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Is anyone really listening? The Murray Darling and the limits to community consultation

What’s wrong with this picture? Ask the community. Proposed changes to the MDBP were largely regarding limits to the amount of groundwater to be extracted. ECO IMAGES PTY LTD

Is anyone really listening? The Murray Darling and the limits to community consultation

What’s wrong with this picture? Ask the community. Proposed changes to the MDBP were largely regarding limits to the amount of groundwater to be extracted. ECO IMAGES PTY LTD

On 28 May 2012 the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) handed down its long awaited revised blueprint to restore health to the Murray Darling Basin.

The plan was the result of a 20-week community engagement process launched in October 2011. The consultation process involved 24 public meetings, 56 round table and technical meetings, 18 social and economic briefings for representatives from rural financial organisations, five regional briefings on water trading issues, and an Indigenous consultation process. There were also 31 bilateral and working group meetings with basin states.

At the conclusion of the process almost 12,000 submissions had been received, resulting in 300 alterations to the draft plan.

This stage of the MDBA’s public consultation process was, however, only the formal phase of its engagement strategy, as required under section 43 of the Water Act 2007 (Cwth). Even before the formal consultation process had been initiated, the MDBA had convened 110 round table and technical meetings and more than 200 multilateral and bilateral meetings and working group sessions with state and territory government officials. It had even consulted on the best way of consulting with stakeholders.

Robert Lisle

Community consultation mechanisms have become a familiar fixture within the policy maker’s tool kit. Such strategies became increasingly popular both in Australia and internationally in the 1990s, even if government rhetoric about their purported value has not always lived up to reality.

Public engagement strategies can assume a variety of formats and they can run for varying lengths of time. They are almost always costly exercises in financial terms.

Any assessment about the likely benefits and risks associated with public consultation is deeply rooted in particular conceptions about the preferred role of the citizen in the democratic process.

Proponents say these arrangements are inclusive of the body politic (and thereby extend democratic forms of participation). They can also (re)energise and mobilise disaffected citizens back to the political mainstream.

Public consultation can serve as a useful information-gathering tool that draws ideas from a diverse array of perspectives. This can improve the quality of policy outcomes because decisions are informed by a more comprehensive fact finding endeavour. But it also subjects the policy making process to a modicum of transparency that is otherwise lacking in the more traditional model of policy making.

When deployed effectively, public consultation can even enhance the legitimacy of outcomes. The bringing together of the protagonists may produce a more rounded understanding of the complexities of the matter in dispute. This may, in turn, enhance voluntary compliance once a decision is reached. The shared ownership that comes with being granted a voice can help motivate affected parties to comply with the final outcome.

But public consultation does carry risks. It can slow down decision-making. Outcomes may have to be deferred until the consultation process has been exhausted and the views of participants collated. The agents who are most likely to benefit from time delays are policy makers grappling with contentious decisions.

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Moreover, implicit in support for public consultation is the assumption that citizens are not only inclined to engage but that they are equipped to do so.

The MDBA’s consultation process, along with its resultant recommendations, exemplifies some of the complexities associated with public engagement.

The concerns of stakeholders have hardly been assuaged by the MDBA’s final report. Not only has the consultation process been denounced as a farce but there have been substantive criticisms of the Authority’s final recommendations.

Nor has the process facilitated rapprochement among the duelling stakeholders. All sides agree that a sustainable basin is critical in both environmental and economic terms. The stakeholders further recognise that the basin has not been managed in the national interest. But this is the extent of the consensus. With the basin stretching one million square kilometres from Queensland to South Australia, the diversity of views held by the stakeholders are as diverse as the area is extensive.

Although the MDBA claims that the feedback it received during the consultation process has strengthened the revised report, little appears to have altered from the original draft plan. The one substantive modification is the imposition of tougher limits on the amount of groundwater that should be extracted over the long term. Yet to the consternation of many, the MDBA adopted a status quo position on the volume of water that should be returned to the river system. The consultation still does not mark the end of the decision-making process. This plan is now subject to ministerial and parliamentary processes across two levels of government.

The future of the basin plan seems bleak. The Victorian State Government has declared it to be “a death warrant that will force agricultural industries across northern Victoria out of business”. The NSW Government has denounced the plan for its failure to clarify its environmental outcomes and its huge impacts on local communities. The depth of the South Australian Government’s displeasure has resulted in preparations for a High Court challenge if the plan is instituted in its present form.

While community engagement has significant merits, it is far from a panacea to resolve contentious policy matters; particularly when the gulf that divides the stakeholders is immense. This is not to say that such processes are a waste of time, only that the outcomes are likely to be mixed.