Four Corners in the firing line after Murray-Darling report

Four Corners in the firing line over 'misleading' Murray-Darling report


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ABC TV's Four Corners program has again come in for more stinging criticism of its treatment of Australian agriculture.

ABC TV's Four Corners program has again come in for more stinging criticism of its treatment of Australian agriculture.

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Four Corners program has again come in for more stinging criticism of its treatment of Australian agriculture.

Aa

ABC TV's flagship current affairs program Four Corners has again come in for more stinging criticism of its treatment of Australian agriculture.

This time it is over a 43-minute program on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan titled 'Cash Splash', which was broadcast last night.

The program examined the impact of the MDB Plan, implying the environment had gained little under the $13 billion plan.

Perhaps more damning is that key players including federal Water Minister David Littleproud and the MDB Authority say they were not contacted for comment by the national broadcaster.

Cotton Australia general manager Michael Murray.

Cotton Australia general manager Michael Murray.

Cotton comes out swinging

Cotton Australia general manager Michael Murray said the 'Cash Splash' story was riddled with factual errors and guided the audience down a path of misrepresentation about the fundamentals of the MDB Plan.

"It is beyond disappointing to once again see the ABC's Four Corners program use its influential position to air another biased, inaccurate piece of journalism," Mr Murray said.

"It is understandable that the average viewer might have concerns about the plan's irrigation efficiency programs that the show focused on.

"Given the way the show was presented, it would be understandable for a viewer to question whether the environment has gained anything under the plan."

Mr Murray said at no stage did the program attempt to explain how the Basin Plan has recovered 2100 gigalitres of water for the environment, with just under 700GL coming from irrigation efficiency and infrastructure projects.

"There also wasn't any effort to highlight the economic stimulus communities have received from the programs, rather than the economic devastation straight 'buybacks' have afflicted on many basin communities," he said.

"The idea propagated by Four Corners that irrigators are using more water by taking up water efficiency schemes is false. The only way an irrigator can acquire more water is if they buy a licence that allows them access to more water from the existing water licence pool."

Mr Murray said under the plan, the government could either purchase water through buybacks or acquire water through funding irrigation efficiency schemes.

"While the upfront cost of buybacks is cheaper, the irrigator and their local community cannot make up for the lost production by the entitlement leaving the productive side for the environmental side," he said.

"Efficiency projects are a more appropriate option because irrigators can do more with their remaining water, thereby underpinning communities."

Water Minister David Littleproud says water efficiency projects return water to the river system while protecting rural jobs and communities.

Water Minister David Littleproud says water efficiency projects return water to the river system while protecting rural jobs and communities.

Littleproud angered

The Four Corners program also angered federal Water Minister David Littleproud, who said water efficiency projects returned water to the river system while protecting rural jobs and communities.

"It is unfortunate Four Corners did not mention this crucial fact," he said.

"The Coalition uses water efficiency projects instead of water buybacks to recover water because water buybacks mean less farm production, less harvesting and packing jobs in small towns, and less money spent in the local pubs and restaurants.

"Water efficiency projects began under the previous Labor government, after it had bought back nearly 1200GL of water and literally thousands of rural jobs were lost. The Coalition promised before the 2013 election to use water efficiency projects to recover water and we've delivered our promise."

Mr Littleproud said the plan had so far delivered 2100GL of water back to the river system with about another 500GL to go. 1200GL was recovered through buybacks mostly under Labor, 700GL through water efficiency projects and the balance through state government programs and gifted water.

"The water efficiency projects help farmers grow more with less water through projects such as replacing leaking old drains with modern pipes to save water, and as trade-off the farmer gives up some water entitlement which goes back to the river and is not available for purchase by irrigators again," he said.

"Other common projects include installing drip irrigation to deliver dripping water directly to tree roots through a network of small pipes, to replace huge sprinklers or the flooding of entire paddocks."

Mr Littleproud said taxpayer-funded water efficiency projects helped farmers grow more with less water, and return water to the river system.

"This way the river, the farmer and the community all win," he said.

"The river gets more water, the farmer produces as much or more produce and this protects jobs for the local community.

"If that farmer or company uses other money to plant other crops or buy other water; that's up to them so long as all approvals are met.

"Australia is a free country."

SA Environment and Water Minister David Speirs.

SA Environment and Water Minister David Speirs.

Speirs supports efficiency measures

Rather than questioning the validity of water efficiency projects, SA Environment and Water Minister David Speirs pushed for water infrastructure programs to be accelerated.

"Although there are critics of water efficiency programs, as demonstrated on Four Corners last night, they received bi-partisan support across state boundaries when the plan was agreed to in 2012 and remain the best way to recover the full amount of environmental water required under the plan," he said.

"Efficiency programs have the potential to benefit the environment, irrigators and the local communities. They also better prepare our irrigators and communities to manage the impacts of climate variability and future climate change.

"Investing in infrastructure that saves water and returns water licences to the Commonwealth to use for the environment has been agreed to as the preferred way to recover water."

Mr Speirs said efficiency measures had increased productivity in SA's river communities, while returning real water to the environment.

"Now is the time to accelerate these programs to deliver the plan as agreed," he said.

Regarding the Four Corners episode, Mr Speirs said any concerns raised about the accountability of water recovered for the environment would be taken seriously.

"As outlined in the Productivity Commission's report, there needs to be an increased focus on auditing and accountability of water recovery and this is something we will continue to argue for," he said.

The Murray-Darling Basin covers one million square kilometres of south-eastern Australia, across NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT.

The Murray-Darling Basin covers one million square kilometres of south-eastern Australia, across NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT.

SA politicians call for action

State Opposition water spokesperson Susan Close said the issues raised in the episode showed Mr Speirs "must act" on the SA Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin.

"The Royal Commission was highly critical of Mr Speirs' decision to collaborate with the Commonwealth and eastern states to complicate the criteria water efficiency projects must meet," she said.

"Mr Speirs must finally act in SA's interests, forget playing politics, and insist on a healthy River Murray flowing into SA."

If this Four Corners exposé doesn't prompt the federal government to establish a Royal Commission, what will it take? - REBEKHA SHARKIE

Meanwhile, Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick and Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie called for a national Royal Commission to be held to deal "with the many serious allegations that have piled up".

"These range from corrupt science being used to form up the plan, rorting and thieving, dodgy water buybacks, alleged favours to large irrigators and now allegations of taxpayer dollars being used to do the opposite of what the money was intended to do - taking, rather than returning, water to the River," Senator Patrick said.

Ms Sharkie called on all SA politicians to "stand up united for their state".

"If this Four Corners exposé doesn't prompt the federal government to establish a Royal Commission, what will it take?" she said.

Stand by your plan

The MDB Authority said it stood by the fundamentals of the basin plan, and checked water take limits were being met.

"The latest report finds that farmers are not taking more water than is allowed under the Basin Plan," an MDBA statement issued this morning reads.

"While direct water purchase is cheaper than investing in irrigation infrastructure, research shows it causes more social and economic harm to regional communities."

Comment has been sought from Four Corners.

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