The term “disconnect” has become increasingly fashionable. Yet, at times, it has some resonance. As the response to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s guide to the proposed basin plan demonstrates, there is little connection between those commissioned to recommend on the amount of water that can be taken from the basin and those who live and work in the area.
The timing demonstrates the point. The guide was released late on Friday, October 8, and contained scant reference to the likely social and economic consequences if the findings about the need for cuts in water use were implemented by government. The following week, the authority’s chairman, Michael Taylor, and chief executive, Rob Freeman, visited Shepparton, Deniliquin and Griffith.
The disconnect between Taylor and Freeman – career public servants who can look forward to taxpayer-subsidised superannuation – and the residents of the Murray-Darling Basin became evident. Hence the reaction.
On Thursday the Gillard government announced that the independent MP Tony Windsor would be the chairman of a parliamentary committee entrusted to look at the human impact of changes to water allocations in the basin. Then, on Sunday, Taylor announced that the authority itself would commission a detailed social and economic study into the likely social and economic impacts of the proposed basin plan on local communities. Not before time.
Listeners to ABC’s news and current affairs heard a case study of policy on the run. Initially, Taylor indicated he did not really know how many jobs might be lost in the agricultural sector if the figures in the guide were acted upon. It might be 800 job losses but, then, it might be “significantly higher”.
The reaction to the authority’s briefings should not have been surprising. In Griffith, Teresa Reginnto asked what her family should do. Should the business be sold? If so, should the family stay in Griffith? If not, should it move to another town or to a city? The authority could provide no answers.
In Shepparton, a farmer said he and his wife had accumulated four farms and a heap of water over 25 years: “That’s our superannuation because we don’t have super like normal everyday nine-to-five workers here.”
The disconnection between those who backed the guide’s thesis and those who might experience its recommendations was dramatic. The supporters were public servants along with the likes of Professor Richard Kingsford – academics who work at publicly funded universities. Support was also evident among journalists who have rarely worked outside the public broadcasters or big media companies.
Take ABC Radio’s Deborah Cameron, for example. On the morning of October 8 a story leaked that the authority would recommend big cuts in water for irrigation. This led to some emotional reactions, including from a female resident of Griffith who predicted water riots. Talking to her colleague Mark Simkin, Cameron declared that “at some point, someone just has to look at these people and say, ‘Oh, break it down.’ ”
Cameron’s comment overlooked the fact that the plight of “these people” involved not only farmers in the basin but also that of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. It was the classic disconnect between the inner-city, well-educated professional with a secure job and guaranteed superannuation and the less-educated small business operator or employee in the regional centres or outer suburbs.
Meanwhile, reports from Melbourne indicate another lot of “these people” are causing problems. The state Labor government has proposed a tunnel under fashionable Yarraville and not-so-fashionable Footscray.
Last week the Herald-Sun published a leaked email from Greens candidate Janet Rice, who commented that Footscray residents needed help in protesting against the tunnel because “they are poorer and less articulate than Yarraville residents”. Yet another example of “these people” not understanding what their real interests are, apparently.
The growing disparity in Australia is not so much between rich and poor but between the well-educated in secure employment and the less educated in small business and uncertain employment or on pensions. Any change which does not take this division into account is doomed for political failure.
It’s not too late for Julia Gillard to hear the message.