Citizens of Western democracies accept that the state, via its law-making and -enforcement processes, is charged with deterring and punishing criminal activity — a category in which theft and extortion most definitely figure. But who holds the state to account when it makes those crimes its stock in trade? Numerous recent events lead me to believe that, if justic is to be served, it should be possible to sue the state and its officers for the felony of “extortion”. Bear with me as I explain, first by detailing the essence of those particular crimes.
The noun “extortion” is defined as oppressive or illegal exaction — the obtaining of money or goods under colour of office being one manifestation. Bear that in mind as you look back to 2002, when the last big drought was dragging on and there was insufficient water for NSW irrigators to grow their crops. The state hounded those food producers, flinging charges of water wastage and environmental damage. Low river flows were said to be their fault even when they had no access to water from those same rivers. It wasn’t long before the state took 15% of entitlements from irrigators with general security licenses and 5% of entitlements from irrigators with high security licenses. No compensation has ever been paid, and promised reviews of those edicts have not eventuated. Those hardest hit, the folk who produce our food, had a basic input to their businesses exacted by the state without compensation. Surely that is extortion.
Not satisfied with this abuse of power, the NSW government next legislated to introduce water-delivery charges, regardless of the its ability to actually deliver that water as and when required. These charges apply not just to the remaining 85% of irrigators’ entitlements, but also to the 15% resumed by the state. Yes, the state is actually charging irrigators for water it has exacted and is now asininely flushing to the sea. Al Capone’s business plan and methods cannot hold a candle to such brazen theft! How long before we are paying for the air we breathe?
Not content with allowing NSW to humble regional communities by removing basic inputs to production and forcing higher costs on all producers and manufacturers, Malcom Turnbull — then the relevant minister under John Howard — introduced the Water Act. This legislation, later passed by the Rudd government, has led to further extortion in relation to water for productive use and clearly contravenes Section 100 of our Constitution:
The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade, commerce, abridge the right of a State or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of the rivers for conservation and irrigation.
This Commonwealth legislation spawned the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which gave Canberra bureaucrats the right to buy irrigation entitlements from license holders across the Murray-Darling Basin. At that time, many irrigators were in dire financial straits, with no crop income for several years because of the drought. Many had to borrow to pay water charges, as detailed above, while others, desperate to care for their families, sold their entitlements to the Commonwealth.
While these were commercial transactions and not, strictly speaking, acts of exaction, it must be kept in mind that they were deals struck with sellers who had no other option. That is not where the consequences of such injustice stopped, however. Businesses relying on production for their livelihoods saw both income and the market value of their enterprises shrink, all without recompense. Many have failed as a result and previously cohesive communities are fraying.
In every case where the state has extorted the essential tools of trade from its citizens we hear the hoary hound of “sustainability” baying in ministerial statements and bureaucrats’ submissions. But nowhere to my knowledge has this been backed by data to prove what the state has claimed.
The most glaring example of state dishonesty is the action taken with the vast Murrumbidgee Aquifer. Discovered only in 1974, it has been assessed by the NSW Office of Water (NOW) as containing the equivalent of 2000 Burrinjuck dams — some two billion megalitres. I was one of many who bought land atop this vast resource and developed irrigated-crop production in the 1980’s. Over several years NOW issued licenses for over 500,000 megalitres of annual extraction and the fertile but dry plains of the western Riverina bloomed with productive activity. That changed when the NSW government stepped in and cancelled nearly 300,000 megalitres of those licenses to irrigate. The decision was announced in concert with the spurious claim that such extraction was “unsustainable”. No compensation has been given. Families and their savings have been destroyed. Financial ruin and despair are the result.
The state and its agencies were taken all the way to the High Court and found blameless. So, was the state justified in its actions, and has the High Court exonerated their servants from responsibility? Readers might care to pass their own judgements after considering these facts and doing some simple arithmetic.
Start by assuming there is only half the water in this huge aquifer as that claimed by NOW — let’s us say one billion megalitres, rather than the two billion megalitres routinely listed. Next, posit that the present 270,000-megalitre license limit is extracted every year from this day on. Now, being ultra-cautious to the point of Flannery-esque absurdity, assume that it never rains again and that the Murrumbidgee runs dry, meaning the aquifer will never again be topped up.
Under this ultra-conservative and absurd scenario it would take 3,700 years to pump out half the aquifer’s reserves.
And just to inject a touch of real-world relevance, know that the aquifer’s standing water level remains at 20 meters-or-so, which is pretty much the same as when the resource was discovered more than four decade ago. Simply put, recharge flow has been matching extraction rates. My conclusion is that this and other actions by the state are not about sustainability and never have been. Nor is it about responsible management of our resources. What it is about is nothing less than the arrogant, autocratic exaltation of bloody-minded stupidity.
I don’t consider myself guilty of exaggeration when I think of those pre-Magna Carta days, when King John prevented his subjects using the rivers, forests and the fauna for their sustenance. That despot is long gone, but he has been replaced with green bureaucracies restricting access to the tools of production and commerce that are the very foundation of prosperity.
King John was brought to heel at Runnymede. Who will do likewise with his modern heirs?
Ron Pike is a water consultant and third-generation irrigation farmer