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Policy and politicians are failing our environment and our future

By Ebony Bennett

January 12, 2019 ‒ You probably had a lovely shower this morning before you sat down to read the paper. Imagine if, when you turned the tap, the water that came out stank. That's life for people in Menindee and surrounding areas right now.

Politicians from every state and federal parliament should be at Menindee to experience the stench of policy failure, because it is the mismanagement of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, not the drought, that is the true culprit for the toxic mess in Australia's greatest river system.

It's not just the odour that's offensive. It should be inconceivable that a $13 billion water reform developed in response to drought has failed at its first drought. The fury and distress of farmers Rob McBride and Dick Arnold, as they held the rotting corpses of two enormous and iconic Murray cod, was palpable and it is a fury every Australian should share.

Federal and state governments have used taxpayers' money to effectively make the problem worse. In the next few weeks the federal Coalition government will use taxpayers' money to make another environmental and economic policy mistake that will burden future generations: refurbishing or building a new gas or coal-fired power station. Fortunately, it's not too late to stop that disaster – but more on that mess later.

Murray Darling mess

Governments of all political stripes are almost always willing to sacrifice the environment for big business, but the toxic mess in the Darling River shows the environment can only be pushed so far before it collapses. And when ecosystems collapse, we can't buy our way out of it, we can't return cotton for a water refund so that people in Pooncarie can take a shower without giving their children skin infections that require hospitalisation.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan is supposed to deliver more water for the rivers. It was designed to prevent environmental disasters like the one currently stinking up the Darling River. The Barkandji People, after waiting 18 years for their Native Title to be acknowledged, have seen the Barka (Darling river) just dry up.

Barkandji Elder Badger Bates said "without the river, us Barkandji people, we are nothing. We've got no land, no name, nothing. This is our lifeblood, this is our mother."

Australia is a land of droughts and flooding rains, but this is a man-made ecological disaster. Draining the Menindee lakes twice in four years has proven to be an environmental catastrophe and it was a deliberate decision that must now be explained.

The only flood the Murray Darling has seen lately is the flood of media reports unleashed after ABC Four Corners blew the lid on allegations of water theft – since then stories of agency cover ups, political and regulatory capture, agencies with cultures of non-compliance, dodgy water deals, alleged fraud and unlawful amendments have been flowing non-stop.

Underwriting new coal-fired power a disaster for taxpayers

Now the Morrison government is rushing ahead with a half-baked plan to use taxpayers' money to underwrite new dirty gas or coal-fired power stations, or refurbish old ones. Unless we stop it, this will be a disaster economically and environmentally, even the Australia Industry Group (AIG) warned this plan could leave taxpayers exposed to liabilities "with a net present value of billions of dollars".

For the first time in the history of Australia's electricity grid, coal fired power is not the cheapest form of new power generation. You'd think that would be good news to Australia's 'minister for reducing electricity prices' Angus Taylor, but he is determined to waste taxpayers' money on a project no-one in the private sector will back with their own money.

The Energy Minister plans to handpick energy corporations to back. We don't know how he will pick the lucky energy company given the program has not been finalised. We don't know under what authority he will provide the support (and there are questions around whether he will need legislation as well) because the government has not provided much detail at all.

What we do know is that Minister Taylor has ignored the ACCC recommendation that would bar any party that already holds more than 10% of a single market, allowing the big energy companies – the same ones accused by the Minister of pushing up electricity prices using their market power – to also take advantage of this new government subsidy instead of guaranteeing more competition.

It is not the only ACCC recommendation Minister Taylor has ignored. Government funding will begin from the first year of operation, without any demonstration that customers have been lined up to purchase the power.

Last week Seven News reported the government has received "up to 40" expressions of interest for public support for new power generation, including some for new gas and coal power plants. Minister Taylor will rush to finalise the request for proposals in the first quarter of 2019, before the budget and before the impending election.

This process stinks like the fish rotting in the Darling. Bypassing good process and due diligence is becoming a hallmark of this government (the Senate is still looking into the dodgy deal with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation). To lock in new gas and coal power generation that will pollute our air for up to 50 years, instead of taking the policy to the election a few months away, is not just irresponsible – it is vindictive.

Our government isn't tackling global warming, it's throwing coal on the fire and using taxpayer's money to do it. If Angus Taylor proceeds with this plan, he is thieving from future generations, leaving them a toxic environmental and economic burden he won't have to deal with.

If the environment never wins, we all lose

It's not just the Murray Darling Basin Plan or our electricity system where our governments are failing. Almost 40% of Australia is covered by coal and gas exploration licences and applications.

In Queensland, some of our best food-producing land has been sacrificed to fracking. In WA, the rock art at Murujuga – the world's largest outdoor gallery, with petroglyphs that predate the pyramids – is under further threat from two proposed chemical plants. The marine sanctuary that is the Great Australian Bight is slated to become the home of an enormous oil drilling project that – if anything goes wrong, could result in an oil spill that oozes its way from the coast of Tasmania to beaches two third of the way up the NSW coast. And the NSW government just altered strict requirements for a detailed investigation of the impacts to groundwater and vegetation of Shenhua's Watermark coal mine.

For years, successive governments, including the current Coalition government, have treated Australia's clean water, clean air, fertile soil and oceans as an acceptable casualty to virtually every and any mining and development project that has been proposed.

Australia's EPBC Act is supposed to be our blue-ribbon environmental legislation. The Australia Institute published research which showed that between the commencement of the EPBC Act in July 2000 and August 2015, approximately 5500 projects were referred to the Minister under the environmental impact assessment provisions. Of those, just 21 projects (0.4%) were rejected or refused approval.

The number of times the federal government has protected the environment over a development proposal is effectively a rounding error.

A strong corruption watchdog with teeth can't come soon enough. I bet the NSW and federal elections can't come soon enough for people in Menindee either.

Ebony Bennett is deputy director of The Australia Institute

Published in Chain Reaction #135, April 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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