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You’ve got to marvel at the chutzpah of irrigation companies as they engage in mining the public purse.
The National Auditor recently reported the Federal Government handed out $649 million to irrigation companies for water infrastructure projects. Those projects failed to pass every financial, technical, environmental and social test set by the Government itself. They got funded anyway.
If you've ever tried to get a grant for a school, health service or sports club, you'll know the hoops governments make you jump through to win a few thousand dollars.
For serious money and powerful vested interests, the rules change.
The skill of vested interests to mine the public purse is not new. Big miners that made profits of $51 billion in 2009-10 get subsidies of $2 billion each year to help them pay for diesel fuel.
Government handouts have kept loggers in Tasmanian and Victorian old-growth forests and suffocated efforts to create sustainable forest industries. These subsidies don't help reduce pollution, build a sustainable timber industry or improve the health of the river. They reward bad behaviour.
While NSW irrigators got $649 million, their counterparts in Victoria got their own pot of gold from the Federal Government to renovate irrigation infrastructure.
The Victorian Ombudsman concluded the water savings from those renovations were overestimated and cost 10 times more than the project's boosters claimed. The companies got the money anyway.
The irrigators' game is to have your cake and eat it too.
The new Murray-Darling Basin Plan is supposed to set a strong limit on how much water irrigators take so the river can flush salt out the Murray mouth, and maintain the fertility of its floodplain and forests and the health of its wetlands and wildlife. Protecting the river will protect the livelihoods of those who depend on it. The reform has been paid for many times over. It needs to be delivered.
Since the National Water Initiative was signed off by all Australian governments in 2004, reforms have given an estimated $28 billion to the 18,000 irrigators of the Murray-Darling Basin. Prime minister John Howard threw in $9 billion to further grease the wheels of reform.
All this cash was supposed to deliver action to restore the health of the Murray-Darling river system and end the overuse of water, particularly by the dairy, rice and cotton industries. It hasn't.
It would be valuable for the federal parliament to establish an inquiry to examine why, after more than 100 years of taxpayers' subsidies, the irrigation industry is still unable to pay for the operation, repair and renewal of its own basic infrastructure
Public money has been pumped into irrigation companies to provide large private benefits.
Public concern about the health of the river environment has been used to squeeze as much money as possible out of governments to fix or replace infrastructure that irrigation companies can't or won't pay for. Irrigation lobby groups then work to minimise the amount of water returned to the environment.
Murray Irrigation Ltd, a company that has been a dedicated supporter of groups that campaign against decent river flows, received $169 million in federal funding, even though its infrastructure proposal failed all criteria. The beneficiaries of this money churn – big cotton, rice and dairy – spruik a ``clean and green'' brand to consumers at home and around the world.
It would be valuable for the federal parliament to establish an inquiry to examine why, after more than 100 years of taxpayers' subsidies, the irrigation industry is still unable to pay for the operation, repair and renewal of its own basic infrastructure.
The Federal Government has been making impressive progress with its voluntary buyback program, which passed its own National Audit Office examination with flying colours.
The voluntary water buyback program gives irrigators a choice to sell part of their water to the environment. It has returned real water to the river. But irrigation companies and their lobbies have been trying to destroy the buyback program. What's strange about this attack is that for individual irrigators the environmental water buyback has been good for the river and their business. The National Water Commission reported that many dairy farmers ``have seen the buyback program as an opportunity to reduce debt and change their farming strategy''.
If it makes economic and environmental sense to spend money saving water in irrigation systems, do it. If it makes no economic or environmental sense, don't waste taxpayers' money.
Invest in dryland agriculture, which produces 63 per cent of the agricultural wealth of the basin. Or support regional manufacturing industries and energy production, or improve education or health infrastructure in country towns and cities. Those investments would strengthen regional Australia.
At some point, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott must stop the irrigation money churn and deliver on their promise to protect Australia's most important river system.