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Water under the bridge – what were they thinking? (Australia’s Environment Cabinet Papers 2003, Part 2)

by | Feb 21, 2024 | 2 comments

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Recently released Cabinet Papers throw valuable light on what the government was thinking back in 2003 when it was attempting to tackle the problem of inland water shortages and an ailing River Murray. The papers reveal that they were prepared to accept the scientific advice as long as it didn’t rock the boat and didn’t cost too much. Exercising ‘precaution’ they were not.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth, yet we divert vast quantities of water for irrigation, especially in our food bowl, the giant Murray Darling Basin. As a result, water sharing and conservation will always be major issues for domestic policy, more so as the climate heats up.

Back in 2003, the Cabinet (of Australia’s Government, back then led by the conservative Coalition parties) considered two significant issues on water reform. The first dealt with a proposed national framework, the National Water Initiative (NWI), while the second focused on the problems of Australia’s most significant river, the Murray, with the idea that a new initiative, ‘The Living Murray’ (TLM), would nest under the NWI.

The National Water Initiative

The first document before Cabinet was a memorandum – advice from senior officials – proposing a National Water Initiative (NWI). Officials told Cabinet that an earlier national Water Reform Framework (1994) had delivered significant gains in water management, but there were more efficiency-gains to be had and that riverine environments were continuing to degrade.

There were three drivers for reform. First, creating best-practice and compatible (state-based) water trading systems would maximise growth in irrigated production, particularly by facilitating interstate water trading. Second, factoring environmental costs into water prices would protect or restore environmental values. Finally, more efficient and successful industries would reduce the need for government ‘transitional assistance’ as water entitlements were inevitably reduced in over-allocated systems.

Sounds sensible and reasonable, and Cabinet agreed to pursue the NWI as recommended, noting that this would be a complex, multi-jurisdictional and lengthy reform. The NWI was subsequently agreed between the Australian and State governments in 2004 and continues to be updated and reviewed to this day.

It seems that Cabinet needed little convincing. Indeed, Prime Minister John Howard had already begun to make the case publicly by applying the well-known (in Australia) metaphor of the ‘rail gauge problem’ to describe incompatible State water markets.*

This result is not surprising, as this was essentially a neoliberal argument to a neoliberal government, that economic efficiency increases the size of everyone’s slice in the pie, including, in principle, the slice allocated to the environment.

The Living Murray

The second document was a joint submission — ie, from ministers rather than officials — concerning the need to return water to Australia’s greatest river, the Murray through a new program, ‘The Living Murray’ (TLM).

Taking the lead was agriculture minister Warren Truss, who was also leader of the National Party (representing rural and regional interests). Environment minister David Kemp was second author.

The ministers told Cabinet of scientific advice that the Murray River was in continuing decline and that action was required if the river were to be restored to a ‘healthy working condition’.

Ideally a ‘whole-of-river’ response was needed but targeting five ecologically-significant assets along the river, four of which were Ramsar wetlands, would, while delivering ‘significant local benefits’ rather than ‘whole-of-Murray’ benefits, still ‘contribute significantly’ to the whole river.

Cabinet endorsed the proposal. Funding would come from a $500 million pool allocated by the Commonwealth and the ‘Basin States’ to address overallocation of water in the entire Basin.

Cabinet also agreed to a community engagement strategy, based on the narrative that this was a ‘first step’ and that the government was seeking community input.

It may surprise some that a centre-right government, which included environmental sceptics among its ranks, would act on the advice of environmental scientists and make a substantial investment in restoring major environmental assets.

Despite this, the decision is open to criticism from an environmental policy perspective.

First, the 500 GL target was minimalist, given advice that up to 1500 GL were required. At best this was a high-risk approach; at worst, just wishful thinking. Certainly, the precautionary principle was nowhere to be seen.

Second, TLM was agreed on the basis of being a ‘no regrets’ approach that was to ‘minimise social and economic impacts (eg, by making full use of high-flow years)’. Cabinet also decided to present TLM publicly as a ‘first step’.

The implication was that this was a new problem, which the government was just starting to address, and that things could be fixed without significant pain for locals. The government would fund efficiencies in water infrastructure, or dam surplus water wet years to enable the release of more water in dry years. Irrigators and other locals need not wear any pain.

This was far too rosy a view. The problem was in fact not new, and fixing it required strong action, not a ‘first step’. The two ministers merely hinted at the reality, telling Cabinet that ‘in the longer run’, it would be necessary to buy back water from irrigators. This of course has come to pass, and buy-backs remain highly controversial in irrigation areas.

What were they thinking?

The 2003 environmental policy narrative on water was a mixed bag.

The submission on TLM is the more interesting of the two, because it comes from ministers, who donned rose-coloured glasses, not only for themselves but for their proposed public messaging. Short term politics prevailed over the long term imperative of caring for the essential and irreplaceable.

This is hardly new, but it is interesting to see how the politicians told the story to each other behind closed doors.

The narrative of NWI memorandum is also of interest, even though cast in the bland and analytical style of its bureaucrat authors.

The memorandum reflected mainstream economic theory, a theory with which the government was very comfortable. Its unstated message about making the pie bigger for everyone, including the environment, was a comfortable one.

The problem with this view is that while growing the pie can work for a while, it can’t grow forever. The size of the pie is limited by the resources Nature can spare. If we take what Nature can’t spare, we’ll be in trouble, as indeed we are.

Unlike the TLM narrative, the story on the NWI was not coloured. It simply represented orthodoxy, when the problem called for thinking — and action — that would take everyone out of their comfort zone.


There are several references in these Cabinet documents to the Wentworth Group (of Concerned Scientists) having advocated certain positions. It struck me that Cabinet was paying the Wentworth Group particular attention, more than it paid to other environmental groups and more attention than Wentworth Group gets now.

I put this down to the advocacy skills of the late Professor Peter Cullen (1943-2008), one of the founders of the Wentworth Group. Peter was always in the media during this period and he always spoke with a particular blend of expertise, clarity and charisma. He would later play a pivotal role in convincing Prime Minister Howard to adopt Australia’s biggest-ever water reform, the National Plan for Water Security, in 2007. Such powerful advocates are rare and I think Peter’s impact is visible here at the very heart of government.

*At federation in 1901, no two adjacent and interconnected Australian states had the same rail gauge. Since then, several ‘standard gauge’ interstate lines have been built.

Banner image: Image by Keith Clarkson from Pixabay


  1. Bernard Wonder

    A quite harsh treatment of an historical step forward? TLM was a landmark decision recognising the special environmental values of icon sites and making a major contribution towards realising specific outcomes capable of measurement. Unfortunately, much of what has purported to be environmental advances in more recent times lacks transparency and fails to nominate Improvements that can be measured objectively and monitored accordingly.

    • Peter Burnett

      Thanks Bernie. I agree TLM was a significant program in the context of Australian politics as it was then, and largely continues to be. I should have made it clearer that my lens is one of the ideal – what should we be doing, and what should we have been doing, to keep the environment in good ecological health for the long haul? Through that lens, governments everywhere have not been sufficiently ambitious in environmental policy because the politics are too difficult. As a result, one of my research interests is how to close the gap between what is environmentally necessary and what is politically feasible. I will pick up on these points in my next blog.


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