As someone who grew up on an irrigation farm in southern New South Wales and now runs a dryland farm in northern New South Wales, I have always been proud to live and work in rural and regional Australia, and to call the Basin home.
I recently had the honour of Chairing the Independent Panel assessing the social and economic impacts of water reform on Basin communities. The Panel undertook extensive consultation across the Basin over a 12 month period and also commissioned expert advice to inform our work. Our Final Report was released on Friday by the Hon. Keith Pitt MP, Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia.
Our report includes a package of 22 recommendations. We call for significant and sustained investment in communities and, at the same time, urge a slowing of the pace of planned water recovery expenditure. This dual approach gives communities both the space and opportunity to address pressing concerns and to find and embed positive strategies for the future.
Through the course of the review, we saw communities struggling with many challenges, including some in dire circumstances. We saw a complex array of factors causing distress, however seeking to blame circumstances on one factor or another is not going to solve things. Given the scale and depth of concern, we need to get the diagnoses and responses right—quickly—across all levels of government.
We heard from people caught in a one-way conversation—over-consulted and under-listened to. They were frustrated that decisions are being made ‘for’ them, often with short term objectives as the predominant driver. They want to be part of a conversation that sets a coherent vision and drives sound policy that deals them in again. First Nations communities have also expressed concern about current and future water planning, management and access arrangements.
I welcome the government’s recent commitment to action but there is more to be done.
The responsibility for action and building trust rests with us all – Governments need to listen more to communities and be called out when they get things wrong, and people in communities need to be responsible and avoid spreading misinformation or contributing to alarmism that undermines credible voices. We are not about blame or going back; we all must look to the future.
Thank you to the Panel, six highly respected and capable people who gave the review every ounce of energy they had. I’d also like to thank the community for their time engaging with the Panel. The community has always been the centre of our work and the submissions we received and the meetings and conversations we had all helped us sharpen our recommendations into a package of measures we think will provide a positive pathway forward.
By Robbie Sefton
Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains, and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.