The water crisis has plunged the Nats into a world of pain. But they reap what they sow



Angry farmers are pressuring the Nationals to tear up the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Daniel Connell, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

When farmers descended on Parliament House in Canberra this month to demand the Murray Darling Basin Plan be dumped, they reserved sharp words for Nationals leader Michael McCormack.

“The National Party is not going to exist after the next election unless you grow some spine,” one angry irrigator warned him.

“Get up there and say ‘this is not f—ing good enough’. Get angry!”




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By the end of the week, federal Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud, a Nationals MP, had announced a review of water sharing arrangements under the basin plan, claiming it would “take the politics out” of the issue.

But that hope will be in vain. If irrigators in New South Wales get more water, that means less for the environment and other water users downstream including irrigators in South Australia.

The Nationals are wedged between NSW irrigation communities and its coalition with the Liberals. But this crisis is largely of the party’s own making, and it will not go away any time soon.

Farmers say water shortages are threatening their livelihoods and communities.
AAP

A political bind

The Murray Darling Basin Plan became law in 2012. It’s meant to determine how much water can be drawn from the river system by users, mostly irrigators who use about 95% of extracted water. The plan aims to return some water to rivers, wetlands and flood plains by buying it from willing sellers on the water market, and improving infrastructure to prevent water loss.

The National Party has long blamed the basin plan for a raft of problems facing rural communities. This attitude might have served the Nationals’ short-term political interests. But it created a monster: stoking dissatisfaction from rural voters it is now unable to manage.




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The beneficiaries are right-wing minor parties such as One Nation, to which rural voters in NSW and southern Queensland are now turning.

The Nationals’ base might be rural, but it is in coalition with the Liberals who must appease both capital city voters concerned about the environment, and constituents in downstream South Australia where voters of all persuasions think their state does not receive a fair share of water.

The Nationals are wedged between their rural base and Liberal voters.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A history of white-anting

It is ironic farmers now accuse the Nationals of not doing enough to oppose the basin plan, given the party’s record on water policy at a state and federal level.

As far back as the 1980s, it became clear water salinity and over-extraction by irrigators was degrading river environments in the Murray Darling Basin.

Over ensuing decades the Nationals could have helped affected communities accept the need to take a basin-wide approach to water extraction. Instead they fuelled resentment by demanding more water for irrigators, implicitly dismissing the legitimate needs of the environment and downstream water users.




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In the early 1990s, for example, when a cap on further extractions was being planned, the NSW government (whose water policy was controlled by the Nationals) insisted water licenses not yet activated should be accepted within the cap. This substantially increased the volume of water extracted.

But even after securing the the changes, the Nationals campaigned against the policy.

Later as part of the Howard government, the Nationals reluctantly helped prepare the Water Act 2007 which underpins the basin plan. When it finally went before Parliament in 2012, McCormack, then a backbencher, opposed it. Such opposition has been a hallmark of Nationals policy ever since.

Receding waters in the NSW Menindee Lakes which is under pressure from low water flows.
Dean Lewins/AAP

In NSW, Nationals water ministers have undermined the plan in many ways, including by failing to ensure the timely delivery of “water resource plans”. These plans are supposed to outline how water will be shared between irrigators and the environment at a regional level, and are essential to the success of the broader basin policy.




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Meanwhile federally, Nationals MPs have insisted water for the environment be acquired by improving water infrastructure rather than taking water from irrigators. The building of this infrastructure has led to additional costs for taxpayers for little environmental benefit.

Farmers at a rally outside Parliament House. They want the basin plan scrapped.
Lukas Coch/AAP

So what next?

The basin plan now appears on the brink of collapse. The NSW government is threatening to pull out if changes are not made and Littleproud’s decision to review water-sharing arrangements is hardly a ringing endorsement of the plan.

Meanwhile the Greens and other critics say the plan was never adequate anyway,
given the low volumes of water redirected to the environment and its failure to properly recognise climate change.

If irrigators succeed in having the plan scrapped, their victory is likely to be short-lived. Public anger at ongoing environmental degradation will only grow. And depending on the party in government when a new Murray Darling policy is drafted, irrigators may be treated with far less sympathy.The Conversation

Daniel Connell, Research Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia needs a national crisis plan, and not just for bushfires



Bushfires aren’t the only catastrophic emergency Australia is likely to see.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Andrew Gissing, Macquarie University and Michael Eburn, Australian National University

Calls are growing for a national bushfire plan, including from former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who says they are an issue of national security and the federal government must provide hands-on leadership.

It’s true that more people are living in high-risk bushfire areas, emergency services are stretched and the climate is rapidly changing. Future crises are inevitable. We must consider the prospect of a monstrous bushfire season, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

But bushfires aren’t the only catastrophe Australia must prepare for. If we are to create a national crisis plan, we must go much further than bushfire planning.




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Not just bushfires

In the decade since Victoria’s Black Saturday fires, we have improved fire predictions, night-time aerial firefighting, construction codes and emergency warnings. All of these have no doubt saved many lives.




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There are calls for more resources to fight fires, as part of a coordinated national plan. But few people have proposed an all-encompassing vision of such a plan.

For a start, it should not be confined solely to bushfires. Far more people die during heatwaves and residential housefires. Tropical cyclones, floods and hail each cost our economy more.

Any plan must provide a strategic vision across these various facets for at least the next ten to 20 years.

A national firefighting force?

Calls for a national firefighting force to supplement existing state resources are fundamentally short-sighted. A national force – quite apart from the level of duplication it would create – would spend much of its time idle.

Even during severe fires, such as those now raging, there would be limits to its usefulness. At a certain point, the size and energy of the fires means no amount of firefighting technology will extinguish them all.

Research conducted by Risk Frontiers, the Australian National University and Macquarie University through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, has focused on better planning and preparedness for catastrophic events.

This research concludes it is unrealistic to resource the emergency management sector for rare but truly catastrophic events. It is wildly expensive to remain 100% prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Instead of simply scaling up existing arrangements, we need to think differently.

Bush firefighting could be improved by innovation and research. Future investments must focus on rapidly detecting and extinguishing ignitions before they spread out of control.

Everyone is responsible

States and territories are traditionally responsible for emergency management in Australia. But almost by definition, a catastrophic disaster exceeds one’s capacity to cope – inevitably drawing on nationwide resources.

This means preparing for catastrophic disasters is everyone’s responsibility.

Existing plans allow for assistance across state borders, and between state and federal governments. But there is no national emergency legislation defining the Commonwealth’s role, or assigning responsibility for responding to a truly national disaster.

The Australian Defence Force has a well-defined support role in natural disasters, but should not be relied on due to its global commitments.

However, resource-sharing between states could benefit from more investment in programs that enable emergency services to work better together.

International help in massive emergencies also needs better planning, particularly around timing and integration with local agencies.

Non-government organisations, businesses and communities already make valuable contributions, but could play a more central role. We could look to the US, which successfully uses a whole-of-community approach.

This might mean emergency services help community organisation provide aid or carry out rescues, rather than do it themselves. These organisations are also best placed to make sure vulnerable members of the community are cared for.




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The most important task is to reduce the risk in the first place. The vast majority of disaster-related spending goes on recovery rather than risk reduction. Calls from the Productivity Commission and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) for more disaster mitigation funding have been largely ignored.

The federal government’s recent National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework highlights the need to identify highest-priority disaster risks and mitigation opportunities.

This would see priority investments in flood mitigation and strengthening of buildings against cyclones in northern Australia. (This will also help address insurance affordability.)

Land-use planning needs to be improved to reduce the chance that future developments are exposed to unreasonable risks.

Infrastructure must be constructed to the highest standards and, following a disaster, destroyed buildings should be rebuilt away from dangerous areas.

Finally, communities have the most critical role. We must understand our local risk and be ready to look after ourselves and each other. Governments at all levels must facilitate this spirit of self-reliance. Local leadership is crucial to any crisis plan and communities need to be involved in its construction.

Eastern Australia’s bushfire crisis has triggered emotional arguments for throwing resources at the problem. But planning must be careful and evidenced-based, taking into account the changing face of natural disasters.




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The Conversation


Andrew Gissing, General Manager, Risk Frontiers, Adjunct Fellow, Macquarie University and Michael Eburn, Associate Professor in Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s no airport border ‘crisis’, only management failure of the Home Affairs department


Regina Jefferies, UNSW and Daniel Ghezelbash, Macquarie University

In the past five years, more than 95,000 people who arrived by plane have lodged a claim for asylum in Australia, new statistics show.

Labor’s Immigration Spokesperson, Senator Kristina Keneally, has labelled this a “crisis”, stating:

Peter Dutton’s incompetence and recklessness has allowed people smugglers to run riot and traffic record-breaking numbers of people by aeroplane to Australia.

But the “crisis” is not that visa-holding travellers are flying to Australia, then later lodging a claim for asylum. It’s not unprecedented for tourists or students to later lodge a claim for asylum due to circumstances beyond their control.




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In 1989, for example, after events in Tiananmen Square, Australia provided refuge to thousands of Chinese students who had entered Australia with visas.

Instead, the “crisis” is the Australian government’s failure to properly manage the refugee-processing system. It gutted the ranks of experienced decision-makers and made organisational changes that undermine the quality of decisions, contributing to long processing delays and backlogs.

These organisational failures may have contributed to the increase in asylum applications over the last five years.

High staff turn-over

Protection visa decisions are highly complex. They must examine a variety of factors, including country-specific conditions and individual circumstances.

Yet, as the Australian National Audit Office noted in 2018, the Home Affairs department experienced a significant loss of “corporate memory” due to staff turn-over, “with almost half of SES officers present in July 2015 no longer in the department at July 2017”.

In a Senate Estimates hearing last year, Home Affairs officials said the average processing time for permanent protection visas, from lodgement to primary decision (not including appeals), was 257 days, or 8.5 months.

And the department’s training deficiencies are well-documented. The most recent Australian Public Service Employee Census put the department’s organisational management problems into stark relief: only 35% of employees said the department inspired them to do their best work, while two-thirds of respondents said they did not consider department senior executives to be of “high quality”.

These publicised problems raise important questions about the quality of decision-making at the primary level.

Stacking the AAT with political allies

Poor decision-making at the primary level can lead to higher numbers of appeals. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) from people who arrived by plane are also experiencing significant blowouts.

The number of active refugee cases to the AAT has ballooned from 8,370 two years ago, to 23,063 in 2019.




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This results in a backlog. In 2017, the tribunal made 5,153 decisions on refugee claims, and so far this financial year, only 815 claims have been concluded.

In part, these worrying figures are due to the federal government appointing people with Liberal Party ties to the AAT over the last couple of years.

The Attorney-General recognised these problems in the 2019 Report on the Statutory Review of the Tribunal, which pointed to “competencies of members” as a key contributor to complications in the operation of the tribunal.

Stacking the AAT with political allies, many of whom are not lawyers and who are not appointed on merit, has removed independent expertise from the tribunal, risking errors and further delays.




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And with more errors come further appeals in the courts. This not only places a heavy burden on the resources of the Federal Circuit Court and Federal Court, but also leads to more delays and backlogs in the AAT, where the court sends matters which were unlawfully decided for re-determination.

Address organisational failures

The solution is in proper organisational management. Instead of blaming refugees for fleeing persecution by safe means, the government must address the failures of its refugee processing system.

To this end, an urgent review of the Department of Home Affairs policies and organisational failures is needed. A review could find out whether there’s a management culture stopping Home Affairs from attracting and retaining staff who can make reasoned and well-supported decisions in an environment they can be proud of.




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Similarly, there must be a transparent and independent system for appointing AAT members that prioritises skills and experience over politics – exactly what was recommended by the Attorney-General’s recent review.

If people seeking asylum can have their claims assessed quickly and fairly, then those who are not refugees can be sent home, while those needing safety could receive it.

Without the chance to remain in Australia for years while their claims are assessed, there would be no loophole for traffickers and others to exploit.

In turn, the number of non-genuine claims will go down, allowing decision-makers to focus on those who are actually fearing persecution.




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We should be supporting refugees to access safety by air. If people fleeing persecution can access a flight to Australia, they won’t risk a dangerous journey by boat to find safety.

This is not an airport border “crisis”, it’s a management failure that can be fixed with more staffing, better resourcing, and transparent and meritorious appointments of decision makers.


Correction: A previous version of the article stated 815 refugee claims were concluded this year. This has been updated to clarify that 815 of claims were concluded during this financial year.The Conversation

Regina Jefferies, Affiliate, Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW and Daniel Ghezelbash, Senior Lecturer, Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Centre-left politics: dead, in crisis, or in transition?


New Labor leader Anthony Albanese will need to negotiate the centre-left ‘crisis’ if he hopes to win office.
AAP/Bianca de Marchi

Rob Manwaring, Flinders University

The ALP’s defeat at the 2019 federal election was a surprise. Shorten’s Labor fell short, against both wider commentariat predictions and unrepresentative polls. Yet, if we take a step back, the result is less surprising if we locate Labor’s defeat in the wider “crisis” of social democracy.

Across the advanced industrial world, the centre-left largely remains in opposition, with poor prospects for immediate future government. In the UK, Corbyn-led Labour has been unable to capitalise on the Brexit result, and the chaos that enveloped Theresa May’s Conservatives. A likely “Boris bounce” (or “Hunt honeymoon”) may only make the gap wider.

In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was once a colossus of European social democracy. But it has failed to dent Angela Merkel’s long dominance of German politics, and critically, is now being pushed even behind the German Greens as the main left challenger.

Elsewhere, the results are poor. Last year, Matteo Renzi’s centre-left coalition lost out at the Italian elections, and the extraordinary populist government of the Five Star Movement and far-right League hold office. In France, the Socialist Party (PS) has seemingly not recovered from the Macron win at the French Presidential election. The Dutch Labour Party (PvDA) is also still licking its wounds from a humiliating defeat in 2017.




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The picture is not consistently bleak, though. In Portugal, Antonio Costa’s left coalition (an unwieldy group of left parties dubbed “the contraption”) has proved remarkably resilient. Moreover, the Swedish Social Democratic Party is governing in coalition in that traditional bastion of social democracy. The recent win of Mette Frederiksen in Denmark has also given optimism for the centre-left parties. And of course, the impact and leadership of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand was another positive result for the left.

Yet, there are wider structural problems for the centre-left, which mean that even these more recent positive electoral results may conceal ongoing identity issues. If we return to Australia, we can see what is underpinning these results – the structural decline of the vote for the centre left.

As the table below shows, the primary vote of the ALP has consistently fallen, and certainly stagnated over the past three elections. Indeed, the ALP has not won an election outright for over a decade.


Author supplied

If we put this into a comparative view, we can see more starkly the wider trend and decline in the structural vote of the left. The following table aggregates the main centre-left party’s vote share for each decade, and is grouped by region. Here, the Australian story of decline parallels the fortunes of its sister parties.

Generally, the left vote is falling in the Nordic countries and Western Europe – the mainstay of social democracy. In the Mediterranean countries, the centre-left parties have been electorally devastated by the GFC and, critically, the Euro debt crisis. Even in countries where the centre left has not been dominant (Ireland, Japan, Canada – in the “other” category), the story is of decline.


Author supplied

If it is a story of decline, what might be driving it? Two key factors help capture, but not necessarily explain, the problem. First, the centre left is losing its traditional vote base in many countries, in some measure because citizens are far less likely to have a strong partisan identity.

The second part of the story is the decline of the major parties as dominant forces, and increasingly the rise of far right, populist, and other party challengers. The recent election in Finland is a striking case where, for the first time, neither major party achieved over 20% of the vote. Social democratic parties face more challengers and, as in France, are squeezed by left and right.




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Is this a crisis of social democracy? Perhaps. The bleakest view, offered by writers like Ashley Lavelle is that the parties are actually already “dead”. In this view, social democracy was a specific egalitarian model – especially in the 1970s – and since the parties have capitulated to neoliberal orthodoxy they are bereft of meaning (Hawke-Keating era is the Australian exemplar).

A different approach is to understand the problems facing the centre-left as an electoral “crisis”, particularly the European parties. Much of this literature focuses on what has happened to these parties since the heyday of the “third way” in the 1990s. In sum, it is unclear that the parties have yet to sufficiently recover their core mission and aims.

A third view sees this less as a crisis and more a “transition” – epitomised by a writer like Herbert Kitschelt. In this view, the parties are in a process of change as they reconcile with left libertarian agendas. That central dilemma – environment concerns vs “traditional” jobs – played out starkly in Queensland for the ALP, over the Adani mine.

Moreover, as Carol Johnson writes in her excellent new book, the centre left parties have expanded their idea of equality, and this has brought new dilemmas.

As Anthony Albanese, freshly minted among a whole crop of centre-left leaders, is discovering, these issues will not be resolved quickly. Given the wider diversity of the centre-left, it remains unclear what the next, “fourth” wave of social democracy might entail.The Conversation

Rob Manwaring, Senior Lecturer, Politics and Public Policy, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hong Kong in crisis over relationship with China – and there does not appear to be a good solution


Mass pro-democracy demonstrations over recent days have underscored the fact that Hong Kong residents are fearful of creeping mainland control.
AAP/EPA/Vernon Yuen

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

When Britain ceded its control of Hong Kong in 1997 – after its 100-year lease expired – concerns were raised that a 50-year “one country, two systems” formula would be insufficient to protect citizens’ rights.

Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, was among those warning about the risks to the territory’s autonomy under Chinese control.

However, it was argued at the time the “one country, two systems” deal was the best outcome that could be struck under the circumstances.

Twenty-two years later, not quite halfway through a 50-year transition to a notional end to a “two systems” arrangement, it is clear that the relatively benign outcome envisaged in 1997 is under unusual stress.

Mass pro-democracy demonstrations over recent days have underscored the fact that Hong Kong residents are fearful of creeping mainland control that will obliterate their relatively unfettered rights under the 1997 formula.

Their immediate concern is an extradition bill, before Hong Kong’s legislature, that would enable Beijing to extradite alleged criminals. The legislation invites understandable concerns that it could be misused to secure the extradition to the mainland of China’s critics under the pretext these individuals had engaged in criminal activity.

Hong Kong’s relatively free media are alarmed at threats to press freedom inherent in the bill.

Beijing has done little to assuage these concerns. It has accused “foreign forces” of misleading Hong Kongers as part of an attempt to destabilise China.




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In China, authorities have blocked foreign news sites to prevent the dissemination of reports and images from the streets of Hong Kong. This is no doubt out of concern that street demonstrations might become contagious on the mainland.

The fact these demonstrations coincided with the 30th anniversary of the June 6 1989 Tiananmen massacre in which hundreds, if not thousands, died in a government crackdown will have fuelled Beijing’s nervousness about developments in Hong Kong.

What distinguishes the latest mass protests against Chinese attempts to circumvent its 1997 “one country, two systems” undertakings from protracted disturbances in 2014 is that this time it reflects increasing alarm about Beijing’s stealthy attempts to extend its control.

In 2014, demonstrations against Beijing’s violation of its commitment to autonomous local elections lasted months. This was the so-called “umbrella movement”, distinguished by the symbolic carrying of umbrellas by demonstrators.

In 2019, and judging by events characterised by fairly heavy-handed use of tear gas, water cannons and other methods to break up the demonstrations, the authorities have resolved to try to nip in the bud this challenge to Beijing-dominated Hong Kong rule.

Whether this works remains to be seen.

The disturbances pose a challenge to Western governments at a particularly fraught moment in global affairs. Relations between the US and China are on a knife’s edge over trade and other issues. This includes sales of sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan, tightening sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, moves to bar the telecommunications supplier Huawei from building 5G networks of US allies, including Australia, and a confrontational approach to China in Washington more generally.

Ill will over Hong Kong will not be helpful.




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From Australia’s standpoint, the Hong Kong disturbances come at an awkward moment as a newly elected government in Canberra wrestles with China policy.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s initial response to events in Hong Kong was too meek. Through a spokesperson, she said:

The Australian government is taking a close interest in the proposed amendments […]

Australia’s interests in Hong Kong deserve something more forthright than this.

Not only does Hong Kong absorb A$11 billion worth of Australian merchandise exports annually, services trade at A$3 billion is significant, and total investment in Australia of A$116 billion puts the former British territory in the top 10 foreign investors.

On top of that, about 100,000 Australians are resident in Hong Kong. This is not a small number in a population of 7.5 million.

While it is true Hong Kong is less important economically than it was in 1997, when its GDP was 16% of China’s (it’s now 2%), it still remains an indispensable financial conduit and testing ground for financial reforms.

Hong Kong provided the financial platform for China’s cautious experimentation in its move towards making the yuan a global currency. Hong Kong’s stock exchange is an important vehicle for capital-raising for Chinese companies.

The events of recent days have placed Beijing’s woman in Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, who was selected by Beijing as chief executive two years ago, in an invidious position. If she yields to the protesters and withdraws the extradition law, she will run foul of her controllers in Beijing.

If she pushes ahead in the Legislative Council with the support of 43 pro-Beijing lawmakers out of 70, as she insists she will, she risks further disturbances.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.