Reflections of a Basin peacemaker

Reflections of a Basin peacemaker

Outgoing chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Craig Knowles. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

Outgoing chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Craig Knowles. Photo: Stuart Walmsley


WHEN an angry mob torched the guide to a draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan at Griffith in 2010, Craig Knowles instantly recognised the dilemma.


IN late 2010, inflammatory images of an angry mob torching copies of the guide to a draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan, at Griffith, NSW, appeared in the national media.

Looking in from the outside, most people would not have understood the angst being generated in the bush over Commonwealth-driven water reforms.

But former NSW Labor politician and minister Craig Knowles instantly recognised the dilemma.

He could tell rural communities were reacting angrily to being alienated from political and bureaucratic processes, critical to their futures and their suspicions and fears about subsequent decision-making were rapidly escalating.

Some weeks later, Labor’s then Water Minister Tony Burke was on the phone asking Mr Knowles for help, to urgently rescue the historic water reform process after Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) chair Mike Taylor’s sudden resignation.

“I remember very clearly watching some of the images of books being burnt and things like that and thinking at the time, ‘this is being handled badly for the communities in that area’,” Mr Knowles said to Fairfax Media in reflecting on four years in the chair’s role before his departure at the end of this month.

“I was sitting on my lounge chair and watching it on the TV like every other Australian was at the time.

“And then some weeks after that, without any pre-warning, I got a phone call and the approach came out of the blue from Tony Burke.”

Mr Knowles thought about the then Labor government’s offer asking many questions about the challenging and difficult role.

He also conducted his own form of due diligence to gauge how 'fair dinkum' the government was about doing the job properly to achieve balanced water reforms.

“I was eventually satisfied that they were up for it and I was happy to take on the job,” he said.

Fatal error in draft plan

Reflecting further on the book burning controversy and the guide’s unpopular proposals, Mr Knowles said “at a human level”, people weren’t being treated with the respect they deserved or being listened to.

But given the draft Basin Plan aimed to invoke the most substantial rebalancing of the nation’s water accounts in history, he said it was a fatal error to ignore the needs and expertise of people living and operating within the river system.

“For people to behave in that way tells you that the appropriate levels of attention weren’t being given to them or afforded to them,” he said.

“Those people clearly, metaphorically, had their noses pressed up against the glass looking in and therefore they reacted at that basic human level.”

Mr Knowles said the government’s singular focus on water buy-backs early on in the reform process, was a flawed solution that “missed the point”.

He said the early reform agenda also failed to properly consider the value of water efficiency projects and investments, either on-farm or via other programs within the river system, and changes to operating rules and procedures.

Another stifling factor was the “naivety” of thinking the Basin Plan could all be invoked “in the space of about five minutes”, he said.

“The first thing I argued for was an opportunity to make changes sensibly and gradually,” he said.

Rebuilding trust

With civil war unfolding over the Basin Plan’s threat to rip large volumes of water out of irrigation communities, to appease what appeared to be over-inflated environmental concerns, Mr Knowles set about the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding trust and confidence.

His first priority was to hit the road and go out and talk to people living and working in the Basin who would be affected by the Plan, to gather their experience and knowledge.

“In the first six months I was on the road constantly fronting up and talking to people in big and small meetings, over cups of teas in peoples’ kitchens, and speaking to anyone who wanted to have their say,” he said.

He also reviewed the MDBA’s operations and realised it had been “very badly bruised” by previous experiences and subsequently made some rapid and “dramatic changes” to personnel and at board level.

“The first thing I did was also to prosecute to the governments the argument that if this was to be a plan then it would be a real plan,” he said.

“Not just a short-term response to the drought but something that regional communities could understand was going to provide, over the long term, a higher degree of resilience the next time drought came along.

“And if this was going to be a plan for the resilience of the Murray-Darling Basin the best place to check out how best to make that plan work was in the Basin itself.”

Plan 'written by' the bush

Mr Knowles said he also adopted an operating ethos of “no surprises” underpinned by greater transparency levels where people were, “invited in”.

“I’m very proud to say that a lot of the Plan has been written not just metaphorically but literally by people from the bush,” he said.

“People came in and sat with the lawyers and sought to understand what people were actually talking about.”

A parliamentary inquiry headed by former independent MP Tony Windsor was also critical to gauging views and expertise from rural communities to strategically inform the final Basin Plan.

Mr Knowles believes the final result speaks for itself with the Basin Plan passing through parliament in late 2012 underpinned by 2750 gigalitres in Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs), rather than the 3000 to 4000GLs proposed in late 2010.

He said the final plan also passed with the support of both major parties in the previous parliament, which - despite the initial controversy - has now “transcended” a change in government.

“The new government saying very clearly that they will adopt the plan in full and on time, I think is a tribute to the resilience to the work that’s gone into it,” he said.

“It’s been a little while now since the heat about buy-backs has been in the media and it’s really a story now about how we invest into communities.”

Finding middle ground

On lessons learned for the future, Mr Knowles said when formulating water use or land management policy, government regulators must understand that the three components of social, economic and environmental considerations are “inseparable”.

“You can’t have one without the other and anyone who pretends otherwise is either demonstrating their inexperience of naivety or they’re looking for a punch on the nose,” he said.

“It’s not about upsetting any one sector over the other; it’s about going to the sensible middle of the conversation that I think overwhelmingly, people ‘get’.

“It’s only when you get a bit more distant from what’s actually happening on the ground do people want to start segmenting those things.

“Another thing you can’t do - which I think a lot of people felt was being done early on - was they were being blamed for the problem, when in many cases, the wisdom they embodied was the wisdom to care for the land and their part of the river system.

“Not everybody wants to stand up and scream at a public meeting,” he said.

“There are many, many, people in my view, the majority, who would prefer to have a quiet conversation with you, to check out what you’re thinking and vice versa, and if there’s common ground you move forward.”

Mr Knowles said the former Labor Water Minister Tony Burke was also influential in influencing the Plan’s evolution.

“In Tony Burke’s case, I saw him develop a very high level of knowledge of water to his great credit,” he said.

“He took great interest in the detail.

“First of all he fronted and turned up which a lot of politicians don’t like to do and that was publicly important.

“But privately the application of his intellect created a few breakthrough moments.

“When things were sticking and seemed impossible, his thinking in that process was critically important along with the management of his ministerial council, where making decisions can sometimes be like herding cats.”

Collective ongoing management

Mr Knowles says big challenges remain ahead for the Basin Plan’s implementation, especially maintaining the active engagement of affected communities in the ongoing process.

“I’m very satisfied the governments want a high degree of localism in implementation of the Plan,” he said.

“Sometimes the hurly-burly of the stuff that needs to be done can sometimes see the bureaucracies move back into centre stage but in my view community should always be at the centre.

“And I’ve worked very hard to ensure that’s built into the Plan.”

Mr Knowles said other challenges are the ongoing work that needs to be done to adjust the final SDL figure; and how the States behave with the Commonwealth “as a collective group of managers”.

Another challenge, he said, would be when water resource plans are submitted from the various Basin States outlining a catchment-by-catchment approach, through to 2019.

“You could have had many different iterations of the plan but the one that’s in place now is useful because it’s adaptive and able to be moved as more and more information comes in,” he said.

“That’s just recognition of what happens in the real world where new evidence means you make new decisions - that’s what people do every day of their lives and the plan is no different to that.

“I’m pleased it’s not a set in stone plan that can never change.

“I’m very happy it can and should change and I expect it will continue to change over time.”


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