This week, more than two thousand farmers turned up at Parliament House for a mass protest against the impacts of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
The contentious, cross-state policy was put in place in 2012 and sets out how water from the river system will be shared between classes of licence holders, the environment and Indigenous people. But in recent years – especially as drought becomes more frequent- it’s been the subject of much scrutiny.
Those living and farming in regional areas, like rally co-organiser Carly Marriott of Barooga, claim the plan is crippling local communities and people’s livelihoods.
A young mother of three, Marriott tells me she’s had little choice but to become an unintentional activist in a bid to put pressure on the federal government to revoke or at least significantly rewrite the plan. She says the current policy “is threatening everything” about the life she loves.
“I run our family farm with my husband and we farm in the Murray irrigation district, so our water security has been threatened. It’s very hard as farmers who try to reduce risk, because as you know everything’s fairly risky for farmers.”
For farming families, water security is directly connected with economic security. When this is thrown out of kilter by drought, regional towns are hit the hardest. Marriott explains that when things are going well in Barooga, everyone feels it, but the same applies when things are tough.
“When I grew up, there was around 900 people and now there’s maybe 1200,” she says.
“And so we all know each other, and we all play a role in the town. When things are good, they’re good and when they’re bad they’re bad and you know who’s hurting.
“And you know if we don’t get a crop, we don’t go and get a haircut, we don’t go and get a new car, we don’t go and do things. The flow on effect for the community is instant. It’s not like it takes a few years to show up, it shows up within one season of farming,” she says.
The reality of this is often fierce and confronting. You might walk into your child’s daycare knowing you’re unable to foot the bill, or stumble upon the local truck driver who’s been laid off because he has no crop to cart.
Anecdotes like this correlate with a study conducted by the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) last year which found that farmers in NSW experienced significant stress about the effects of drought on themselves, their families, and their communities. This was especially true for farmers who were younger, experiencing financial hardship, or were isolated.
As well as the social impacts, Marriott says the Murray Darling Basin Plan, in its current form, contributes to the degradation of natural environments- far from its intended purpose.
“They seem to be using the Murray River as a canal to flush as much water as they want from A to B and with scant regard for what happens in between, which is where we live,” she explains. “And so we’re seeing bank erosion, we’re seeing these ancient river red gums toppling over because of the pace at which government is sending water down the river.”
When I ask Marriott whether she feels there’s a reckoning of sorts occurring across farming communities, her response is emphatic.
“Absolutely,” she says.
“We’re not being listened to by our local member for Farrer which is Susan Ley, who also happens to be the Environmental Minister. And then, when we try and work with them [the government] we’re also hitting a brick wall,” she adds.
“We have a group called the Southern Riverina Irrigators, which was set up to hear our farming needs, but they’re not being listened to by government either on a state or federal level, so that’s when we’ve just thought: ‘okay, well let’s cut out the middle man, and we’ll just take it right to Canberra’.
“If they’re not going to come to us, we’re just going to come to them. And that’s really how the convoy to Canberra was born… out of frustration and that disempowering feeling of, you know, ‘they’re not listening and they don’t care.’
“But this is huge. This is food security and this is Australia’s food bowl, so everyone needs to care.”
The Murray Darling Basin Plan is predicated on bipartisan support from all states which border the river system including Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. But Marriott believes there’s a collective “political attitude” that fails to grasp the gravity of the situation nor the scale of people impacted.
For context, the Murray-Darling Basin drains one-seventh of the Australian continent, and represents one-third of its agricultural production. It’s also home to more than two million people.
“You just feel like they shrug it off and say, ‘it’s okay, that’s just the minority, disregard them,'” says Marriott. But now things have shifted “and they can’t say that anymore because we’ve got the numbers,” she adds.
“We’re at the coalface of social, economic and environmental levels, that’s why we’ve all become activists, (which we’re not). We’re farmers and we’re small town people. It’s not in our natural makeup. We’re fairly conservative really, but we’ve been driven to act because it’s just so unfair on all those fronts.”
And seemingly their pursuit and protest in Canberra has not been in vain.
Federal Water Minister, David Littleproud privately conferred with regional leaders at the rally, and committed to an investigation of how states share water under the agreement. He wants Interim Inspector-General for the Murray-Darling Basin Mick Keelty to conduct this by March 31, but will need buy-in from all state water ministers.
“I do trust that something good happened in Canberra,” says Marriott, whose father Chris Brooks was one of the leaders who privately met with Littleproud to discuss a way forward.
“We’ve been given assurances that all states are going to cooperate, but then that needs to be formalised in December. And then, from there, it really is up to Mick Keelty to rip the lid off this and go through it state by state and just try and see the wood through the trees here,” she says.
Marriott, like many others, feels like accountability for the plan has been flimsy, given the nature of its power structure and the many hands at the play.
“It’s just so insane to manage a resource that crosses four state boundaries and is then governed by a federal government as well as the state governments,” she says.
“Everyone can just pass the buck. It gives them all too much wiggle room on all fronts. So I think giving the inspector general power to take ownership of this, and to fix the whole problem is the best news we’ve had.
In terms of an ultimate goal, Marriott says their mission is simple:
“Fairness. We just want fairness,” she tells me.
“We’re not out to headhunt anyone, we don’t want to point the finger and see anyone jailed. We just want the fair share of our water so that we can carry on farming and living in these small towns and looking after these rural environments and communities,” she says.
“We just want things to go back to a good fair share of water and I think it’s manageable, we just need to bring some common sense to the table. Anyone can see that if you’re flushing fresh water out to sea during the crippling drought, that’s not good management is it? It doesn’t matter what the politics are, that doesn’t pass the pub test.”
An unintentional activist perhaps, but Marriott clearly has a passion for the cause and a persuasive voice. I ask her whether she’d ever consider a position in Parliament herself.
“I’m just back from two days in Canberra that were fairly taxing so I don’t know if it would be good for the soul to spend too much time in that place,” she laughingly admits.
“I think I’d much prefer to do more grassroots level work, because that suits me and that suits the life I want to create for me and my family.
“I have three babies under three and we’ve got a good life out here. We want to enjoy it. But pretty much for their entire life we’ve been arguing and debating water policy, so if we can get this fixed, I’d be happy to work on a local level just to maintain things and make sure we don’t get derailed again by people with agendas and trying to work the political scene.”