Tag Archives: Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons’s Cry Me a River

Margaret Simons, Cry Me a River: The tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin (Quarterly Essay 77, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78)

I came to this Quarterly Essay with dramatic images in my mind: outraged farmers making a bonfire of the newly published guide to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan in 2010; millions of dead fish near the Menindee Lakes the summer before last; die-back by the Murray and great stretches of parched river-bed in the Darling. There was also video, of water flowing down the Darling in February and finally reaching the Murray in May, for the first time in two years.

This Quarterly Essay was written before and during the fires that ended 2019 and began 2020. As Margaret Simons was finishing it there was rain over most of the Murray–Darling Basin and the renewed flow of the Darling was approaching Burke. The political environment was also shifting: in February David Littleproud was replaced as the relevant Federal minister by Keith Pitt.

The Murray–Darling river system covers more than a million square kilometres. It’s one of the largest drainage areas in the world. It’s of huge cultural significance to First Nations peoples. A huge amount of Australia’s food is produced by farmers who use water from the Murray–Darling to irrigate their crops. More than three million people rely on it for their drinking water. ‘But,’ Simons writes,

we are all in trouble. Over the latter part of the last century, it became clear that the river system was at breaking point. It could die. All that went with it – money, livelihoods, sense of nation – was at risk.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan was developed by the Commonwealth government as ‘the first attempt to manage the Basin as a whole, and to make its use sustainable’.

The Plan is beset by what one man calls ‘politics gone feral’: the Commonwealth vs the states, state vs state (New South Wales being the stand-out non-cooperation), Barnaby Joyce, the National Party vs the Hunters and Fishers while Labor, after initially making progress, is missing in action, bureaucracy vs the people on the ground, cotton growers vs family farms, almonds vs everything else, upstream irrigators vs downstream irrigators, environmental scientists vs vested interests, accusations of theft and corruption, ‘pervasive lack of trust in governments of all complexions’, the South Australian Royal Commission giving everyone ‘a terrible pasting’. There is an alarming degree mutual incomprehension between people who live in the large cities of the south-east and those who live and work on the land.

Margaret Simons went on a road trip through all this with the aim of putting flesh on the bones of the abstract arguments. She interviewed people who were keen to have their point of view herd, and people who didn’t believe a journalist would ever represent them accurately. At one point, a companion asked her which of her interviewees would be most unhappy with the essay:

 I replied that I thought everyone would be unhappy. That is the nature of the issue, of the failure of governance, dating back more than a century, that the Murray-Darling Basin represents.

I hope she’s wrong. Many voices are heard through this essay, from Badger Bates, a Barkandji elder, to Philip Glyde, one of the bureaucrats most responsible for the implementation of the Plan. Simons doesn’t pretend to the ‘he said she said’ brand of journalistic objectivity, but she leaves room for the reader’s judgements. The result isn’t a coherent argument, but the picture that emerges is that the difficulties caused by drought have been made worse, to the point of calamity, by mismanagement and poor governance, by making water into a commodity to be traded. At the same time, she makes clear the size and complexity of the challenge of bringing the river system back from the brink.

In the last couple of pages, Simons talks about climate change. She met only one denier, she said, but when she raised the subject with farmers, mostly the response was ‘a million-mile stare’. Reading the essay I could feel my own million-mile stare coming on: if the challenge of saving one river system from devastation under capitalism and electoral democracy is so overwhelming, what will it take to stave off the impending multi-faceted disaster from climate change?

And on that note, I turned to the correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78 (itself about another climate change pressure point, Australia’s coal addiction).

With the exception of an academic whose scholarly critics were given voce in the essay, and the acting chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the correspondents confirm my sense that the essay presents a dependable account of the situation. A number of them expand on the theme of climate change. Some discuss the way Covid-19 changes the context by making it more problematic to import food, at least in the short run. A number of people who feature in the essay spell out their arguments more fully. Maybe I can finish by quoting the final paragraphs from Maryanne Slattery, who was a director of the Murray–Darling for more than decade, then senior water researcher for the Australia Institute, and now a director of an independent water consultancy:

The Plan is a relic of a time and a system that no longer exist. Change will be forced upon us, probably by a changing climate and the changes to society it brings about. Covid-19 has brought into the present many things we thought we could put off.

If we want two irrigated monocultures in the Basin, hollowed-put regions and reliance on other countries for our food, then the water reforms are a success. If we want a diverse agricultural sector, vibrant communities and to grow what we eat, we need new water policies, as well as policies for regional economic development. To achieve this we need to allow an honest and inclusive public debate and banish the binary rhetoric.

May this essay be widely read as a substantial contribution to public debate that doesn’t fall into for-the-Plan/against-the-Plan and other binaries.


Cry Me a River is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Gallery

NSWPLA Dinner, a report from the trenchers

Last year a woman premier presented the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards at the Art Gallery. Tonight a non-Labor premier, just as rare a beast in the 10 of these dinners I’ve been to, did it at the Opera Point Marquee, … Continue reading

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist

The 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist seems to have been announced without the usual Macquarie Street gathering for PowerPoint and photo ops. That probably makes sense, given that the Premier has a lot on her mind just now, and barring a total windfall for the bookies she won’t be Premier when the awards are presented in May. Or maybe I just wasn’t invited this year. But I’m not bearing a grudge, and I was busy that day anyhow. For those who find it irritating to have to flick back and forth to read the different short lists on the Awards site, here they all are at the bottom of this post – the links take you to the NSWPLA website’s discussion of the title.

I haven’t read, or in the case of the plays seen, very much from the list at all. Speaking from the heart of my prejudice, I don’t much want to read any of the Christina Stead titles except Utopian Man and Night Street, both novels about eminent Victorians (the State rather than the era). I’m tempted by all the Douglas Stewart titles – this is where literary awards really do serve a purpose, by drawing attention to books like Tony Moore’s history of political prisoners among the Australian convicts, Death or Liberty, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed, at least by me. I’m glad to see Jennifer Maiden’s book on the Kenneth Slessor list, but I haven’t read any of the others. In the past the NSWPLA lists have led me to interesting poets, so I’m inclined to go in search of Susan Bradley Smith, Andy Jackson, Jill Jones (of whom I’m ashamed to say I’ve yet to read a book), Anna Kerdijk Nicholson and Andy Kissane.

Of the remaining lists, what can I say? I’m out of touch with writing for ‘young people’ (a term I understand here as designating teenagers), but my friend Misrule was an Ethel Turner judge, and I’m confident in her judgement. Though I’ve only read one from the Patricia Wrightson list,  I know the work of five of the six writers, and will be delighted whichever of them becomes several thousand dollars richer come mid-May. If the other books are as good as The Three Loves of Persimmon, it’s a vintage year. I’ve seen four of the six scripts produced for the big or little screen, and wouldn’t know how to choose between them for excellence – another vintage crop. I heard Ali Azadeh read from Iran: My Grandfather at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and it’s been on my TBR list since then.

Here are the lists:

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Peter Carey – Parrot and Olivier in America
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
Alex Miller – Lovesong
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Ouyang Yu – The English Class

The Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction
Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons – Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs
Anna Krien – Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests
Tony Moore – Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-1868
Ranjana Srivastava – Tell Me The Truth: Conversations With My Patients About Life And Death
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Brenda Walker – Reading By Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
Susan Bradley Smith – Supermodernprayerbook
Andy Jackson – Among the Regulars
Jill Jones – Dark Bright Doors
Anna Kerdijk Nicholson – Possession
Andy Kissane – Out to Lunch
Jennifer Maiden – Pirate Rain

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature
Michelle Cooper – The FitzOsbornes in Exile: The Montmaray Journals – 2
Cath Crowley – Graffiti Moon
Kirsty Eagar – Saltwater Vampires
Belinda Jeffrey – Big River, Little Fish
Melina Marchetta – The Piper’s Son
Jaclyn Moriarty – Dreaming of Amelia

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
Jeannie Baker – Mirror
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood – Clancy and Millie and the Very Fine House
Cassandra Golds – The Three Loves of Persimmon
John Heffernan – Where There’s Smoke
Sophie Masson – My Australian Story: The Hunt for Ned Kelly
Emma Quay – Shrieking Violet

Community Relations Commission Award
Ali Alizadeh – Iran: My Grandfather
Anh Do – The Happiest Refugee
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Ouyang Yu – The English Classm
Yuol Yuol, Akoi Majak, Monica Kualba, John Garang Kon and Robert Colman – My Name is Sud

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Ashley Hay – The Body in the Clouds
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
David Musgrave – Glissando: A Melodrama
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Gretchen Shirm – Having Cried Wolf

Play Award
Patricia Cornelius – Do Not Go Gentle…
Jonathan Gavin – Bang
Jane Montgomery Griffiths – Sappho…In 9 Fragments
Melissa Reeves – Furious Mattress
Sue Smith – Strange Attractor
Anthony Weigh – Like a Fishbone

Script Writing Award
Shirley Barrett – South Solitary
Glen Dolman – Hawke
Michael Miller – East West 101, Season 3: The Hero’s Standard
John Misto – Sisters of War
Debra Oswald – Offspring
Samantha Strauss – Dance Academy, Episode 13: Family