Tuesday, 4 August 2009

More info please

I agree with Matt ( Why there was no doorstop ). Avoiding doorstop interviews are minor misdemeanours.

Provided the Premier maintains continuous disclosure.

The Premier’s recent speech to the Party faithful echoes much of the State of the State speech in March 2009.Consider the much vaunted irrigation proposals (in March), which “revolves around the creation of a Statewide water economy to make Tasmania a foodbowl for Australia. “

“This is about re-thinking the whole concept of land use in this State. … we will see dry plains of slowly degrading soils turn into acre after acre of Australia’s most innovative and productive farm lands.

With an investment of $400 million in irrigation, delivering up to 250,000 megalitres of water per year, to water over 200,000 extra hectares under irrigation, to deliver an extra $200 million in produce at the farm gate”.

The ALP cognoscenti must suffer from short term memory lapses because five months later Mr Bartlett was able to declare “(t)hat is why today I commit to a bold new goal – that to achieve our strategy to make Tasmania the foodbowl of the nation, we will deliver close to a quarter-of-a-million additional megalitres of water per annum for irrigation by 2014.”

One needs to be careful in questioning such a Plan. One doesn’t want to be accused of lambasting motherhood. But what does it all mean? And have we been provided with as much information as our open and transparent democratic system mandates? Or has Mr Bartlett fallen into the ways of a mushroom farmer tending his crops?

It was refreshing that Mr Bartlett didn’t apply the Lennon logic used to spruik the pulp mill when Tasmanian families were told they would be $870 better off each year. With a lift in farm gate income of $200 million from the irrigation schemes all Tasmanian families could easily be $779 better off each year if one were to apply the Lennon factors.

Delivering 250,000 megalitres of water each year sounds fantastic.Mr Bartlett tells us “(t)hat’s the equivalent of close to a quarter-of-a-million Olympic swimming pools worth of water each and every year.”Wow! But that metaphorical explanation obfuscates rather than enhances understanding. One megalitre is simply 100 ml per hectare (or 4 inches in the old measurement). 250,000 megs of water over 200,000 hectares is only 125 ml per hectare. What crop is to be grown? Radishes?

Dairy farmer neighbours with irrigated farms in a 1000 ml to 1200 ml rainfall area might add between 3 to 6 megs of water each year, another 300 to 600 ml of water per hectare? But 125 ml?

It is interesting to check the Rivers and Water Commission Annual Reports. The 2007/08 edition http://www.stors.tas.gov.au/item/stors/d52978bd-af98-c0b8-76cf-fa62af8f6409/1/RWSC%20Annual%20Report%202007-2008.pdf on p 12 reveals the Coal River Valley delivered 4,375 megs of water to 2,366 hectares or 185 ml per hectare. Pasture of 380 hectares was provided with 110 ml per hectare. Only cereal crops of oats, barley and wheat survived on less. Are these the crops that will form the basis of our food bowl? The higher value crops required 300 to 400 ml of water per hectare

Maybe the Coal River Valley is not a good example? After all Mr Llewellyn (via his Departmental Head) said in Estimates in June 2009 that “(i)f you look at the Coal River valley, the uptake of water and change of use of land was fairly passive. “

So if a passive uptake of water in a period of water shortages led to water use of 300 to 400 ml of water for higher value crops then how was Mr Bartlett able to assert that 250,000 megs of water applied to 200,000 hectare of “dry plains of slowly degrading soils” would result in “acre after acre of Australia’s most innovative and productive farm lands.”

It’s times like this and when Mr Bartlett uses the oft repeated adjective ’clever’ that I’m reminded of the more colloquial definition as ‘superficially skilful’.

The word ‘innovative’ crops up incessantly. The brief flurry of media attention that followed the leaking of the Challen letter http://www.themercury.com.au/images/uploads/images/uploads/letter1.pdf

concentrated on the trivial. The letter raised important questions about the legitimacy of the policy approach which championed the fuzzy concept of innovation, but the Fourth Estate and opposition parties had little appetite for such a policy discussion. There has been no serious refutation of the points raised by Treasury to my knowledge.

But this hasn’t stopped Mr Bartlett talking about innovation like a cargo cultist.

Many others wondered how the new innovation policy differs from the traditional policy approach for Governments to intervene where impediments existed, which once removed would result in benefits in excess of the costs of intervention.

Again Mr Llewellyn came to the rescue in Estimates (via his Departmental Head) and described how one time poultry producers abandoned their chook sheds and commenced a lettuce business and “then innovated beyond that to grow different varieties and package it ready for use. That is a really good example of innovation.”

There you are, Don. At least you won’t die wondering.

But the absence of a clear rational policy in an important area of land use management is a little disconcerting. The current Government is supposed to be “re-thinking the whole concept of land use in this State”.Mr Aird is currently Minister for two Departments with conflicting views about the role of innovation. Perhaps Mr Bartlett’s department is making the decisions. Shades of Mr Howard whose initial Murray Darling Basin policies towards the end of his reign were drawn up on the back of an envelope away from the doubting eyes of Treasury.

How are all the irrigation schemes funded, and what does Parliament have to say? In short, nothing. They don’t get a chance.

In May 2008 the Government was flush with funds mainly proceeds from the Hobart Airport sale. On 27th May 2008 a supplementary Appropriation Bill was introduced in the Lower House, finally passing the Upper House on 12th June 2008, a day before the 2009 Budget was handed down. Approximately $313 million was appropriated to the Infrastructure Tasmania Fund. Of that amount, $80 million was earmarked for irrigation projects.

So the amount has already been appropriated. Spending it only requires a nod from the Treasurer and Mr Llewellyn. When spending occurs what happens is that an amount is transferred from the Special Capital Trust Fund run by Finance General Department to two new subsidiaries of the Rivers and Water Supply Commission. In the Budget Papers it is simply shown as an equity injection into a GBE. At this stage no other details of where money has been spent is available. It is not a line item able to be scrutinised at Estimates hearings. It is simply a transfer to a GBE of an amount previously appropriated. Any questions will have to wait until December when hopefully Rivers and Waters and their subsidiaries may answer a few questions at the GBE Estimates hearings.

The Budget papers indicate for instance that $5 million was to be spent/transferred in 2008/09. When the figure ended up being $16 million, no explanation was forthcoming. It’s a GBE matter. Wait till December 2009 for an answer.

Mr Bartlett is “about re-thinking the whole concept of land use in this State”. But he goes about it in a perverse way. Sure, 12 irrigation projects have been identified. But asking an engineer as to whether a project is possible one will always get the inevitable affirmative answer. If not the engineer may find himself not being asked in the future.

But then the Government proceeds to develop a business case and a feasibility study to justify the decision. There has yet to be an instance where the business case and feasibility study haven’t supported the initial site selection. It seems the engineers are quite visionary.

But the benchmarks used in the business case and feasibility studies are yet to be revealed.

Are there better ways to spend the funds?

Meanwhile rain teems down upon fertile North West soils that are still open to invasion by low value crops such as pulpwood plantations. The RPDC has indicated it would like to move to a concept of ‘significant’ agricultural land not just ‘prime’ as that defined as Class 1, 2 or 3 land. But no policy indications have been forthcoming from the Government as yet. Their bungled attempt at revising the PAL policy ran into problems with a sceptical Legislative Council. Perhaps they’re busy trying to deal with that problem.

And without wishing to bang on too much about MIS schemes, their demise is indicative of land use policy gone awry. Surviving forest companies can pretend the demise of some of their colleagues is due to the latter’s incompetence. But the problems are much wider. The MIS cycle is over.

But they’ve left us with a lot of poor inappropriately sited plantations. If we’re going to develop sensible land use policies then maybe an audit and some guidelines to establish appropriate areas for tree plantations would be a start. And maybe deny the land tax exemption to tree farms where they’re clearly not primary producers because there is little expectation of profit, from Temma to “the dry plains of slowly degrading soils” of South East Tasmania.

We need a different approach to land use than what Mr Bartlett is delivering. His is a piecemeal approach, possibly tied to the electoral cycle rather than the economic cycle. What’s happening with our significant agricultural land in the North West? What’s happening with our catchments? Water’s precious isn’t it? In Mr Bartlett’s words,” (w)ater is already the most important resource of the 21st Century on this planet.”

We don’t necessarily need a doorstop interview by the Premier, Matt.

Just more info.


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