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Dead in the Water - review

Its so obvious, but that’s why it is worth stating, but water, food and air with the right amount of oxygen in it, is essential to all life on planet Earth. Therefore when the major water supply and the environment of which it is a part requires checking on by a Royal Commission, all of us should be paying attention.

This book, by Richard Beasley, would have been a contender for my 2021 ‘book of the year’, if only I had finished it before January 1st, instead of just after it. The joint winners were Everything You Need to Know about The Uluru Statement from the Heart, by Megan Davis and George Williams and, on Red Earth Walking: The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike 1946-49, by Anne Scrimgeour.

All three of these excellent books provide non-lawyers like me with solid, clear, explanations of how, and to some extent why, the law works in the way it does. The authors achieve this in order to tell a bigger, more important story about the struggles of people for democracy, equality and ecological recovery.

Richard Beasley is a Sydney lawyer, a Senior Council no less. He was the Council assisting the SA government’s Royal Commission into the Murray - Darling Basin, presented in January 2019.

Beasley’s experience in the Royal Commission and its proceedings provide much, not all, of the verifiable source material for this thoroughly damning description of the destruction of the Murray - Darling river system through the combined efforts of governments, especially that part called the National Party, the bureaucracy that runs the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), and the irrigation and cotton corporations that make profit from it. Beasley’s sources are clear and, include, the culprits own words. Thus, plenty of extra reading for those who need it. Regrettably, there is no index.

There is an angry tone to Beasley’s story, and not just a little bit of swearing to help make a point, including when he holds back from time to time on information, conclusions that arise from it, and opinion.

Anger is justified.

If there is 1/5 of truth to this story that would be enough to make any Australian very angry, because it shows (in spades) an unacceptable degree of deliberate intent on the part of government to mismanage and mislead the public about water management in the MDB.

The anger, however, is secondary to the main points. Beasley makes sure that the destruction of the MDB is explained through the words and deeds of its own chief protagonists in parliament and in the senior levels of the bureaucracy. As a lawyer he explains what much of what they say and do means deeply harms Australia’s most important water supply system, and what what remains of its natural ecology.

This is a big deal for all Australians, because there is a profound connection between the present and future of a giant and dynamic river system and the present and future of food and water supply to humans and all other living things on this continent. If (maybe it is just when) the system falls apart, where do we go shopping for anything that is comparable, and how would we know whether we would also not destroy it very quickly?

The book closes with text from one of the great speeches of recent times in Australian public life by Grant Rigney of the Ngarrinjeri. Beasley throughout pay’s full respect to First Nations knowledge, in this case as it applies to water conservation and the plans that are necessary and still possible for its renewal and restoration.

The Murray-Darling river system traverses 4 states and one territory: the ACT.

The book starts with a plain language explanation of the legal framework for the governance of the system. Thus, we learn about the interaction of the Constitution, international law, the Commonwealth Water Act, the Interaction of the Commonwealth and the relevant state governments, and SA’s Royal Commission.

Beasley’s writing style is racy and he finds a way to make our white man’s law interesting and entertaining. It’s necessary, because a grasp of these fundamentals enables the reader to comprehend just how warped, incompetent, conniving, self-serving, cunning, malicious the management of the system really is.

It is a perfect living example of how the capitalist state works, the mutually supportive interaction of governments, the major political parties, the bureaucracies that serve them, especially the Murray Darling Basin Authority, and the corporations that gain the most, and the coordinated cultivation of naïveté and ignorance in the broader, voting population.

The star of Beasley’s story is the Commonwealth government’s Water Act. He argues that the Act provides a solid foundation for managing the waters of the Basin for recovery and development, including as a major economic asset, not just in its own right.

The Commonwealth government agency in charge, under the supervision of the relevant government Minister, is the MDBA.

The SA Labor government at the time and its Premier (Jay Weatherall) said that its end of the Murray River, its ecology, and the South Australians who relied on it were getting a raw deal from the alliance between the MDBA and the big eastern states. They decided to test the evidence they had of “mis-management” with a Royal Commission.

The SA Royal Commissioner (Bret Walker SC) - “described the MDBA “as having an "aversion to proper scrutiny" and of being "unwilling and incapable of acting lawfully”.”

Beasley’s story takes us through plain language law, physical science (including some hydrology and biology), including how climate change works its way into the story (no surprises there). Readers have the foundation - if they need it - for weighing up what they then learn about all of the dame being inflicted on the system.

There are 2 weaknesses to this book.

First, we do not learn very much at all about the big agribusiness firms, especially in cotton growing, and how they go about governing water decision-making through the government and the MDBA. They are heavily implicated. Filling this gap about who they are and how they go about protecting their interests would enable a richer understanding of all of the law breaking that Beasley says is happening? Perhaps a sequel?

Second, why no prosecution?

Beasley’s account leads to his closely argued conclusion that the Water Act - Australian law - has been broken by the MDBA, and probably others. Systematically. That begs the question: why has there not been an attempt to take legal action against this law breaking? Why is there no argument for such a course of action, from a seasoned and combative lawyer and champion of the river systems and the organisms that live in it (like Beasley’s beloved Edna the Murray Cod)?

Although not intended, the book raises serious questions about how any alternative government would manage the system so that it would be rescued, renewed and restored, and still be capable of producing the food and water all life needs? How to understand a gigantic river system? Would it encourage people who live in it, on it, to define the river purely as their river, to define the rivers not as a mutually dependent flow over thousands of kilometres, but just their own little bit of it. Should it teach city livers about how grand and significant the river system is for all living things, including of course human society? How would a genuine ecological and democratic approach to managing the system be different than the one we have, that now serves only the most powerful agri-corporations in the top half of it.

The history of destruction of the MDB must be transformed into a history of restoration and renewal. Only a peoples movement, led by First Nations knowledge and wisdom, can do what is essential: overcome and replace the current owners and controllers of the system.

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