DECENTRALISING the Canberra-based Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) remains a work in progress, to sharpen ties with farming communities that will be hit hardest by the Basin Plan’s steep reduction in productive water.
Last August, MDBA CEO Phil Glyde revealed six new engagement officers would be deployed to assist with improving stakeholder engagement throughout the Basin while strategic office locations would also boost field operations in the north and the south.
National party members like Victorian MP Andrew Broad have already indicated a desire to host regional outposts within their electorates, to enhance the Authority’s contact with farming communities as they tackle forced business alterations, due to the Basin Plan.
But the MDBA’s relocation will also be severely tested as federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce comes under increasing political fire over his $23.2 million shift of the Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale, in his New England electorate.
Mr Joyce has justified the APVMA relocation by saying it carries potential farm benefits like creating a regional centre of excellence for agriculture through its co-location at the University of New England.
However, he’s persisted with the controversial decentralisation policy despite the sluggish findings of an independent cost-benefit analysis report, strong resistance from farm industry groups and a barrage of criticism from the opposition for pork-barrelling.
That report by Ernst & Young handed to the government in August last year - despite Mr Joyce announcing during the federal election campaign that the move was happening - lists other benefits including; enhanced proximity to end users and other agricultural researchers; reduction in property costs; and job creation in the Armidale community.
But the economic assessment says the risks of moving to Armidale are “significant” with the biggest one being an inability to relocate, or recruit and replace, key APVMA executive, management and technical assessment staff.
The report says during the transition and in the short term, “the APVMA may not be able to sustain its rate of effort for registration of new agricultural and veterinary chemical products” and may have reduced access to stakeholders.
Mr Glyde said he accepted that a heated and passionate political debate was raging over decentralising government agencies, like the APVMA, while the response to moving others, like the Grains Research and Development Corporation, under a hub and spoke model, had been largely positive.
However, he said the MDBA had allocated resources to ensure more people were based out in the regions and any final, future decisions on other aspects of the move would ultimately be determined by funding.
Farm stakeholders have been long encouraging Mr Joyce and other politicians to move the MDBA’s functions out of Canberra to improve interaction with communities threatened by the Basin Plan’s heavy water cuts.
Mr Glyde said an assessment was now underway of the costs and benefits of the Authority being decentralised more than its current structure, and would soon be in a position to talk more openly about that plan.
“I don’t think it actually makes a whole lot of sense to move the whole thing out (of Canberra),” he said.
“I think we would be a lot more inefficient if we were located in a rural community but there’s a trade-off between inefficiency and awareness and engagement.
“The Basin Plan is not going to succeed if we’re still administering it with the vast majority of people still sitting in Canberra.
“We’ve got to be out there but how far we go really comes down to what I can afford.”
Mr Glyde said the MDBA had done heat mapping to measure who it visited and where the visits occurred which showed, “lots of bubbles over the capital cities”.
He said the MDBA was out talking to the Basin state governments in NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the ACT and it also had a high degree of interaction with Canberra based bodies like the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder.
“It’s about getting the balance right”, he said.
“There are some imperatives about being efficient in terms of being located in areas that have good transport linkages as well and things like that.
“But, ultimately, as we move more from Basin Plan’s design to implementing it and monitoring it, and managing it, and changing it and reviewing it, we’ve got to have a better awareness of how it’s being experienced at a local level.
“And our challenge, within our budget, is how do we best do that?
“I’m quite keen to make sure that we do have a decentralised structure and that also comes down to working on and improving our relationship with the people who actually manage the water, which are the states.
“Under the constitution, the states still have the vast responsibility for managing the water on the ground and I think we’ve got to find ways of working more in a partnership way with the states than we have in the past and I’m keen to explore that.”
Mr Glyde - previously a senior ranking and respected public servant in the Agriculture Department - said he understood why the MDBA “definitely” needed to have greater interaction with local communities.
He said the Authority’s core challenge was implementing a big picture plan for water sharing arrangements across one million square kilometres which was a large part of Australia.
But the Authority must also ensure it’s engaged with the local community “experience” because “that’s actually how they feed back to governments what’s happening with the plan”, he said.
Mr Glyde conceded regional communities remained angry about the Basin Plan’s looming social and economic impacts, by limiting farm water supplies; despite proposed environmental gains of delivering a baseline 2750 gigalitres water savings target.
“I think people are still angry and understandably so - they’ve not done anything wrong and they’ve behaved entirely within the framework of the law,” he said.
“But what’s happened is, over many years, successive governments of all political persuasions have over-allocated the water and that’s the history of the whole Murray Darling Basin.
“People are aggrieved that governments are coming in and reducing now what water they previously thought they had so it’s understandable that they’re angry.”
But Mr Glyde said the Authority had gone “some way” towards trying to dull the anger and better-explain why productive water was being taken from rural communities due to the Basin Plan.
He said during the recent northern Basin review process, the MDBA had road-tested the results of its modelling work and then asked communities to provide feedback on its economic and environmental forecasts before making any final decision, on a proposal to cut the volume from 390GLs to 320GLs.
That consultation work helped improve the depth of community understanding, he said, but it still doesn’t remove the frustration felt by irrigated farmers at having 20 per cent of the Basin’s total consumption water taken out and placed into the environment.
“That’s a big change in anyone’s book – I don’t think the Australian community quite appreciates how significant this change is,” he said.
Mr Glyde said the structural change that accompanied the Basin Plan far exceeded many others in the farm sector, like the dairy sector’s ongoing restructuring, post-deregulation, combined with the impacts of global commodity prices.
He said the Basin Plan’s modifications had also occurred over a relatively short period of time - seven years - after being introduced into law in 2012 and then out to being operational in 2019.
“That is not a great deal of time; given the scale of change businesses have to go through,” he said.
“It’s understandable that the irrigator sector and the communities that depend on it are still angry.”