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John Passant

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October 2010



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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Sick kids and paying upfront


Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. (0)

I am not surprised
I think we are being unfair to this Abbott ‘no surprises’ Government. I am not surprised. (0)

Send Barnaby to Indonesia
It is a pity that Barnaby Joyce, a man of tact, diplomacy, nuance and subtlety, isn’t going to Indonesia to fix things up. I know I am disappointed that Barnaby is missing out on this great opportunity, and I am sure the Indonesians feel the same way. [Sarcasm alert.] (0)



Water, capitalism and aboriginal land

Water is a basic requirement for life. Under capitalism it is also a commodity. This means it is, like all things, subordinated to profit.

It is not just that we need to water to drink. Water is integral to the production process for food and for heavy industry.

In Australia over 65 percent of all water use is for agriculture, 10 percent is used by households and almost 25 percent by industry in various guises.

The Murray-Darling Basin was and is an integral part of Australian capitalism. It took off after  the second world war through irrigation to become the food bowl feeding the productive centres of South East Australia.

An added bonus for right wing political parties is that family and other small scale farmers are overwhelmingly conservative.  For example Labor holds none of the seats along the Murray-Darling.

According to a Save the Murray website fact sheet:

In the Murray-Darling Basin most water use is dominated by irrigation. Irrigation in the Basin accounts for 52.4 % of all water used in Australia, and 75.0% of all irrigation water is used in the Murray-Darling Basin.

The Basin occupies about 14 percent of Australia’s landmass, encompassing all of the ACT, much of New South Wales and Victoria, and parts of Queensland and South Australia. South Australia as an end user is particularly impacted by upstream regulation and diversion. There are over two million people living in the Basin and a further 1.5 million outside it dependent on its water. Adelaide for example is reliant on Basin water.

 According to the Heritage at Risk website:

Today the river system is highly regulated. This has produced Australia’s most important agricultural region accounting for over 34 per cent of the gross value of agricultural production. It also provides drinking water to over three million people, one-third of which are outside the Basin. But irrigation is the largest user (95% of diverted water) and there has been a five-fold increase in water diverted from the River system since 1920 (now over 10 000 gigalitres on average each year).

The diversion of Snowy Mountains waters has underpinned the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electricity scheme, a scheme supplying over 50% of renewable energy to the eastern mainland grid. The water from the scheme is then diverted to the Murray-Darling Basin. 

In terms of efficient use of water, irrigation is particularly inefficient.  According to Urban Ecology Australia, the gross value per kilolitre of water for agriculture is 58 cents, while for manufacturing it is $84. This low return for kilolitre of water used in agriculture is partly because of 2 crops on the Basin – rice and cotton, both of which use massive amounts of water.

I should add that this doesn’t make such agricultural activity unprofitable since it is return on investment that is important to capitalists, not the environmental costs or otherwise of their actions.

The environmental costs are huge. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority in its recently released Guide to the Basin Plan talks in terms of a balance between environmental and consumption concerns. However it warns:

The Authority also recognises that the environment has not had sufficient water for decades. This has led to serious environmental decline in many parts of the Basin. The real possibility of environmental failure now threatens the long-term economic and social viability of many industries and the economic, social and cultural strength of many communities.

 For that reason the Authority suggested cuts in water allocation of at least 3000 gigalitres a year, recognising that this would not restore the river systems to full environmental health and that upwards of 8000 of the 10,000 gigalitres currently diverted would be required to do that.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority plan envisages cuts in water allocation of up to 45%. The people of the Basin have responded angrily, burning copies of the draft plan.

The anger has seen the Government back away, saying the guide is just that, and not Government policy. The Authority has announced it will now conduct a study into the social and economic impacts of its proposed plan. 

This Labor Government backs down in the face of concerted opposition. It capitulated completely to the big miners over the Resource Super Profits Tax. The Labor Party ditched a Prime Minister over the tax, at the behest of the mining billionaires. 

The Government saw the anger in the Basin comunities and is backing away from action to restore the Murray-Darling Basin to health, thereby condemning it to a long slow death if its backdown becomes a reality.

It is the classic conundrum for capitalism of the short term versus the long term.

Although agribusiness is becoming more prevalent, most farms are still mainly small businesses. Their complaints about the impact on them and their livelihoods are perfectly valid.

However their problems and the fact that the Government could (although this seems unlikely given they are white and middle class and number hundreds of thousands) abandon them are a consequence of two inherent structural problems of capitalism – the lack of planning and the lack of democracy.

A democratic and planned society would take into account environmental damage in deciding where production occurs. For example it is unlikely water hungry rice and cotton production would be carried out in the Basin. That would be more appropriate for climates in South East Asia.

The possible abandonment of the Basin, or some sections of it, as a consequence of increased environmental flows, will wreak havoc on those whose livelihoods depend on the current irrigation levels. They may well be thrown to the wolves. That’s how capitalism works.

A democratic and planned society, where the well being of one is the well being of all, and where production occurs to satisfy human need, would not and could not destroy these people. The adjustments would be seamless.

The likely outcome of the argy bargy going on is some sort of slow adjustment process with minor price signals which may or may not save the Murray-Darling system from collapse. Any structural adjustment program will buy off irrigators much as Labor’s Emissions Trading Scheme would have channeled money to the polluters.

The workers of the region and Australia more generally would pay the price of this subsidisation of the petit bourgeois of the Basin – through further environmental damage threatening their futures, and in increased food and other prices and higher tax burdens.

Any subsidies should go to the workers of the region, not their bosses.

The farmers of course live on stolen land and are using stolen water. This is aboriginal land and aboriginal water. There has been no recognition of the dispossession of the original inhabitants and the misuse of their assets. 

So we will continue to subsidise the irrigators, only more so if the signals from Government and the Authority are any guide, to carry out activities that are detrimental to the long term health of the river system, and to the workers directly in places like Adelaide and more generally across Australia through higher food prices and the like. 

Yet while the ruling elite will throw billions at small farmers to ‘solve’ the issue, they refuse to recognise prior ownership and dispossession of the aboriginal people, a dispossession that is on a scale that makes any changes in the Basin’s economy look positively minor.

If farmers and others in the Basin deserve compensation for changes to water allocation, then how much more so do aboriginal people for the genocide the capitalist system unleashed and continues to wage against them?

We are blind to our history. Justice for the people of the Basin demands justice for the original owners of the land and water.


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