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Tech & Science Inside the room as the Murray-Darling's top cop Mick Keelty meets irrigators

22:06  24 january  2020
22:06  24 january  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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It had rained for much of the night over Deniliquin.

While the gauge suggested it wasn't much, it had begun to wash away some of the red dust that had blanketed much of the southern Riverina town.

Most agreed it was a start, and it gave the 200 or so people drawn to the town's RSL a talking point, as they gathered to wait for Mick Keelty.

Mr Keelty has a reputation for being a tough cop.

The former Australian Federal Police commissioner was appointed interim inspector-general for the Murray-Darling Basin last year.

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The role expands Mr Keelty's earlier remit as Northern Basin commissioner, and has the task of ensuring integrity across rivers and channels that can grow up to $22 billion worth of food and fibre each year.

Mr Keelty was in the NSW town for what had been promoted as a town hall session.

It was spruiked as a meeting that could shape the inspector-general's inquiry into how the waters of the Murray-Darling system are shared between the states, and how changing in-flows have affected those who rely on them.

That's what the review promised, after a rally of irrigators stormed Parliament House in December.

Few knew what to expect.

On time, and without fanfare, Mr Keelty addressed those who'd gathered.

He had minders in the room, but stood on his own — not on the stage, but on the floor.

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He began by saying he wanted constructive ideas to take back to Canberra.

From the outset, it was clear he wasn't interested in hearing the faults of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

That's not what this was about.

Mr Keelty explained he did not want to hear about the socio-economic impacts of water policy, or the impact of water trading.

There are already federal inquiries into such matters underway.

Some people had ummed and ahhed about attending the meeting; 10am on a Thursday in the school holidays wasn't practical by any stretch.

Others were sick of telling their stories, about how two years with no access to farm water was weighing heavily on their relationships, at home, in the community and at the bank.

Some people held private meetings with Mr Keelty and his team instead, preferring not to speak in public.

(Mr Keelty said he'd take meetings with just about anyone who wanted one, but not politicians, who had other avenues to be heard.)

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Plenty, too, had clearly chosen to give the meeting a miss, preferring to "get on with it".

Those who did attend gave Mr Keelty a fair hearing and got one back in return.

Most, if not all, were farmers, and many appeared to be grandparents.

With the exception of NSW state politician Helen Dalton, it was men that took the microphone to speak.

One of the first introduced himself as Laurie Beer.

"I'd like to think I represent the practical and productive people of this nation," he said.

"Over 40 years ago my father got an opening allocation of 50 per cent, and everyone in the district thought their throats had been cut — it was unheard of, ridiculous, a mistake — but now 0 per cent is becoming the norm," he explained.

It was a reminder that despite the Murray River running high, irrigators here have had no access to water for two years.

Another irrigator, Ian Fox, called for changes to South Australia's share of the water.

"In my mind and in my heart I believe South Australia has to share the loss, the same as us," said Mr Fox, referring to the high security allocations that irrigators had received downstream at the same time.

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It was a theme repeated throughout the morning, as other ideas came forward.

Lach Thorburn, from Tocumwal, likened the annual water allocation to a game of roulette. He called for an end to carry-over water — that which is held from one season to the next.

Ideas came forward about allocating and accounting water, how it is delivered, about the role of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and consequences for those found to be cheating the system.

Whether it was nerves or passion, voices from the floor waivered at times, amplified by a microphone few seemed comfortable holding.

As it turned out, they need not be nervous.

The audience, most with arms crossed over chests and heads bowed, was supportive and respectful.

No-one was interrupted or cut off.

After an hour had passed, Chris Brooks — who'd led a protest of about 2,000 farmers to Parliament House in Canberra in December — thanked Mr Keelty for coming.

Mr Brooks pleaded for Mr Keelty to "take our message back to [Water Minister David] Littleproud" calling for urgent intervention.

"The financial and mental stress on people of this region, brought about by this mismanagement, will not be tolerated any longer, and there will be retribution if it is ignored," he said.

"And that's not a threat. That is an absolute promise."

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Applause followed and the conversation continued.

Later, Neville Kydd stood to say he was "absolutely sick of the blame game".

"We need to get away from blaming South Australia or Queensland, Victoria or whatever," he said.

Mr Kydd called for a "can-do attitude" and to "build something we can be proud of".

At one stage, Berrigan farmer Graeme Pyle suggested that an independent science tribunal be established.

That prompted Dale McNeil to stand up.

"I'm a scientist, I've got dreadlocks so everyone knows," Mr Neil joked.

"We need massive investment from government to be able to do the level of science we need to be able to make these decisions," he said.

Again, applause.

During the meeting, Mr Keelty said several times that he was apolitical.

As the grandson of a coal miner and son of a butcher, he admitted he had limited understanding of the way irrigation worked before coming to the role.

Mr Keelty was also explicit that he did not have the support of the state and territory governments for his review, which is due to Mr Littleproud by the end of March.

"I've never seen a group so divided," he said of the water ministers.

"It does not augur well for the cooperation and commitment to what is a national asset and what is the food bowl of Australia," Mr Keelty said.

"The sooner we understand this is a national asset, and what you do in one part of the basin directly impacts another, and what nature does in one part of the basin, directly impacts another … Government can't control nature, but it can control the policy response."

Mr Keelty said he was not interested in slow, legislative reform, but rather changes that could potentially improve outdated policies.

"I'm not going to sugar-coat it — it seems to me there are no trigger points to account for when the Murray has to take 100 per cent of the load to provide what has been agreed to go to South Australia without any form of recognition or compensation coming back the other way," Mr Keelty said.

"Mick Keelty can't change it. I'm not going to lie to you. I won't come here and say I am the saviour of all of this. But I will call it out."

The meeting was over by 11:30pm.

Some dashed out the door, others dawdled, enjoying the social occasion.

Mr Keelty will continue his town hall sessions throughout the southern basin in coming weeks.

What comes next is anyone's guess, but for most people at the meeting it seemed that, like the last night's rain, it was a start.

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