Sold down the river

Water prices are selling farmers "down the river"

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Ron Smith and George Allitt in Jeparit, the birthplace of Robert Menzies in regional Victoria. Photo: Jason South

Ron Smith and George Allitt in Jeparit, the birthplace of Robert Menzies in regional Victoria. Photo: Jason South

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"We're just sick of what's been happening. It can't go on."

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Another day's heartless sun is sinking to the horizon, not a cloud in the sky, and Mick Clark's nuggety body is throwing a long shadow over his parched land north of Deniliquin.

The feedlot that not so long ago held 1000 fat lambs is empty. There is no crop planted on the property that has been in his family's hands for three generations.

"I've parked all the farm equipment up in the sheds and I've gone and got myself a job driving a tractor for a bloke," he says.

Mick Clark has made a vow.

"So far as I'm concerned, the supermarket shelves in the city can go empty," he says. "I'm not going to spend $600 a megalitre of water to keep farming just to go broke."

Clark is among an army of farmers across what has long been called Australia's food bowl who say they can no longer afford to grow food.

It is not as simple as a lack of rain, though this country is in its second dry year.

Farmers in the Riverina know about dry periods. They will almost forgive the sky when it withholds its mercy.

But when regulators tell them they can't gain access to water that is flowing past their land, and when the authorities charge them for the right to that water they can't use, and then charge them more for "delivery" of the water that isn't delivered, they get very angry indeed.

And then, when their last desperate option is to buy water on the open market and the equation is 11 megalitres to grow a singe hectare of corn, or 13 to 15 megs per hectare for rice, and water is $600 a meg ... why, they get mad.

Dairy farmers in the region who haven't folded are spending huge money they don't have to maintain their herds, I'm told, knowing that if there is no spring rain this year, they'll be lucky to drive away in an old ute.

"Ive gone and got myself a job driving a tractor for a bloke": Mick Clark. Photo: Jason South

"Ive gone and got myself a job driving a tractor for a bloke": Mick Clark. Photo: Jason South

Up and down the dry irrigation country people are declaring themselves angry enough to turn their backs on the National and Liberal parties that have always held political sway in this slice of the country.

"I've been a Liberal and Nationals voter for 18 years," says Clark. "I won't vote for either of them again. The only way I'd go back is if they said they'd stop sending fresh water out to sea."

His conviction is proving infectious.

The electorate of Farrer, which runs the length of the Murray to the South Australian border, has been held easily by the Liberal's Sussan Ley since 2001. Before that it was Tim Fischer's kingdom.

The online bookies just six weeks ago had Ley at short odds of $1.25 to hold the seat against the outsider, Albury mayor and independent candidate Kevin Mack, at $8.

This week, Mack became the favourite: $1.55 to Ley on $2.10.

Farmers Andrew Crossley and Mick Clark. Photo: Jason South

Farmers Andrew Crossley and Mick Clark. Photo: Jason South

One of Clark's neighbouring farmers, Andrew Crossley, whose family normally farms 2000 irrigated acres, says the entire Murray-Darling Basin Plan should be "paused, reviewed and re-set".

"We're just sick of what's been happening," he says. "It can't go on."

Water politics and regulations in Australia's irrigation districts, which are supposed to balance the competing needs of farmers, towns and the environment, have become so dizzying they might have been a creation of Franz Kafka, the master of socio-bureaucratic absurdity.

Clark, Crossley and all their fellow farmers on the northern, NSW side, of the Murray River are on what is called "zero allocation" of irrigation water.

Yet they can look 100 metres across the strong-flowing river to Victoria, where farmers are on 60 per cent of their entitled allocation. And they know, with furious envy, that if they were downstream in South Australia, they would be enjoying 100 per cent of their allocations.

My motorcycle has taken me more than 1000 kilometres through the flatlands of Victoria's north-west and the featureless plains of southern NSW over the last few days, grain silos cutting horizons like church spires.

At every stop, the sound that replaces the thump of the motor is that of country people expressing disbelief at what they see is a political system that has delivered many of them a weariness that is approaching despair.

The closer I ride towards the Murray, the lifeblood of Australia's most important food-growing region, the despair - and in some cases, utter disconnection - becomes more apparent.

Bill McDonald, the publican of the Grand Hotel at the tiny town of Nyah West, in the far north of Victoria's Mallee, is perfectly blunt.

"Don't ask me about politics," he says when I tell him I'm seeking views about the coming federal election. "If politics comes on the TV on the wall there, everyone calls for it to be turned off straight away.

"They've just had a gut full."

And yet the electorate of Mallee shapes as one of the more interesting of the contests in rural Australia.

Held by the Nationals (formerly the Country Party) since its creation in 1949, its future was thrown into confusion when the sitting member, Andrew Broad, sensationally blew away his political career last year by an indiscretion with a so-called "sugar babe" in Hong Kong.

No less than 13 candidates - more than ever before - have nominated for election.

Every one of those candidates lists water as high on their lists of concerns.

The vast dimensions of Mallee - a third of Victoria - means the troubled Murray isn't necessarily a shared concern, however. A couple of hours south west of McDonald's hotel, in the town of Jeparit, I came across the town's oracles, Ron Smith, 90, and George Allitt, 83.

Lifetime grain and sheep farmers Ron Smith and George Allitt, in Jeparit. Photo: Jason South

Lifetime grain and sheep farmers Ron Smith and George Allitt, in Jeparit. Photo: Jason South

Lifetime grain and sheep farmers, they meet every morning for a natter in a cafe in the little town's supermarket. The "big town" in their world is Horsham, 75 kilometres to the south. Mildura, Mallee's main population centre, and the Murray river and its mysteries, are 270 kilometres north. Jeparit's water, the Wimmera Rivera, flows from the south.

They're discussing the attributes of the town's doctor, a fellow named Mohammed, when I pull up.

Ron says he doesn't care about politics at all, though he doesn't want to see "that bloke Shorten" running the country.

George says he'd be happy if Scott Morrison continued as prime minister. He says he doesn't see any difference between Liberal or National, and though neither Ron nor George can name a Mallee candidate, George says he wouldn't mind an independent "so long has he was on the right [conservative] side".

In fact, the Nationals' Dr Anne Webster - the founder of Zoe Support, a community organisation that helps young mothers reconnect with studying and training - is favourite, but four independents are offering a red-hot challenge.

Up in Nyah West, publican McDonald agrees that water is the big topic around the bar.

"They've cut the water off to the farms, they've sold it to overseas interests and no-one seems to care," he says.

One of his customers, Kevin Lee-Jones, says he no longer farms his own land.

"I've got land with water rights, but it's too expensive to farm it," he says. He never turns on the water, but he still has to pay Goulburn-Murray Water $2000 a year just in case he decides he needs it one day.

Instead, he leases out his water rights to anyone willing to pay between $300 and $500 a megalitre, and has swapped sheep farming for spray painting for a living.

I cross the Murray and the state border at the wonderfully named Tooleybuc, the river flowing beneath the span. You'd never imagine this wide stretch of brown water would cause so much heartache.

Two hours of straight empty road bordered by struggling saltbush and bare earth later, I motor in to Deniliquin.

Next morning, there are 2000 people at the Anzac commemorative ceremony on the corner of the town's park - a chain of billabongs running through it, the lawns startlingly green.

I find myself almost mobbed by locals wanting to vent about what zero water allocations mean to Deniliquin.

Mayor Norm Brennan says he's worried for his town. The local rice mill had put off 100 workers at Christmas, because "you can only grow rice when you've got water".

Brianna Holden, who manages the accounts at a local fertiliser company, says the flow-on effect of plunging agriculture income is obvious to everyone. Transport companies weren't bringing in so much grain; farm machinery companies were laying off staff; small shops were closing; rental properties were vacant because shift workers from the rice mill were leaving town.

So far as politics went: "People are saying you can't expect change if you keep things the same, so they may as well give someone else a go".

Andrew Crossley, with his two sons, at the Mulwala Canal. Photo: Jason South

Andrew Crossley, with his two sons, at the Mulwala Canal. Photo: Jason South

North of town, Andrew Crossley, with his two sons who will become the fourth generation on his family's farm if it survives, peers at the Mulwala Canal, a Murray diversion stream full of water destined for South Australia and denied to the Riverina's farmers.

"We've been sold down the river," he says. There is no hint of irony.

The Sydney Morning Herald

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