SA Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick believes growing cotton for export in a dry country like Australia doesn’t make much sense and proposes to have cotton export legally banned.
From a broader, collective perspective, he certainly has a point: cotton consumes too much water. There are, however, other considerations. For one, cotton isn’t the only large water consumer. There’s also rice (yes, rice, which grows in flooded paddies, believe it or not) in the valleys of the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers, in NSW and Victoria .
Further, cotton growers may beg to differ about how much sense growing cotton makes. Mark Winter, a cotton farmer and irrigator from Moree: “We water cotton because cotton’s got the best cross-margin by far, no other crops come anywhere near it”. “In dollars per megalitre, it’s cotton”.
Moreover, banning cotton exports may not stop water over-extraction:
“You could ban the growing of cotton tomorrow and exactly the same amount of water would still be used because it is allocated to the irrigator, or to the irrigation license, to be used as seen fit,” said Michael Murray, Cotton Australia's general manager.Murray has a point, I think. Those licenses are a productive asset. They have a money value, can be traded, and are part of the farmer’s capital. A cotton grower can use them as much as any other farmer. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem abolishing capital, but this is a capitalist country. In a capitalist country one accepts that constraint.
Others seem to have perceived that contradiction. Richard Beasley SC -- counsel assisting at the SA Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission -- believes royal commissioner Bret Walker SC would not have agreed with Patrick’s proposal:
“It would be a pretty strange system of government to start telling people what they can and can’t grow.
“The real problem is how much water they’re given in the first place.”That is a crucial observation and it surprisingly ties very well with a complaint Jim Cush, chair of the New South Wales Irrigators' Council, made:
He said cotton irrigators were being asked to explain a complex situation outside of their mandate, write Halina Baczkowski and Anna Levy. “Why should we have to defend the water rules?” he said.
“It should be the department's job, hence the trouble we've got.”Cush is right. Those rules deserve close scrutiny. There may be good reasons to believe the water allocation rules decided by Katrina Hodgkinson, predecessor of Niall Blair as NSW Minister of Primary Industries, are strange.
NSW minister altered Barwon-Darling water-sharing plan to favour irrigators
Exclusive: Documents show Katrina Hodgkinson changed plan to allow irrigators to extract up to 32% more after lobbyingBy Anne Davies, Feb 8, 2018 04.00 AEDT
Of course, irrigators may not like to hear the role irrigators played in that mysterious decision.
All this discussion, of course, may well be entirely academic, for the bigger sister of the SA Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, the Federal Royal Commission on Banking, which yesterday delivered its report, is hogging all the attention and soon enough nobody will remember Menindee.
Not that Scott Morrison or David Littleproud are really keen on reminding us of it.