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Dead stinking fish send a message

6 3 1
18.01.2019

Any halfway decent political opportunist would use this week's images of dead and dying Murray cod and other fish in the Menindee Lakes to put the environment and climate change at the forefront of the election campaign. The fact that the weather has been warmish, even by Goodooga standards, doesn't do any harm either.

The images have an emotive energy often lacking in many of the impassioned debates about places we care about which are fairly far away, and which have become almost abstractions for the feeling that we ought to be doing something – at the very least, something more than we have been doing.

Replay

Straight off, the dead and stinking fish could symbolise the mismanagement, maladministration and corruption of water policy in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. It doesn't take a great deal of extension to work it into an argument about the National Party's intellectual and moral bankruptcy, particularly under former leader Barnaby Joyce, and its complete unfitness to govern. Rural folk increasingly feel that way, wondering how a party established to represent rural and regional Australians became instead available for rent to big mining interests, the coal industry, the fracking industry and large-scale agribusiness, particularly when these interests threaten their livelihoods.

But the Nationals are only the obvious culprits. Look, for example, at Malcolm Turnbull, who had a spell as minister in charge of saving the Murray and Darling river systems a bit more than a decade ago, and knew so much about the topic that he and John Howard were able to concoct a river water policy, costing billions of dollars, on the back of an envelope over a couple of afternoons, without even feeling the need to consult the Treasury, which, Turnbull said contemptuously, knew nothing about the subject.

One of the many things that Turnbull learned duringhis period as water flâneur in chief was the wisdom of successive conservative prime ministers in keeping water policy out of the hands of Nationals ministers. Not even Tony Abbott was tempted to hand it over – probably on the advice of former senator Bill Heffernan, a farmer with some tolerance for human weakness but never for waste or mismanagement of a scarce water supply. After Turnbull knifed Abbott, to general applause, Joyce popped around to remind him that Coalition agreements were between leaders, not parties, and that continuing the alliance would need to involve some Liberal concessions. When Turnbull announced his ministry, water was with Joyce at agriculture, and that department further refined its habit of looking away and doing nothing when policy became imperial, and when enforcement of the law, or even implementation of it, came to be regarded as a matter of discretion.

But one does not need to dwell long on the dead fish to think also of climate change, and the Morrison government's inertia on the subject, not least because a good proportion of the Coalition doesn't actually believe in it or, at least, in doing anything brave or courageous, or ahead of anybody else, about it. And also of drought, and extreme weather, neither in the least bit unusual in the Australian environment, but both seeming to come more regularly, and with solid evidence of increasing averages. Perhaps the population is not completely certain about what to do to ward off the effects of climate change, and how much of whatever it is is necessary, but opinion polls suggest that most Australians believe we should do a good deal more, and with a more explicit sense of urgency, than the present government.

Some of the thousands of dead fish in the........

© Canberra Times