25 January 2007

A prophet with honour (at last) as government throws money at Murray

Congratulations to Tim Flannery, 2007 Australian of the Year . He is a most deserving recipient of the honour. The National Australia Day Council website says: "Tim helps us understand the predicament we face, carefully laying out the science and showing us the likely effects of human-induced climate change. But he also offers us hope of a solution to stop and ultimately reverse this trend." I've not always agreed with everything he's said but usually find his arguments (including that in support of nuclear power as a means of countering global warming) cogent. I particularly admire his ability to convey his ideas lucidly both orally and in prose.

Tonight on The 7.30 Report he spoke which characteristic eloquence:

KERRY O'BRIEN: Tim Flannery, a former governor general once said he saw his job as holding up a mirror and reflecting the nation to itself. I wonder what you see in that mirror?

TIM FLANNERY, AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR: I suppose what I see in that mirror is a people who are coming to terms with the land that supports them and really defines them, who don't yet understand it particularly well and understand its sensitivities, and therefore are sort of like squatters. We're squatting on the country rather than being true ones who have a long term future here through a careful caring for our land.

KERRY O�BRIEN: If we've been slow learners in that, it would be in part at least, wouldn't it, because of the kind of iconic images that we've drawn for ourselves as being hardy pioneers of the land, and the land and our development of the land, working of the land, has been so much a part of the ethos.

TIM FLANNERY: That's right, and that grand illusion, if you want, came from a particular history where our ancestors came from an overcrowded and impoverished Europe into this, what seemed to be an open continent, that seemed so easy to exploit. You could put the sheep on the land, you didn't even need to knock down the trees and all of a sudden you were a wealthy landowner. And that pioneer phase is due to a naivete both on the part of the land about us and us about the land and what it can actually contain. It was as if we ate through the wealth of the continent in just a few decades rather than carefully shepherded it. And those images and icons made it harder to realise the reality of the situation for us and I think it's only now, as people look at the country with new eyes and see that it is limited, that we need to take care of it and that it will define our future, that we're starting to see a new reality.

KERRY O�BRIEN: You wrote an Australia Day article, as it happens, five years ago in which you talked about how Australians tend to define themselves culturally as opposed to how they should define themselves; can you remember your argument?

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, I can, I remember thinking about it, why we imagine that meat pies and football and Holden cars are important when the true underpinnings, the one thing that we all share as Australians, is this land. It's what gives us our water and our food and our shelter and defines us as a nation. Why isn't that the basis of our common sentiment about what it means to be an Australian? The rest of it seems to me to be sort of randomly chosen bits of icons that we just happen to like.

If you'd like to read more of his work, I'd recommend The Weather Makers: The history and Future Impact of Climate Change (ISBN 1 920885 84 5), Country
(ISBN 1 92088 544 7) or his shorter 2003 Quarterly Essay Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia (ISBN 1 86395 339 6).

Last year he also featured in a TV Documentary Two Men and a Tinnie about a trip down the Darling and Murray Rivers in a tinnie ( a small aluminium boat powered by an outboard motor normally used on sheltered waters such as rivers) . He drew attention to the environmental degradation of the system.

This brings me to today's other big environmental story, where the Prime Minister has pledged $10bn to solve the water crisis. Mr Howard will be using the big stick he'd promised a few months ago not to use to take away powers from the states. Admittedly the states haven't exercised their powers as effectively as they might have, but I'm not convinced that having Canberra dealing single-handed with the Murray-Darling basin problems is wise, despite Mr Rudd's support for a bi-partisan approach, which presumably includes support for taking away state powers.

The Murray-Darling basin covers a significant area of four states where there are a variety of activities competing for water. South Australia, especially Adelaide, depends on the system for its water. But how, if the PM and Mr Rudd's wishes are implemented in their most extreme form, will the voices of urban householders and small horticulturalists and viticulturalists be heard over those of the large agribusinesses upstream and the carpetbaggers everywhere who'll come flocking to see how much can make for themselves while professing to support "market forces"?

Tonight, also on the 7.30 Report Malcolm Turnbull, the newly appointed Minister for Environment and Water Resources, outlined some of his opinions, rather more circumspectly I thought than his party colleague (and PM's good friend)Senator Bill Heffernan on ABC Radio's PM.

Not surprisingly the state premiers aren't over enthusiastic about the proposal even though, according to the ABC,environmental groups and farmers are broadly supportive of it.

As with so many broad brush proposals the devil is in the detail, which we've yet to see.

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