia in general and New South Wales in particular, for the average citizen that marriage consists of a life spent in the valleys with little if any support from the state to reach the summits of the surrounding mountains.
Early on in the marriage we were told by the state that water needed to be “managed”. We were given water management legislation that grew and grew over time, until eventually you no longer had to own land to hold a water access licence. We were promised that this would maximise the social and economic benefits of water to the community while being consistent with the maintenance of long term productivity of the land. Has it done that? Or was it all a complex lie, a carefully staged process of commoditising and privatising water to create “opportunities” for exploitative free-marketeers at the expense of the rest of us?
We didn’t anticipate the effects of our subservience in this marriage until the consequences started to come home. As the marriage became more brutal we began to protest and threaten to leave, but the brutality continued unabated. Part 3A of the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act 1979 was introduced, its glistening point hidden by rosy red promises that it would strengthen the environmental planning and assessment process, improve community consultation and transparency and remove red tape.
What made us stay when we’d heard promises like that before and seen them quickly broken? Why didn’t we do anything to try to drive out the exclusions sitting in the next room? Why did we simply accept that standard approvals like water use approvals, water supply, drainage and flood control works, controlled activities and aquifer interference would no longer be required, or things like Part 3A changing the National Parks and Wildlife Act so that developers couldn’t be prosecuted for harming protected fauna without a licence, if the work carried out is essential for Part 3A projects.
What were we thinking? Were we thinking at all?
Then comes the coup d’etat. Throughout the marriage you have come to accept your lot with little or no resistance in order to keep the peace. You have to keep the household running, and pay your mortgage and pay your bills, and you really don’t have time to rock the boat yourself and deal with the consequences. Sure, there have been affairs with the opposition from time to time, but the choice was and is always illusory, very much like choosing between two washing detergents: flash packaging and slick advertising, but exactly the same thing inside. The opposition’s offers of a comfortable and pleasurable alternative were illusory, a temporary distraction from your reality. And in return for your next instance of personal compromise you are handed the Water Industry Competition Act with a semi-apologetic smile. After such a long, arduous marriage that has left you so battle weary, might you finally have happiness and peace? After all, the objectives of the Act are to encourage competition in the water industry and to foster innovative recycling projects and dynamic efficiency in the provision of water and wastewater services. Is that a glimmer of hope sparking up within you?
You poor, helpless fool. How could you have known that your spouse was conspiring with the opposition – your impotent former lover – to open the doors for outsiders, private players including foreign companies, to control, among other things, your drinking water as a retail consumer?
And sold out once more, yet still you stay.
Is it really any wonder that while your spouse sleeps you pray that the traditional owners of this land will use their skills and profound experience and understanding to help us find solutions to the problems that lie ahead, and at the same time you secretly desire that they rise up and enforce their rights under one of many ratified international treaties available to them?
Out of pure desperation you turn to your faith and seek advice from Father Kevin. You tell him about the links between surface water and ground water. You ask why your spouse and his interstate counterparts are frogmarching the public into dams and desalination plants before fully researching recycling and stormwater harvesting options. And finally you confess your concerns about water over allocation and inefficient irrigation practices. He says he understands. He says, as always, that he will take full responsibility. But has he? Has he taken full responsibility for the preservation of the Great Artesian Basin or the Murray Darling Basin or South Australia’s Lower Lakes and the Coorong or for the plight of the people the Lachlan River once supported?
In our dysfunctional marriage with our governments we either concede power or they simply take it from us. Try to protest and you feel you’ve been run over by a truck. But we must do all we can, as loudly and as quickly as we can, and we must all act together. If we think our basic rights will be protected in this marriage by merely casting a vote once every three or four years the truck will keep running over us. Just how long are we willing to stay in this relationship?
A marriage like this requires constant participation. Power is something we confer on government, and if we give them the right to exercise that power we should expect them to observe the co-relative duty to exercise it in our best interests. They don’t do that when they don’t listen to what we say. And they aren’t listening now.”